The rise and fall of the interurban trolley: Another innovation lost in time

Somebody was asking about the long-ago interurban trolley system a few days back and I thought to refer them to a post on this blog, only to find I’ve never really done a post on the basic topic.

I was sure I’d done at least one, but I was apparently confusing this blog with the “Reflections” column I’ve been writing since the summer of 1980—and the “Epochs” column I wrote for the three years prior to that. After all, you write that much stuff you tend to forget what went where and when—because I have indeed written a number of columns on the local interurban systems over the years. Because for a little over 20 years, the interurban system was, as President Joe likes to put it, a BFD.

By late September 1900 residents living in and around Oswego had some new sights to see and marvel at as they awaited the century’s turn at midnight on Dec. 31, 1900.

The window in my great-great-grandmother’s tiny bedroom looked out on the east bank of the Fox River. By that time, virtually all of the trees along the Fox River had been harvested and used for one purpose or another, so her view was clear all the way across the valley, letting her clearly see the area’s latest transportation marvel—the new interurban trolley line running from Aurora south through Oswego to Yorkville. As she  put it in a letter to her daughter out in Kansas: “When I can’t sleep at night I can watch the Street cars run out my window over across the river.”

The arrow marks my great-grandmother’s house on what was then Water Street, just north of downtown Oswego. By then the banks of the Fox River had been denuded of the thick timber the settlers found when they arrived. That gave her a clear view across the river from her small first-floor bedroom. That’s the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory to the right. (Photo by Irvin Haines in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

A group of investors had proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south through Montgomery and Oswego to Yorkville in 1897. An early proposal to build a third-rail electric line was quickly discarded in favor of using overhead electric lines. As proposed, the line would run mostly on public rights-of-way using light rails and electrically-powered trolley cars.

In August 1897 representatives of the new (and optimistically named) Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad met with the Kendall County Board to start hammering out a trolley franchise. As proposed, the line would begin in downtown Aurora, run south on River Street through Montgomery and along the Fox River through the new Riverview amusement park then under construction just south of Montgomery before gently curving west to join the West River Road—now Ill. Route 31—for the run to the Oswego Bridge across the Fox River. There, the line would turn east, cross the river on the bridge and climb the bluff to Oswego’s Main Street, where it would turn south once more following Main Street towards Yorkville along what is now Ill. Route 71. At the Cowdrey Cemetery, the line would turn once again to follow the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line between the tracks and today’s VanEmmon Road into downtown Yorkville. This line was never extended to Morris, although another interurban line would link Yorkville and Morris more than a decade later.

Among the issues that had to be hammered out between the county and the company was who would pay for improvements the line required, such as either strengthening or rebuilding the Oswego Bridge. In addition, the company pledged “that in every way possible the company would guard against frightening horses” or otherwise interfering with traffic on the roads alongside which the trolleys would run. In the end, the trolley company agreed to pay $3,500 towards the cost of a new, stronger box truss iron bridge to replace the existing 1867 tied arch structure at Oswego—with Oswego Township to pick up the rest of the tab—and the other issues were ironed out as well.

Residents of the towns the trolley would serve were, in general, enthusiastic about this new, all-weather transportation option. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall noted in a Dec. 13, 1899 commentary: “With only four reliable trains a day, it was hard for one to come here and be so late getting into Chicago as is necessary with the regular passenger train. With the electric accommodations, one can go to Aurora and take an early morning train to Chicago.”

Construction began in the spring of 1900 and by June 27, the tracks were completed from Aurora to the west end of the Oswego Bridge.

“Operation of the electric road from the bridge will be commenced this Tuesday afternoon by a free ride of the town and village officials to Aurora and back,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote. “Yorkville will have to wait about three months longer before enjoying such privilege.”

Interurban trolley car approaches the west end of the Oswego Bridge about 1903 enroute from Aurora to Yorkville. The tracks crossed the new iron box truss Fox River on the Oswego Bridge and then turned south along Main Street. (Little White School Museum collection)

Regular service began in early July from Aurora to the Oswego Bridge terminus. Use immediately proved enthusiastic and frequent. As Marshall wrote on Aug. 1: “That the Aurora and Yorkville electric road will be a great convenience and daily comfort is shown by the way it is used now between Oswego and Aurora. Every day parties drive up from about here [Yorkville] to Oswego and take the car there for Aurora, saving 12 miles’ drive.”

Work continued feverishly the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1900 on the new, stronger Oswego Bridge and the trestle at the east end of the bridge designed to carry the electric line up Washington Street over the CB&Q tracks to Main Street.

