Century of transportation in Champaign-Urbana on display at Illinois Terminal

CHAMPAIGN — Crisp and clear, the past is here.

On the walls of the Illinois Terminal are displayed a downtown Champaign not seen for decades.

Looking west on Main Street, there's Vriner's confectionary, the old Champaign Daily News and, looming over the background, the only recently lost Metropolitan Building.

For 150 years before digital killed film sales, cameras used glass plates and rolls and silvery chemicals (and sometimes very large negatives) to take photos so sharp that a license plate in the deep background is easy to read a century later.

A sharp 1910 shot shows trolley lines near Kaufman's department store, surrounded by fascinating lost architecture.

Milk cans fresh from the train line an alleyway in another photo.

People are seen all over the streets in these photos — "because they had to walk," curator Ben Halpern says.

He credits Illinois Central Railroad photographers and others who took the shots with great skill.

They're all photos chosen for an exhibit at the Illinois Terminal, 45 E. University Ave., that will run for several months to come. It's free.

Architectural photographer Halpern has had four exhibits at Illinois Terminal on the history and development of rail and bus transportation in and around Champaign. He loves to take train photos, and he's an expert in finding them in local archives.

Halpern will speak with other historians later this spring about how the project came together at the urging of Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit Disrict Director Bill Volk, and what the photographs mean.

He will be joined by former Champaign mayor and city historian Dannel McCollum.

Also speaking will be the don of local transportation history: University of Illinois professor and former MTD board member George Friedman, to discuss the history of differing transport systems, including horse-drawn lines, trolleys and interurban trains.

The first presentation is at 7 p.m. May 1 in the Lewis Auditorium of the Urbana Free Library, 210 W. Green St.

The second is at 1 p.m. May 5 at CityView, on the fourth floor of Illinois Terminal. It is expected to last one hour.

Volk says he was interested in sponsoring the exhibition because the Main and Neil area has a large concentration of transportation history with three passenger facilities, "one in each century" of local history.

He calls the Illinois Terminal "a station for the 20th and 21st century," adapted to handle bus, taxi and other modes of transport.

Halpern says Champaign (and Urbana) thrived with a variety of mass transit options long before the MTD came along to fulfill that role.

"You can see a town that's on the move," Halpern says.

On July 24, 1854, he writes, a train rolled into a station stop, located about 2 miles west of the courthouse in downtown Urbana, on the new Chicago branch line of the Illinois Central Railroad.

The railroad right-of-way followed high ground, causing it to bypass Urbana, to the west, on its route south — eventually causing it to be the smaller of the towns, despite being the county seat.

By 1861, the village was chartered as the City of Champaign, and by 1863, a horse-drawn street railway had been built, linking Urbana and Champaign.

By 1898, the main hotel and station burned to the ground. The new Illinois Central station, a 200-foot-long structure, was built across the tracks from the hotel at Main and Chestnut streets.

In 1913, a new headquarters was being erected for McKinley's utilities and trolley system — what is now the Illinois Traction Building.

The building, which still stands on University Avenue, also housed a station and freight house for trolley patrons.

All the systems worked together. But McCollum notes that "Henry Ford had a different idea."

For the countless car and truck traffic, Halpern says, a decision was made by the city of Champaign and the Illinois Central Railroad to elevate the railroad right-of-way through the downtown, eliminating the dangerous grade level crossings and construct a station and platform with the capacity necessary to accommodate the large crowds for Memorial Stadium.

In June 1923, the old station, built in 1898, was moved due north by a distance of 114 feet, Halpern notes.

Dirt from train construction at Paxton built the high ground so that University and other streets could pass under the IC tracks without snarl.

As happened elsewhere in the nation, in 1936 the National City Bus Lines, with help from Detroit, purchased and closed the electric train cars, Halpern says.

Buses moved in to fill the void. In 1970, a district later to be called the C-U MTD used federal money to create a system that serves most of the heavily populated area.

Illinois Terminal opened in 1999.

It's hard to find traces of the old transport lines, McCollum says, but an ever-decreasing number can be spotted by the expert.

 

If you go

What: "GETTING TO CHAMPAIGN: Photographs of a Century of Progress in Ground Transportation in Champaign, Illinois, 1903-2003," curated by Ben Halpern

Where: Illinois Terminal, 45 E. University Ave., C

Phone: 384-8188

Admission: Free

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