The Interurban in Carmel, 1903-1938

by Tom Rumer

This essay was made possible by a Historic Preservation Education Grant from Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Interurban Railroad that once ran through Carmel is defined in part by its name: “inter” (between) and “urban” (city). It was a railroad that rapidly and reasonably took passengers between cities at a time when people still depended on horse-drawn vehicles for transportation. In addition to a new transportation mode, it brought many valuable opportunities to the towns through which it passed.

First, of course, was the chance to travel quickly and safely to places that were farther than most people could walk or would want to drive a horse and buggy or wagon. (When the interurban was first built, it traveled much faster than a horse could run.) People in Carmel could ride quickly to Indianapolis and visit large stores like L.S. Ayres and entertainment venues. One such destination was the “English Opera House,” where people heard speakers, musicians and other entertainers who were well known but who did not tour through small towns. The interurban also provided job opportunities such as maintaining the track, selling tickets or driving the cars. Passengers could learn from other travelers about interesting or important news that they might not hear otherwise. And people who lived several miles out of town could more easily and more often come to Carmel to buy the products sold at stores there. The stores made more money and as a result, offered a larger variety of products for sale.

The interurban also brought electricity to town. When the interurban was first built through Carmel, electricity was a new invention and very few homes or stores had electricity. But after the interurban electric lines were built, the Union Traction Company made electricity available to residents and the local government, who used it to illuminate new streetlights. Before then, each town employed a “lamplighter.” Each evening he climbed a short ladder to light with fire the few streetlights in town.

Indiana’s system of “interurban” railroad tracks (a continual double line of steel rails on which the train wheels ran) began in the center of Indianapolis and continued like spokes of a bicycle wheel to all parts of the state. Track for the Interurban was built through Carmel in 1903, and the first “car” stopped in town on Friday, October 30, 1903.  The tracks ran on what is now First Avenue SW and First Avenue NW to the north edge of town and then curved toward the northeast to Noblesville and then on to Anderson.

The interurban carried mostly passengers, but sometimes a special car was added for transporting “freight,” large and small boxes of items for delivery in the towns or even some cattle. Unlike railroads that traveled much farther distances, the interurban “train” was usually a single “car” powered by electricity, which the interurban company produced at its own electric “plant.” Tall wooden poles continued in a line alongside the interurban tracks. Between the poles were stretched long, continuous wires to which the cars were connected with an “arm” on top that touched the wires while allowing the cars to move at the speed chosen by the car “conductor,” who drove the car down the interurban tracks.  The interurban would add a second or third car additional passengers wanted to ride.

The interurban depot station in Carmel was located on the southeast corner of Main Street and First Avenue SW. There, people bought tickets, boarded the cars or stepped off them if Carmel was their destination. A popular business place in town was the small, corner restaurant across the street from the interurban depot. People waited here for their interurban car or even stopped for lunch and then rode the next car going to their destination.

The Interurban had regular “stops” where people would “board” the car or step off at their destination. The ticket price for riding the interurban was not expensive, so most people could afford to ride. At one time, it cost a dime to travel from Carmel to Indianapolis. But this was a time, also, when laborers building houses and at other work earned only one dollar a day.

When the interurban was operating at full capacity, 17 cars came through Carmel going north and the same number going south during the day. That meant that about every half hour, there was a car coming through town. People rode the interurban to go shopping, visit people, go to work or sometimes ride special “excursion” cars that brought them somewhere for holiday entertainment. One such event was the annual Horse Show in Carmel. In the early 1900s, after the farmers had harvested their crops in the autumn, the horse show brought hundreds of people to town. The two-day event of parades, contests and activities included a tug-of-war competition between the men of Clay and Delaware townships. A long rope down ran east and west across Range Line Road, which, until the 1950s, was the line between the original Clay and Delaware Townships. The winning township team was the first to pull the ribbon in the middle of the rope across the street.

Some danger did surround the interurban intersections. Cars traveled fast and did not make a lot of noise. If people crossing the railroad tracks did not see the cars in time they got hit and hurt badly or even killed.

Another railroad preceded the Interurban in Carmel. Built in 1883, twenty years before the Interurban came to town, the Monon Railroad carried heavy freight and passengers. It made fewer stops than the Interurban and did not travel through Carmel as frequently as the other mode of rail transportation. While passengers could board at the Monon Depot to go to Indianapolis or even Westfield, most passengers used this railroad to travel much farther distances to larger cities. Urban destinations like Chicago allowed people access to many other railroad lines and took them nearly any place in the United States.

In September 1938, the last interurban car came through Carmel. By then most people had automobiles for transportation or rode the bus lines that replaced the interurban. The freedom and independence that personal cars provided proved a factor too great for the interurban to overcome.