Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

December 14, 2006

The origin of Electric Interurban System

By Bill Heusinkveld - correspondent

Over the past several months I have discussed all of the major railroads in the county and the towns and coal mines that have flourished because of the presence of the railroad.  I still have to talk about the Mystic Electric Interurban Railroad, built in 1910 and the rail line to Moravia after it was electrified in 1914.

Electically powered transportation was initiated in Centerville in1902.  The origin of this means of transportation from the Levee to the Square goes way back to 1886 when the mule railroad was established.

When the Rock Island depot was built in 1871, it was located way out in the country, more than a mile south of the Centerville city square.  It was a half-mile further south than the city had intended due to a misunderstanding in the wording of the contract with the Rock Island Railroad.

At that time there were no sidewalks connecting the Levee with Centerville proper.  A single road led to the business district, and pedestrians were forced to hunt paths, often muddy, between the hedgerows where footing was the best.  The merchants of Centerville were greatly concerned that the town would gravitate south to the area of the two railroad depots on the Levee and so promoted better transportation to the railway stations. 

 So the mule railway, called the Peoples Street Railway, was started by a man believed to be Jake Hudsonville in 1886.  Clark and Peatman built the line and with it a plank runway for the mules to trot along and keep out of the mud.  The mules were changed every two hours and kept in a barn across the street from the present Catholic Church.  The line was sold to James Wooden in 1891 and operated by his son, C.R. Wooden.  Eventually the cars rolled on steel rails as can be seen it the picture.

The first public utility company in Centerville was Centerville Light, Heat and Power Co., incorporated in July, 1890.  It built a small gas manufacturing plant on the corner of 13th and Washington, the site of the future generating station.  This small gas engine, augmented by a small steam Corliss engine, provided power for a 40-lamp electric-arc street lighting system.  In 1896 it installed a 100-kilowatt direct current generator to operate its first commercial electric lighting system.

In 1900 the name of the fledgling utility was changed to Citizens Light and Gas Co.  In 1902, with Frank Payne as the first president, they purchased the mule team line and obtained a franchise to operate an electric powered railway system in its place.  Three electric street cars began operation in Nov., 1902. 

The route of the electric railway began at the Rock Island depot and went a block west to 18th St. and thence north to the Burlington depot.  It continued north to Walsh St. where it jogged west to 16th St., thence north to Sheridan.  Going west on Sheridan, it passed the palatial home of C.F. Howell, which later became the Elks Club and still later, the location of the headquarters offices of Iowa Southern Utilities Co., which gradually fashioned a vast electric system from Creston to Newton to Burlington on the Mississippi River.

Patti Gleason once told me that her grandfather, Mr. C.F. Howell wrote to the company to and requested special dispensation for his little dog to ride with him on the electric railroad to his downtown office.

The route turned north on Drake Ave. to go past three of the most beautiful and expensive homes in Centerville.  The first one, at 707 Drake, was built by F.M. Drake in 1892 for his daughter, Mary (Mrs. George) Sturdevant.  This has been renovated by Morgan Cline recently and is now called the Beck Mansion.  The next one, at 617 Drake, was also built in 1892 by F.M. Drake and was his residence through the years when he was governor of Iowa.  After his death, his son-in- law Dr. John Sawyers lived in it, followed by Lazelle Sawyers, president of the Centerville National Bank.  It was demolished by his wife Almira in 1957.  The third was the D.C. Bradley home built in 1909.  It has also been renovated by Morgan Cline and is now the Bradley Shoppes.

The route then passed the red brick Christian Church, built in the late 1800’s, generously endowed by F.M. Drake.  A little further north was the Drake Ave. Public Library, an outright gift from F. M. Drake.  All of these structures were on the east side of the street, but the west side also boasted some beautiful homes. 

The route came to the Armory Opera House, built in 1899, and turned west on Maple and north again on Main St. to reach the Courthouse Square, which had recently been refurbished with new brick streets,  .The magnificent new Courthouse, completed in 1904, could look down upon the miracle of the electric railway far below, as it circled to the Continental Hotel on the east and on north to the car barn and electric substation.

One drawback to the modern new electric railway system might have been the clutter it added to the city streets.  Some streets, such as Drake Ave., were probably widened to permit operation of the street cars on its rails in the center of the streets.  However, other traffic was minimal during those early years.  Then also, one might consider the eyesore of all the wood poles to be added on both sides of the street to support the electric overhead grid required to provide a path for the electric current between the overhead wire and the rails to power the cars.

1920 was the peak year when 455,883 passengers were carried.  Service declined steadily and street car system between was abandoned in 1925.   Three Graham motor coaches provided passenger service until 1931.