Illinois Pioneers

Streetcars and the Interurban


The first streetcar in Champaign-Urbana was powered by horses, pulling passengers on a rail between the Illinois Central depot in Champaign and the courthouse in Urbana. When electricity came to town in the 1890s, horses were phased out and the line extended, with power coming from wires above instead of horses.

On this WILL-TV Illinois Pioneers episode, John Paul and his guest George Friedman look back at the days when streetcars were the way to get around town and when the Interurban Railway made it easy to travel from city to city in central Illinois. “The Interurban was to streetcars as a Greyhound bus is to a city bus,” said Friedman, a retired University of Illinois professor whose hobby is researching the history of transportation in the area.

The Gazette offered this advice for boarding a streetcar: “Never stand on the sidewalk if you wish to hail a motor car (a streetcar), but step out on the crossing and stand near enough to the track to keep from getting struck by the car. Don’t wait until the car is past you and then yell ‘stop the car.’ When the car is about a quarter of a block from you, just quietly raise one hand and by the time the car has reached you the motorman will have it under control.”

Friedman tells Paul that in the early days, transportation was strictly privately owned. “Businessmen got into it because they thought they could make money,” he said. William McKinley, who became a U.S. Congressman and Senator, as well as a U of I trustee, owned both the streetcars and the electric utility in the early days, Friedman said.

Photos of streetcars in downtown Champaign and on campus, as well as rare video footage of the Interurban Railway, help Paul and Friedman tell the story.