Interurban Railways of Elkhart County

by Tim Ashley

Interurban Station in Goshen, c1915.

To borrow a phrase from William Middleton’s book “The Interurban Era,”  one of the best resources for information about electric interurban lines, “A hissing sound from the copper wire draped overhead, the urgent clatter of whirling steel wheels on rail joints, and a wailing air horn that commanded respect and attention signaled its coming.” He beautifully described what it was like to ride on an electric interurban car, especially as it raced across the countryside in rural areas.

Electric interurban railway lines left a definite impression on transportation history and changed the way people traveled. The farmer could catch an interurban into town when previously he might have been isolated due to impassable roads. The businessman could ride an interurban from town to town to make business calls or keep appointments. And others used the interurban to visit relatives, shop, or take in entertainment.

Though the interurban changed travel habits, its timing was poor and the automobile and bus would prove to be its demise. Depending on the location of the interurban line, it was only prominent for 10 to 15 years or maybe about 20 at the most. In Elkhart County, passenger service was finished before the mid-1930s.

Indiana had one of the most extensive interurban railway networks in the nation, and two interurban companies served Elkhart County: Winona Interurban Railway and Northern Indiana Railway. The two lines connected in downtown Goshen. The Winona served a key role in the interurban network in the Hoosier State because it essentially connected Indianapolis with South Bend. 

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the location of the station pictured above in Goshen, 1917.

Winona Interurban

The Winona Interurban derived its name from the Winona & Warsaw Railway that transported passengers to the religious activities in Winona Lake. The Pennsylvania Railroad stopped dropping off passengers at the Winona Lake siding and said passengers would have to get off trains stopping at the downtown Warsaw station. So a trolley line was formed in the days before buses and cars. By the summer of 1903 passengers were being shuttled from Warsaw to Winona Lake. Eventually the lines were extended north and south and beginning in June 1906 the Winona Flyer interurban car started making runs south and north.

When the Winona line was completed it stretched from Peru to the south to Goshen in the north. At Peru connections could be made to Indianapolis or Fort Wayne. At Goshen, connections could be made to points to the west such as Elkhart, Mishawaka, South Bend and the towns and cities around and near Lake Michigan.

The route of the Winona came from the south out of Kosciusko County just north of Milford Junction. After coming through the heart of downtown Milford, the line paralleled the old Big Four Railroad (today it is Norfolk Southern) and headed through Milford Junction. From there it jogged slightly to the west and also paralleled what is now State Road 15. The line stayed on a north course into Elkhart County and crossed U.S. Highway 6. Before reaching what is now 6, there was a small interurban station, or stop, known as Arnold’s Station. It was likely nothing more than a small enclosed structure used for those waiting to catch or depart the interurban. John Arnold was the name of a nearby property owner who owned a considerable amount of land. It was at this station a horrible crash killed the interurban car motorman in July 1909.

A right-of-way marker along the Winona Trail in Goshen. (photo courtesy of Tim Ashley and the "Local Remnants" Blog.

From the Arnold’s location the interurban line continued north and paralleling the Big Four Railroad. Some of the stops along the way before the next town were Becks, Barnes, Whitehead, and Kohl. The next town was New Paris and there was an interurban station here and a control tower sat where the Winona intersected the Wabash Railroad. This was near where the State Road 15 overpass was located before it was removed after the Wabash tracks were taken out.

Keeping a steady course to the north, the Winona made stops at Matthews, Baintertown, and Fairlawn. The Fairlawn stop was named after Fairlawn Farms, still owned today by the Neff family. Another stop was made at Walgren before reaching the small town of Waterford Mills, where there was a small station. It continued to parallel the Big Four Railroad on into Goshen. In Goshen, evidence of the right of way of the interurban still exists today in the form of concrete right-of-way markers located along the Winona Trail.

At some point on the campus of Goshen College, the interurban line jogged to the west and connected with Main Street. It went down the middle of Main Street to downtown Goshen near Jefferson Street where there was a passenger station and also a car barn.

Interurban Station in Elkhart on West Marion and 2nd Street c.1905

Northern Indiana Railway

Goshen was connected to South Bend and other cities and towns to the west via the Northern Indiana Railway. This electric railway evolved from city streetcar service in South Bend and Mishawaka. In the early years of this service, the cars were pulled by horses.

Indiana Railway Company and the South Bend, LaPorte & Michigan City Traction Company consolidated Dec. 15, 1905, to become the Northern Indiana Railway. The railway’s roots, though, dated back to the mid-1880s.

From the interurban station and car barn at Main and Jefferson in downtown Goshen, the Northern Indiana Railway followed Main Street to the north down to Pike Street, known today as U.S. 33 also. The line turned left, or west, down Pike Street. It then went north on First Street off Pike to River Avenue, where it turned to the west. The railway was on Chicago Street for a while before returning to parallel the Big Four Railroad.

It continued to follow the Big Four through Concord Township on into Elkhart. Eventually it came onto Main Street in Elkhart. There was a large interurban car barn at the intersection of Main and Lusher. The route followed Main Street into downtown Elkhart to West Marion where it turned west. There was a freight and passenger station on West Marion. Eventually the Northern Indiana Railway connected with West Franklin Street where it headed for St. Joseph County. A power station was located in Osceola.

Passenger Service Ceases

The combination of the bus and automobile proved to be too much for the interurban lines to compete with and by the mid-1930s, both lines serving Elkhart County stopped carrying passengers. The Great Depression was a major factor, too. The Winona officially stopped service in September of 1934 and the Northern Indiana did at about the same time. Freight continued to be moved on part of the Winona tracks until 1952.

A few remnants of the old electric lines remain today such as concrete bridge footings in rivers or creeks. There are a few right of way markers still standing, too, and in some places one can still see where the railroad bed was located.

St. Joseph Valley Railway

There was another electric interurban line serving Elkhart County, but it will only briefly be mentioned here. It was never completely finished, it suffered financial woes and it had a very short life compared to the other two interurban lines serving the county.

St. Joseph Valley Railway, otherwise known as the Valley Line, entered the towns of Middlebury, Bristol and Elkhart. For a good portion of the route across Elkhart County, it paralleled what is now State Road 120. There are still some stretches between Elkhart and Bristol where the right of way is visible.

The Valley Line started service in 1911 to Elkhart and by 1918, the last train left for Elkhart. It should also be noted only part of the line was electric and some gas cars were used.