The idea for the Illinois Traction System, later called the Illinois Terminal Railroad, began in the late 1890s. William B. McKinley, the owner of Champaign’s local streetcars intermittently since 1890, pushed to connect lines between cities and create the electric interurban (Scott, 1951). McKinley purchased streetcar systems in Champaign’s surrounding cities and built power plants to serve the purpose of providing electricity not only to the railways but also to cities that did not previously have electricity (Scott, 1951). The first of the interurban lines to be finished connected Champaign to Danville in 1903. In 1907, the line from Champaign to Decatur was finished. Through McKinley’s efforts various lines were merged to create the entire Illinois Traction System by 1908, which maintained headquarters in Champaign. McKinley was an affiliate of the Illinois Power and Light Company and his interest in expanding the railroad was both commercial and philanthropic.
McKinley was an electricity magnate in Champaign-Urbana who not only pushed for electric interurbans, but also was a notable businessman, politician, and philanthropist, donating funds to build the Champaign YMCA, the McKinley Presbyterian Church, and the McKinley Health Center. He also supported the Boy Scouts, local churches, the University of Illinois, and many other organizations, schools, and universities. McKinley served on the U.S. House of Representatives from 1905 to 1913 and as a U.S. Senator from 1915 until 1921.
The electric interurban provided passenger service between cites at a much more frequent and affordable rate than the steam railways could provide in the early 1900s. Between 1905 and 1906, a passenger could travel from Danville to Champaign in about an hour and forty-five minutes. Interurbans would depart from each station along the line from Danville to Champaign about once every hour, and it would cost 55 cents to ride all the way. It was a 5 cents to ride the interurban between Champaign and Urbana stations; this was the quickest way to get from city to city, as the streetcars made local stops, but the interurban only stopped once in Champaign and once in Urbana. By 1912, the trip from Champaign to Danville would take about an hour and twenty minutes (Janssen, 1954)
With more than 400 miles of track during its height, the Illinois Traction provided passenger service from city to city as well as providing McKinley and the Illinois Power and Light Company a private way of obtaining coal, most of which was mined near Danville and near Springfield during the early 1900s (Scott, 1951). Illinois Traction lines ended at Danville on the east, Bloomington and Peoria to the north, and St. Louis in the south stopping at Decatur, Springfield, and other small towns along the way. While the railway continued beyond these points, the Illinois Traction System did not own it.
Along with passenger services, the Illinois Traction System (ITS) pulled small amounts of freight. Farmers with access to small towns could sell their goods to larger cities along the lines. The amount of freight was limited because many of the lines ran on local streetcar rails that often included sharp turns; this was specifically a problem in Champaign with drastic turns located at University and 3rd and John and Neil. Special equipment was used to navigate freight through these tight turns (Changon, 2007).
Realizing that railroads have a limited scope, the Illinois Traction started a city-to-city bus line in 1926 that ran on some of the newly constructed roads. These buses also ran within the cities of Champaign and Urbana and delivered passengers to locations in which there were no rail lines placed. This helped alleviate the need to place down more rails, which was often a costly venture. The ITS was very forward thinking when it came to realizing the limitations of the rail lines.
As the availability of motorcars rose and ridership on the interurbans declined, in 1937 the Illinois Traction System reorganized into the Illinois Terminal Railroad (ITR) and increased freight capacity. Freight revenue in 1924 was only $1.6 million, but by 1954 freight revenue was almost $11 million. In comparison, passenger service revenue averaged $600,000 per year in the early 1950s. Passenger services ended as early as 1929 for some small towns, but many of the larger cities such as St. Louis and Springfield continued through to the mid-1950s.. The last passenger service to Champaign occurred in June of 1955, and passenger service officially ended everywhere in 1956 (Changon, 2007).
From 1956 until 1981 Illinois Terminal continued to operate freight on just a few of the lines, mostly abandoning the tracks that ran through towns (Changon, 2007). In 1982 the ITR merged with the Norfolk and Western Railroad (N&W). Many of the old railways have been converted into rail trails, a walking or bike path that is often incorporated into a park or nature preserve area (see link under ‘Related Sources’ for more information on rail trails). A portion of the Illinois Traction line was purchased by the Monticello Railway Museum and is once again used to transport passengers, this time to and from the museum and Monticello, Illinois.