Desiring a Better Life - Sparking Opportunity


Photo Credit: Bill Volkmer Collection - Union Traction Co. interurban No. 427 at Anderson, Ind - the city to where Rufus Thomas traveled for school.

In the time before the interurban electric railway, a trip from rural areas to an urban center was often an all, if not multiple, day event.  

Prior to the railroads, there were only two options - walk or utilize horsepower.  Railroads that used steam locomotives were the quickest way, but oftentimes these trains didn’t stop frequently enough.  The steam railroads would only stop every five miles at a small town, which would leave the rider with miles to either walk or ride a horse to their final destination.

The interurbans offered more convenient service in ways that traditional passenger railroads could not.  Interurbans often had a shelter where the tracks crossed a road, so patrons wouldn’t have to make a trip to the nearest town in order to catch a ride from a depot. This customized ability proved to be a game changer for rural environments.

- A game changer indeed.

The level of service delivered by the interurban companies opened up business and educational opportunities to Indiana’s rural citizens during the early 1900s.  Rufus Thomas was one of those Hoosiers - sparking a future of opportunity through the interurban system that had never been an option for him.

Most young people never made it beyond the eighth grade within the community in which Rufus lived, as the local school didn’t offer any further education.  The nearest high school was more than six miles away in Anderson, Ind. Six miles, both ways, was quite a walk to factor into one’s day, especially considering the harsh and unpredictable variations that come with Indiana weather.  

Rufus was a young man when the first Union Traction Company line was built from Anderson to Alexandria in 1899.  This line ran within one half mile of Rufus’ farm. Upon completion of the eighth grade, Rufus made the decision to continue his education by riding twelve miles a day on the interurban, six miles each way. This transportation service provided a means for Rufus to reach the urban core of Anderson in order to attend school.

The frequent starting and stopping of electric railway cars, known as the interurban, sparked opportunity by offering customized travel not previously offered to those separated from society’s resources. Indiana’s electric railway system opened opportunities previously not even considered by connecting commercial, cultural, and educational opportunities.

While Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co. possesses two Union Traction cars, the car that best reflects the daily experience that Rufus Thomas would have had is Hoosier Heartland’s Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and Eastern No. 81 interurban.  This car is a terrific example of a turn of the century car that opened up a new world of opportunity to Indiana residents like Rufus, and will once again spark the imagination of Hoosiers like those before them.

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