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Side Roads and Lessons in Transit History Pt. 2 – Interurbans and the South Shore

By: Yorgo Douramacos

The South Shore electric rail line out of South Bend Indiana is a persistent anomaly. In a state separated by distances and only connected by roads, roads seeming to encourage travel without offering any help toward that end, The South Shore runs consistently through town, country, parkland and urban center.

Beginning in the late 1880s Indiana was connected by a complex network of interurban rail lines. Modern in many respects, even by today’s standards, these “Interurbans” made it possible to live a modern connected life well not the twentieth century without recourse to a car. For me, having studied Indiana’s transportation history, the legacy of rail connectivity that died out nearly eighty years ago, stepping on to The South Shore feels like rubbing elbows with ghosts.

The Interurbans arose at a time when cars were ascendent, and when the manufacture economy bred a healthy middle class that could afford them. Thus the Interurbans were not long for this world. Their peak lasted only a couple of decades at the beginning of the 1900’s. They were run by private businesses whose only motivation in continuing service was their profitability. Their public utility and community importance would have meant little in the decision to end service.

The South Shore narrowly persisted through the era of rail closures in the 1940s through 60s. And today find themselves as in demand as ever, connecting the northern Indiana corridor with the Chicagoland economic centers. As a result, on a day in March when it had snowed five inches in a few hours, a crew and I stood with cameras ready near a whited-out rail road track with buzzing electric wires overhead. Trying to glimpse the silver streak of the West bound South Shore train. The snow collected on the track pasted us as the train wheels threw it aside. The snow settled around us as a frigid dust cloud in the train’s squealing wake and finally left us with only the buzzing wires over head and the silent snowflakes still falling from the sky.

The electric Interurbans of Indiana’s past still have a legacy. If you go to South Bend, or Michigan City, or Dune’s State Park, or Hammond, or Gary you can catch the train in either direction and look out the window and it’s still Indiana rolling past outside train windows. The connectivity and convenience are both reminder and motivation. What was and is can also become.