Electrifying Indianapolis’ Streetcar System for the 20th Century

Massachusetts & College Avenue Mule Car No. 69 traverses Indianapolis in 1910. Ray Hinz Collection.

Massachusetts & College Avenue Mule Car No. 69 traverses Indianapolis in 1910. Ray Hinz Collection.

Contributed by Matthew Kertes - Student of Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis

Support our nonprofit organization with an apparel purchase or donation!

Electricity – the invention that defined the beginning of the 20th century. Indianapolis’ streetcar system adopted the technology in the 1890s – ushering in the new century with it.

Beginning in 1864, transportation in Indianapolis was provided by horse or mule-drawn carriages on rails through the street. By 1890, Citizens Street Railroad Company, the dominant streetcar company in the city, was operating 260 cars with some 1100 horses and mules.

The horses and mules transporting Indianapolis citizens were subject to several limitations. The animals required rest, which created the need to be swapped out several times a day. They also were allowed some much-needed rest every seventh day in order to keep them from becoming completely exhausted. Additionally, the slow-moving animals required cars light enough for them to pull around the city.

By 1890, the need for a new form of motive power had become clear and Citizens Street Railroad began to experiment with different technologies. The first of these experiments was a pair of cars powered by batteries. The cars were quick and comfortable at first, but after a few months, the batteries were in such bad condition that the cars had to be taken out-of-service and replaced with the standard mule cars.

The second experiment was the use of a steam dummy – a small steam locomotive designed to be disguised as a passenger car. Although steam was already a proven method of transportation, the steam dummies brought with them more problems than advantages. They were difficult for the inexperienced engineers to operate, the noise they caused frightened animals as well as humans, and they weren’t allowed in the downtown areas due to the smoke they produced. In early 1891, a derailment spelled the end of the steam dummies’ time in Indianapolis and the Citizens Street Railroad quickly got rid of them.

Still, the need for improved and more efficient service was evident. Other Hoosier cities had already experimented with electric railroads. South Bend attempted to use electric railroads as early as 1882 and Lafayette had the first fully electrified system in the Midwest by 1888.

-So why South Bend and Lafayette but not the state capitol?

Electrification of Indianapolis’ streetcar system began in 1890. The Citizens Street Railroad Company began electrification on the line from Union Station to Crown Hill with the work being completed by June of the same year. The brand-new electric trolleys were finally open to the public on June 18th, 1890 to much public excitement. Approximately 600 riders crammed their way onto the 10 cars the company had prepared for the inaugural event.

-A new era for Indianapolis transportation had arrived.

The rest of Indianapolis’ system was gradually electrified until the last mule line was converted in 1896. The new electric system eventually paved the way for more modern trolleys, such as Hoosier Heartland Trolley Company’s own Indianapolis Street Railways No. 153, which sparked expanded opportunity for Hoosiers in the capitol.

This is just another way in which we’re #sparkingimagination