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70 Years Ago, Downstate Illinois Was Connected By A Premier Electric Railroad Network

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Illinois Traction Society
An Ilinois Traction interurban train pulling into Morton, circa 1949.

As cars and trucks move towards electric power in the 21st century, it may surprise some to know that Illinois had one of the finest electric transportation systems in the country throughout the first half of the 20th century.

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Illinois Traction Society
A map of the Illinois Interurban network in 1950.

Peoria and Bloomington were among the stops on the Illinois Traction line, an electric railroad system that carried passengers across downstate Illinois between 1907 into the 1950s.

Dale Jenkins, president of the Illinois Traction Society, a group based in Decatur that celebrates the state’s rail history, holds their annual meeting this Friday and Saturday in Bloomington.

"So we have annual banquet once a year we have an annual event for our members into the public. And the what we try to do is every year we try to host the program someplace on the IT system. And this case here we're coming to the north there," Jenkins said.

Along with a bus trip that will visit points along the old Traction line, the group will see a unique movie premiere.

We have the premiere of an Illinois promo film. This is first produced by Harvey Leyler of California, and Harvey is, it's quite a production he's created. It is the only promo, documentary of the IT. And what this film is, this is color and black and white film, started about 1930 going up to 1958. And he narrates the history of the Illinois Terminal during this timeframe," Jenkins said.

The electric railroad provided transportation before the automobile took over, said Jenkins, when driving conditions aren’t what they are today.

"At the turn of the century, you had dirt roads, you didn't have hard highways. So transportation was really limited as what a person could do. And this case here, the dirt road in the summertime would be choked with dust. In the wintertime, axle-deep in snow," Jenkins said. "So this transportation system was to haul passengers from location to location, as well as commerce that went with it."

What made the service unique was it made unscheduled stops as well, said Jenkins, noting that when the interurban negotiated for a right-of-way with farmers and landowners, they agreed to stop right there on the property.

A 1948 list used by Illinois Terminal employees shows 48 stations and stops on the 37-mile run between Bloomington and Peoria, according to the McLean County Museum of History.

As passenger service dropped off, the interurban moved more towards carrying freight, a service they provided up until 1981 when the Norfolk & Western railroad bought the line.

"IT was the premier transportation system of his time, as well as a package delivery service. Kind of precedes what UPS does. Their thing was from your door, to your door. And if you called a merchant in St. Louis and ordered your supplies to be at the dock at six o'clock, hat order would be at your door six o'clock the next morning."

The Illinois Traction Society meeting takes place Friday and Saturday, August 27-28 at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1706 Dunn Dr. in Bloomington. For more information, check the society web page at https://www.illinoistractionsociety.org/

Highlights include a trip to McLean County Historical Society museum at 10 a.m. Friday. A film fest will be held at K of C Hall at 3 p.m. Friday. A dinner is planned at the Pizza Ranch in Bloomington at 6 p.m.

On Saturday a bus tour will follow the IT's main line between Bloomington and Clinton and points west. A railroad swap meet will be held at the K of C Hall from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday followed by a social hour (5 p.m.) and dinner (6 p.m.) After dinner, the evening program is "Illinois Terminal's Bloomington Line--Then and Now."

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