Ask anyone where the sport of people-watching reigns supreme, and inevitably, travel portals will top the list. The Downtown Transit Center taking shape at Washington and Delaware streets reminds that it has been decades since such a spectator arena existed in the city center. Union Station might be the most famous ancestor, but Indy’s bygone Traction Terminal, located between Market, Ohio, Illinois, and Capitol streets (where the Hilton Indianapolis sits today), is a closer cousin to the forthcoming—in late spring, by current estimates—bus hub. Connecting the city with outlying country towns, and channeling people to and from shopping, work, and social engagements, Traction Terminal hosted a wide swath of the state’s population and was the largest of its kind in the world.
The first “interurban” (defined as “a railway having more than one half of its trackage outside of incorporated municipalities”) entered Indianapolis from Greenwood on January 1, 1900, though Traction Terminal didn’t open until 1904. In September of that year, a Plainfield railcar’s metal wheels squealed over the steel track from Market Street, halting under a shed next to a grand nine-story terminal. The car’s doors opened, and a new kind of traveler spilled into the city.
Out-of-towners encountered an impressive million-dollar concourse filled with the sensory feast you would expect of a burgeoning Midwestern capital in its industrial-age prime. There were walls of magazines, postcards, papers, and gift items. Big-city retail establishments (Ayres, Wasson’s), eateries, banks of seating, and public toilets all welcomed passengers transitioning through Traction Terminal. It’s easy to imagine how delighted Indianapolis citizens—who were still using horse-drawn carriages on unpaved roads—would have been with these electric interurban cars, seeing them as a symbol of the city’s growth. As harbingers, they were the bike lanes and car-sharing programs of yesteryear.
Traffic peaked in 1916 at 7.2 million passengers for the year. The following spring, the United States entered World War I, and so began the slow decline of the station’s travelers. The last interurban pulled out of the terminal, headed for Muncie, in January 1941, and the space was taken over by buses. By that time, the freedom and cost of personal automobiles proved too compelling for the average American, and public conveyances took a turn toward the history books.
Tiffany Benedict Browne runs historicindianapolis.com. She still misses the Tube from her time living in London.