IO McKinley Illinois Traction Building

The Illinois Traction System headquarters and depot, which was owned by William B. McKinley, is shown in downtown Champaign. The corner of the Inman Hotel is at right.

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The Champaign County History Museum recently inaugurated the "Who We Are: Stories of Champaign County" gallery with "The Great Harris Mansion Heist" exhibit. The popular "When We Went To War" exhibit remains on display. Upstairs, "The Art of Louise Woodroofe" is in the corridor gallery. We are within a few weeks of opening an exhibit telling the stories of the Illinois Traction System and William B. McKinley.

The McKinley name is familiar in the area through the former McKinley YMCA, McKinley Fields, the McKinley Health Center on campus and the McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church. William McKinley was generous in public philanthropies, private gifts and bequests.

Born in 1856, McKinley came to Champaign in 1858 with his parents and later attended the University of Illinois. He became a partner in his uncle James B. McKinley’s banking business in 1877. His interest in public utilities developed soon after.

McKinley was active in the organization and construction of the local water works, franchised in 1884, and the United Manufacturing Company, formed in 1889. It took over the water works and the plant of the Western Electric Light Company, which had been in operation since the fall of 1885. Both plants had been constructed and operated by McKinley.

McKinley bought the local street railway, gas and electric systems from B.F. Harris. He went on to develop interurban electric railways, creating the Danville, Urbana and Champaign Railway company. He extended the system to Decatur in 1907 and later consolidated other lines and extended the system to Springfield, Peoria and East St. Louis. The line grew in popularity and size and was known as the McKinley System and later the Illinois Traction System. During the height of its popularity, the system operated sleeping cars, diners and observation cars in addition to regular passenger cars.

McKinley was elected to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees in 1902. He was elected to Congress as a representative in 1904 and then as a senator in 1920. As a congressman, McKinley was well traveled, having crossed the Atlantic some 30 times and circled the globe three times, visiting nearly every country. McKinley died in December 1926 following an eight-month-long illness (prostate cancer, according to his death certificate).

The Champaign County History Museum collects artifacts relevant to the county donated by people who want to help preserve its history. The resulting collection sometimes needs to be supplemented with borrowed items to better tell county stories. Dale Jenkins has published a book on Illinois Traction history and serves as president/editor of the Illinois Traction Society. He has amassed a huge collection of ephemera and artifacts from the Illinois Traction System, and we are especially grateful for his generosity in sharing his knowledge and loaning artifacts that have enhanced this new exhibit. He has agreed to present a talk on the Traction System. The date will be announced on the museum website, champaigncountyhistory.org, and Facebook.

Perry C. Morris is the vice president of the Champaign County History Museum. His area of interest is local theater history, and he shares what he has learned at cutheaterhistory.com. He can be reached at orpheumhistory@gmail.com.