Downtown Urbana road work uncovers history
URBANA — A street improvement project in downtown Urbana became a modern-day archaeology site as construction crews uncovered a portion of the city's interurban railroad system.
Mike Ducey, president of Duce Construction, said work crews doing an asphalt overlay project on Main Street in front of the Champaign County Courthouse were doing patching work on Monday prior to the application of asphalt when they discovered about 47 linear feet of railroad tracks.
The tracks are a leftover portion of the old interurban railway line.
"Apparently the street was built over the tracks at some point, and the tracks were still there when we did the patching work," Ducey said.
Ducey said this wasn't the first time his company has found buried railroad lines in the area.
"It seems like every time we work on Main Street in Urbana, we find some railroad tracks," he said.
Ducey said he contacted an Urbana city engineering representative to decide what to do with the tracks once they were uncovered.
"The city elected to leave the tracks where they are and patch over the top of them," Ducey said.
H. George Friedman, a retired University of Illinois professor who has studied the street railways in Champaign-Urbana, said the tracks uncovered this week likely date back to the early 1900s, when the Illinois Traction System operated an interurban line from Danville through Urbana and Champaign to Decatur and beyond.
The Illinois Traction System was an electric interurban railroad system developed primarily by Champaign businessman, U.S. senator, University of Illinois trustee and philanthropist William McKinley.
Friedman said the tracks carried streetcars and interurban cars.
"A streetcar is like a bus on rails, and an interurban car is like a Greyhound bus on rails," Friedman said.
According to Friedman, the first rail tracks on what is today called Main Street in downtown Urbana were built in 1863, but those tracks were rebuilt several times in the ensuing decades.
"The first tracks in downtown Urbana ran from the county courthouse to the Illinois Central depot," Friedman said. "The rails were replaced and rebuilt several times, and the ones found this week were likely put into place in the early 1900s," Friedman said.
Friedman said the interurban cars and streetcars reached their peak in popularity in the 1920s, when the company operating them was called the Illinois Terminal Railroad.
Following the 1920s, people began buying automobiles and used them instead of the interurban cars and streetcars.
"During World War II, transit recovered a bit during the period when you couldn't get private automobiles," Friedman said.
According to Friedman, the interurban cars stopped running in downtown Urbana in 1937.
"But they kept the tracks in downtown Urbana, and they continued to still use them to take people to Illinois football games until around the late 1940s or early 1950s," Friedman said.
According to Friedman, the last interurban cars in the Twin Cities stopped running in the 1950s.
So the old interurban tracks will remain buried beneath Main Street, left to become an archaeological find for future generations.