The railroads played an integral part in shaping Champaign and Urbana as twin cities. The town of West Urbana, which was later to be incorporated as Champaign, emerged after the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was laid two miles west of Urbana in 1854. It was this decision to run the tracks outside of Urbana and not directly through the town that gave rise to today's Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area. Originally running steam engines, the IC switched to diesel engines after Word War II. The Illinois Central still runs today from Chicago to New Orleans, bringing passengers and freight to and from Champaign-Urbana.
Along with large interstate lines such as the Peoria & Eastern (Big Four), Champaign-Urbana also hosted several interurban railways. Interurban railways use smaller, electric cars that carry passengers and cargo between small cities. One interurban, the Illinois Terminal Railroad, ran from Danville, Illinois to both Peoria, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri with stops in Champaign and many of the other small farm towns along the way. Another prominent line was the Kankakee & Urbana Traction, or “University Route” that ran from Urbana to Paxton, Illinois with a stop in Rantoul for the Chanute Air Base.
Another influential piece of Champaign-Urbana’s rail history is the evolution of early public transit. From the late 1860s to the early 1890s, public transit consisted of two miles of horse-drawn street railways carrying passengers and goods between the cities. When William B. McKinley, an Illinois politician, purchased the railway, he abandoned the horse-drawn system and electrified the rails. The streetcars reached their peak in 1927 with 12.2 miles of track, but by 1936, the trolleys were no longer used and were replaced with buses.
The Railways and Electric Transit tour is an introduction to the history and significance of the railways and electric trolleys to Champaign and Urbana’s histories.