The streets of Indianapolis have known three kinds of externally guided vehicles offering scheduled passenger service. 

Mule-drawn streetcars provided some of the earliest public transportation in Indianapolis in the 1890s.
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The mule car (1864-1894), pulled by mules along pairs of rails, typically had 14 passenger seats. The electric streetcar (also “street car” or “trolley car”; 1890-1953), pulled along rails by an electric motor or motors drawing power through a trolley from an overhead wire, usually seated 40 passengers. The 40-passenger trackless trolley (or “trolleybus”; 1932-1957) ran on rubber tires powered by an electric motor and two trolleys connected to positive and negative overhead wires. 

The Public Service Commission of Indiana began regulating operations in 1913. Earlier, local governments granted franchises to operate them. Six successive for-profit corporations ran the guided-vehicle system for Indianapolis proper and nearby areas. 

Streetcars at the intersection of Illinois and Washington streets, 1906
Credit: Bass Photo Co, Indiana Historical Society

The Citizens’ Street Railway Company operated mule cars on Illinois Street in 1864 and expanded the system steadily. Under various franchises, it reached Irvington, Haughville, and other suburbs. Founded by New Yorkers, control passed to a group led by William H. English in the mid-1860s and then in 1877 to one led by Tom L. Johnson, a street railway entrepreneur and later reform mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.

The Citizens’ Street Railroad Company, founded by investors from Chicago, bought the system in 1888 and converted it from animal to electric power (1890-1894) before experiencing financial problems.

Indianapolis Railways Traction Terminal and Yards, located along West Washington Street and the White River, 1949
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The Indianapolis Street Railway Company bought the system in 1899, let Interurbans use its lines in 1900, and bought control of the Indianapolis-Broad Ripple line (opened 1894) in 1902.  Hugh J. Mcgowan, a skillful organizer with wealthy contacts established the line.

The Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company, also founded by McGowan, leased the system in 1903, made extensions, and built the Indianapolis Traction Terminal. After McGowan’s death in 1911, it too experienced financial problems.

Lessor and lessee merged in 1919 as the Indianapolis Street Railway Company, which began operating buses in 1925, bought a rival bus company in 1927, and went into receivership in 1930 (along with the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Company, which had wholly-owned it since 1920), although it continued to operate.

In 1932, Indianapolis Railways, Inc. (renamed Indianapolis Transit System in 1953) purchased the system and became the first transit operator anywhere to use the trackless trolley in downtown traffic. Gradually, this vehicle—quiet, fumeless, and using an easily maintained guidance system—replaced the traditional streetcar (last used January 9-10, 1953 on the Broad Ripple line).

The trackless trolley ceased to be used in Indianapolis in 1957 when it was replaced by the bus, which was even more maneuverable and had no wires to maintain.

Revised March 2021

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