Streetcars were once an indelible part of urban life in America, even in smaller cities.
In Bloomington-Normal after the Civil War, a major impetus for a street railway was the deplorable state of roads and sidewalks within and between the two communities, as well as those connecting the railroad depots to downtown Bloomington. Streets were still unpaved, and many residents didn’t own a horse or carriage, so getting around usually meant walking, and all too often that meant walking in mud. Or worse.
That all began to change in 1867, two years after the war, with the organization of the Bloomington and Normal Horse Railway Co. Incorporators included prominent local residents such as Jesse W. Fell and John L. Routt. These were publicly minded men, though more than one hoped to gain from the expected land boom that was sure to accompany a streetcar line.
A groundbreaking ceremony took place on May 30 in Normal, with Railway President N. Nixon casting the first shovelful of dirt. He then stepped aside for some 100 men and 15 horse teams to begin the real work. The rails and lumber were on hand, and soon to arrive were a small steam locomotive (known as a “dummy”), two coaches and a platform car.
The initial two-mile line would connect downtown Bloomington and downtown Normal, passing both universities along the way. For its entire history, the railway housed its rolling stock in a car barn at the corner of University and Park streets in Bloomington. (Today, this site is home to the Illinois Wesleyan University Myers Welcome Center.)
“The company expects to have the road finished from Normal to Bloomington in September, and then goodbye to muddy roads on the part of unhappy pedestrians … who daily peregrinate (travel on foot) between here and Normal,” declared a jubilant Pantagraph.
Looming over the project, though, was a controversy over the railway’s intention to use steam dummies for passenger service. Opponents in the often rancorous debate preferred horse-drawn cars, arguing that the noisy, hissing-and-clanking dummies would spook horses on crowded city streets and cause all sorts of mayhem.
The Bloomington and Normal Horse Railway Co. marked the first official run along the entire line with a Sept. 6, 1867 VIP excursion. The Pantagraph took the occasion to call for the unimpeded operation of steam dummies on city streets. “Dummies won’t hurt anything,” declared the newspaper. “If it was possible, Bloomington would have been killed long ago.”
Despite such protestations, on Sept. 10 the Bloomington City Council went ahead and barred the railway from running the steam dummy south of the streetcar car barn (the measure would take effect two weeks later). The railway company could still use dummies north of the car barn, but for service farther south into Bloomington, only horses could pull streetcars.
The debate still raged, reaching its nadir on Sept. 21 when three prominent citizens (the local press declined to name names) engaged in a bit of fisticuffs over the question of steam dummies. “A small amount of blood was lost, and tempers and wardrobes ruffled,” reported The Pantagraph, which referred to the ungentlemanly affair as a “squirmage.”
Fortunately, streetcars proved popular, with or without dummies in most of Bloomington. Before year’s end, the railway’s schedule had grown to 42 cars a day, 21 running each way, with the first two leaving at 7:35 a.m. and the last two at 9:00 p.m.
In 1871, the local railway ended steam dummy service altogether, and electrification came in 1890. Over the years the system opened new lines to reach into neighborhoods east and west of downtown Bloomington and north of Illinois State University. The automobile, though, would doom the vast majority of streetcar lines throughout the nation. The end of the Twin City streetcar era came at midnight on Dec. 14, 1936, when the last car turned into the old barn off Park Street.
Back in 1867, during the first month of service, the street railway presented a tempting target for mischief makers. On Sept. 15, a “set of rough men or boys” from the Chicago & Alton Railroad Shops on Bloomington’s west side commandeered a handcar and “went whooping and hallooing” down the street line with the apparent goal of disturbing the peace. Even more galling was the fact that this brazen act took place on the Sabbath. B&N Street Railway President Nixon caught up with the rowdies, and, reported The Pantagraph, “severely reproved and threatened to arrest them, but for their humble apology permitted them to pass the road, with a plain understanding that such actions are not to be repeated.”