By late December, the Oswego Bridge and trestle, along with the tracks were finished and regular trolley service had begun, linking downtown Aurora through Montgomery and Oswego with downtown Yorkville. The first car arrived at the Kendall County seat at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, 1900 to enthusiastic applause.

Passenger-baggage Combine Car 106 cresting the300-foot Washington Street trestle in Oswego getting ready to make its southbound morning stop at Washington and Main Street to drop off fresh bread and other freight on its way to Yorkville. Combine 106 made the first round trip every morning to deliver and pick up freight–including farmers’ milk on the way to Aurora dairies–and a few passengers along the route. (Little White School Museum collection)

“There were two cars down—one with the Aurora guests, the other empty to return with a number of the distinguished populace of Kendall’s capital,” the Record reported on Dec. 26. Welcoming the new arrivals was Record publisher Marshall, who had welcomed the first railroad train into Yorkville 30 years before.

The interurban, providing hourly service from Yorkville from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day at affordable rates, was part of a vast interurban rail network that, it was said, allowed passengers to travel via trolley all the way from the Mississippi River—with transfers—all the way to New York City.

In an era of terrible roads, the interurban was a godsend, carrying passengers and freight, including farmers’ milk, to and from Aurora. Everything from fresh bakery bread to high school and college students to office workers to shoppers rode the trolley to and from Aurora daily. In addition, the amusement parks financed by the trolley companies to encourage weekend ridership drew thousands. Riverview Park—later renamed Fox River Park to differentiate it from its much larger cousin in Chicago—featured a variety of amusement rides from a rollercoaster to a huge carousel to a “shoot-the-chutes” into the Fox River. Boating on the Fox, annual summer Chautauquas that drew nationally-known speakers, and even professional baseball attracted huge crowds.

Riverview (later Fox River) Park, from the roof of the pavilion on the island looking towards shore, with boaters and strollers enjoying a summer afternoon with the huge dance hall/auditorium in the background. Although this postcard is postmarked 1911, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park about 1905. The park was located directly across the river from modern Boulder Hill. The Western Electric plant later occupied the site. (Little White School Museum collection)

But a little more than a decade later, the line, eventually renamed the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago after several reorganizations, and others throughout the nation found themselves under assault from the ever-growing numbers of internal combustion automobiles and trucks. As cars and trucks became more affordable and much more dependable, the public also insisted on more and better roads. In response, Illinois officials proposed a $60 million bond issue in 1918 to “get Illinois out of the mud” by building a network of paved roads that would link every county in the state.

The $60 million cost of the project was of considerable concern to residents here in Kendall County, always conservative when it came to making public expenditures. But as a Record editorial pointed out on Oct. 16, 1918, the bonded indebtedness was to be paid through gasoline taxes.

“The $60 million bond issue for good roads has frightened many by its name,” the Record pointed out. “They don’t realize that this amount of money is to be raised by the users of automobiles and comes out of their tax as machine owners. Not a cent will be added to the personal or real estate taxes of a person. The good roads will be built and maintained by the auto owner. Vote for the issue.

Despite the nation being involved in World War I, the Nov. 2 bond issue ended up passing easily. Kendall County voters overwhelmingly approved it, 1,532-90.

The construction crew pouring concrete on Route 18–later Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34–at the west end of the Oswego Bridge (just visible at upper right) in 1923 takes a break to chat with some local folks. Route 18 was built as part of the $60 million state bond issue that led to the end of the interurban system. (Photo by Dwight Young in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

The interurbans, with their privately-owned rights-of-way, tracks, and cars, quickly found themselves unable to compete with the combination of increasingly inexpensive, dependable motor vehicles and publicly financed hard-surfaced roads. And so, in the 1920s, one by one, the interurban lines closed down.

On Aug. 6, 1924, the Record reported that “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued.”

In the event, the line carried on until Feb. 1, finally succumbing to the advance of transportation technology and the nation’s willingness to subsidize roads but not rails.

Today, there are scant reminders of the trolley era, but there are still a few bits of evidence it existed. There are still one or two old concrete culvert remnants along Ill. Route 31 and if you look closely between the road and the railroad tracks the next time you drive VanEmmon Road into Yorkville, you will see some of the last evidence of the old trolley line.

Ironically, as we attempt to deal with climate change and the problems emissions from our internal combustion cars and trucks cause, the old interurban trolley system looks like another pretty good idea lost in time.


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Filed under Aurora, Business, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation, travel

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