Madison County Historical Society


Public Transportation

The first public transportation in Anderson was animal-powered and lasted only four short years, but was the forerunner to an ingenious idea that lasted over four decades.  The mule-drawn city street cars were eventually electrified, and then were absorbed into the Interurban system that became a way of life in central Indiana for over 40 years.

Public transportation had its beginnings in Anderson on August 19, 1887, when the Anderson City Council granted a 30-year franchise to Sheldon R. and Dizon C. Williams of Lebanon, Tennessee, to construct and maintain a street railway in Anderson.  As with many new businesses in Anderson at that time, the discovery of natural gas beneath Anderson on March 31, 1887, was the catalyst to bring people and new business here and, thus, the need for some form of public transportation.

Originally, it was desiagned to connect the Big Four Railraod depot on 15th Street with the Pan Handle Railroad depot on North Main Street untilizing the most direct route, which was the intervening 10 blocks of Meridian Street.  However, when a the tracks were finally laid the following year, they turned east at 10th Street one block to Main Street, then north on Main to Ninth Street where they turned west, returning to Meridian, and then proceeded north to Fifth and then east to Main.  The transfer point was on Ninth between Main and Meridian where passengers would dis-embark or continue on after transferring to another car. 

No record exists as to why the original plan was changed.  One would have to assume that the presence of the three-story Perret Hotel on the northwest corner of 10th and Main exercised some influence in the change of plans.  The street cars would have passed directly by the front and side entrances to the hotel as the cars rounded that corner.  It was an impressive establishment complete with a large dining room at street level to attract visitors to the city arriving on either railroad.  Work was completed on the morning of Thursday, September 6, 1888.  The cars made their first run that evening and it was cause for a great celebration in Anderson as people turned out in great numbers to see the cars go by.

It was a special occasion and for good reason.  Anderson was the first and only city in the gas belt to have street railway service.  Adding an additional dignity to the initial run was the use of horses in place of mules.  The initial run consisted of two cars, each seating about 20 people.  No photographs  have survived of the event that we know of, but our information tells us the cars were 16 to 18 feet long, enclosed with four large windows on each side.

There were open platforms at each end with one step on each side.  The front platform was wider than the rear, presumably to provide more room for the driver and to allow ample room for passengers to get on and off without interfering with the driver.  Four large spoke wheels were attached to the under frame.

The Riverside Park Band was given the honor of riding in the first can on that initial run.  As the wheels began to turn, the band struck up an inspiring rendition of patriotic songs. much to the delight of the crowd lining Meridian Street who congratulated themselves on the city's remarkable achievement.  The driver of that first car was Robert E. Burke whose uncle, Newton F. Burke, had furnished the horses.  The second car was occupied by city officials, newspaper men, and other celebrities of the day.  Even with the auspicious beginning, the mule-drawn street cars were not well received once they began full-time operation.

The opening of the Anderson street railway lines marked an epoch in the city's history for two reasons.  On the evening of the opening, as the band was playing "There Will Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and revelers gathered on the streets shouting and waving flags, the officials of the Board of Trade were meeting in Charles L. Henry's office at the corner of Eighth and Meridian Streets, signing the contract that brought American Wire Nail to Anderson, one of the largest and most important industries up to that time in the city. 

In time, branch lines were built off the main line to connect with the northwest part of the city, Hazelwood and the former Anderson Crossing area at Columbus and Ohio Avenues.  But these proved to be unpopular due to inefficient service.  Once viewed as "rapid transit," the mules became somewhat of a joke.  Their speed was so slow that many decided to walk to their destination as the pedestrian pace was quicker than the mule.  And, the unpredictable mules would occasionally stop0 for a nap while en-route, much to the dismay of the driver and passengers.  One advantage they did have was the cars did not have to run on the rails.  They could be taken off the tracks and run over a hard surface as long as it was sufficient to support the weight of the wheels and not tear up the street surface.

On May 30, 1892, four years after the city's introduction to street cars, the Anderson Electric Street Railway Company was born and with it the electrification of the street car.  It was an innovation that transformed mass transportation in Anderson and eventually ushered in the era of the Interurban.

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By Steve Jackson, Madison County Historian 


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 Madison County Historical Society|15 West 11th Street, P. O. Box 696, Anderson, Indiana 46015-0696|(765)683-0052|