A timber and debris dam had been constructed on the St. Joe River about 7 miles northeast of Fort Wayne to collect feed water for the Wabash and Erie Canal. The reservoir resulted in a beautiful lagoon surrounded by trees. The Citizens Street Railroad that became the Fort Wayne Street Railroad and eventually the Fort Wayne Traction Company purchased 265 acres of adjacent land, acquired the rights to the dam and feeder canal and announced a $300,000 development program in 1895.
The grand opening of the park was held on July 4, 1896 and to help swell the crowd there was a public wedding in the bandstand. That day 35,000 people rode the new trolleys to Robinson Park; Fort Wayne’s answer to Camelot. Robinson Park featured such attractions as boat rentals, a roller coaster, swimming, dancing, the steamboat Clementina, a baseball diamond, and pony rides while a huge electrically operated organ known as an Orchestron played Bach’s greatest hits.
For the next twenty-three years, thousands of area residents and visitors took pleasant, peaceful trolley rides along the St. Joe River to Robinson Park’s fabulous Mecca of fun and entertainment. After daydreaming over the excellent photographs of the park published in Bradley’s book, Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley Trolleys, and remembering the hellish traffic jam I got into last October when I took my grandchildren out to “Halloween at the Children’s Zoo,” I was left with the impression that in many ways the “good ole days” of the trolley and interurban really were better than countless automobiles and their inevitable traffic jams.
Another business–generating venture of the electric street railways resulted in building lines out to Chautauqua parks. Annual camp meetings brought in noted orators, who in turn attracted large, enthusiastic crowds. With rail-lines being extended outside of cities and with both operating experience and technology improving, it was natural to start linking communities together with the electric rail system. No transit system before or since this golden era of public transportation has ever approached the efficiency of trolley and interurban systems. Steel wheels, running on steel rails, driven by electric motors powered by cheap, clean and quiet hydroelectric power-plants was as good as mass transportation ever got.
Several states lay claim to the first interurban. An eleven-mile line the Fidalgo City and Anacortes Railway, was built in 1891 in the state of Washington. Canton and Massillon, Ohio, were connected by an interurban line in 1892. Of greater importance were two lines built in 1893: one was an eighteen mile line between Portland and Oregon City, Oregon, which began service in February of that year; the other linked Sandusky, Milan and Norwalk, Ohio and was completed in December 1893.
Credit for coining the word “Interurban,” however, goes to a Hoosier. An Anderson attorney, Charles Lews Henry, was instrumental in constructing an eleven-mile track from Anderson IN north to Alexandria IN. While furthering his ideas at the Chicago World’s fair in 1893, he dubbed the line an interurban and the name caught on. Henry later founded the Union Traction Company, one of the largest systems in Indiana; he was referred to as the “Father of Electric Interurban Travel.” To be continued.
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