street car

Street car men in front of office in 1895.

Motormen. That was the title of most of the men posing in front of the building that would eventually become the Palace Theater on North Vermilion Street in Danville. The picture is dated 1895, and Danville’s streetcars the men operated had only been electrified for a short while. The building behind them had previously housed the mules that powered the streetcars over the strap iron rails in the city. The structure stood next door to the Grand Opera House, now the Fischer Theater. When large crowds were attracted to an event at the Opera House, streetcars made late night runs to transport them home after the show.

Before the magic of electricity arrived to power the streetcars, the mules moved passengers along at a leisurely pace of about five miles an hour. The early streetcars they pulled were not built for comfort. When rainy weather or winter snows threatened passengers, curtains were drawn to offer some protection from the elements. Straw was placed on the floors of the car in winter to assist passengers in keeping their feet from freezing. Once new electrified cars began to be produced in numbers, they improved in creature comforts.

Things were booming in the little city on the Vermilion River as the period of time known as the Gay Nineties marched into history. Electricity and gas lights were modernizing the city and the population increased by 42 percent during the decade. More than sixteen thousand people called Danville home when the calendar page read January 1,1900. The Danville Gas, Electric Light, and Street Railway Company was doing fine that year.

Streetcars would be a form of transportation in the city and beyond for decades. The tracks would grow like spider webs connecting other villages in the county. The iron trails would also reach Champaign and eventually St. Louis.

A few crude motorized vehicles were bouncing over the brick streets in Danville in the early 1900s, but they were looked upon as more of a novelty than the future. When one of the machines broke down, or became stuck in the mud of a country road, its owner was often advised to “get a horse.” But the little machines improved and no one was going back to horses. They soon covered the nation like a swarm of newly hatched mosquitoes. The autos were joined by commercial vehicles, including buses. The Danville streetcars made their last runs in 1936 when they were replaced by city bus lines.

When World War II shattered peace and threatened democracy, America met the threat with every resource the nation could muster. The streetcar rails in Danville were no longer used and they were torn out in 1942 and the iron went into the war effort. The streetcar line linking Danville with Champaign survived the war, but not the 1950s, it operated until April 26, 1952.

Streetcars are now just a memory, but there was a day when they whisked people over the rails of the city in dozens of cars. They had their brief period in the passage of time and a camera blinked and captured a moment of that passage.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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