South Shore’s interurban time machine

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In a scene filled with Midwest interurban atmosphere, South Shore Line car 111 rolls west at Lydick, Ind., in July 1963. William D. Middleton
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a favorite train ride, one that stands out above all others, one you’d take tomorrow and the day after and even the day after that, if you had the chance. A ride you never tire of. 

My choice is easy. It’s short. It’s cheap. It’s available any day of the week, all year long. More than anything else, in 2018 America, it’s unique. Meaning, as Merriam-Webster says, “without qualifying modifiers.” 

That would be the South Shore Line’s commuter service from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., specifically the last 32 miles at the east end, where you slip through a time warp and find yourself deep in the interurban era. Out there, past Chicagoland’s steel mills and superhighways, beckons a lost world of wooden catenary poles, country road crossings, cornfields, and hill-and-dale single track. 

The South Shore has been around for 117 years. In the glory years of the 1920s and ’30s, it was one of the standard-bearing electric railroads of the Samuel Insull utility empire. It retains much of that character today, thanks to the intelligent stewardship of its operator, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. (South Shore Freight has the railroad’s original name, Chicago South Shore & South Bend, a completely separate operation owned by Chicago-based Anacostia Rail Holdings.)

Business in South Bend last week drew me back to the South Shore. As I descended the stairs into Chicago’s Millennium Park station at Randolph Street, which South Shore shares with Metra’s Electric District, a flood of memories came at me. Most of them date to the days of private South Shore operation, when the big orange Pullman-Standard cars held sway. 

Twenty years later, the rolling stock is new but the interurban flavor remains as two South Shore cars on a Chicago–South Bend schedule slip through a cut at Hudson Lake, Ind., on July 17, 1983. William D. Middleton
There was the night of August 10, 1968, when some high school friends and I shuffled over to the Van Buren Street station to catch the last train for South Bend. Our ears were ringing because we’d just seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Auditorium Theater. I remember “Manic Depression” playing over and over in my head as I stared at my reflection in that big window. 

Six years later, on August 16, 1974, an especially accommodating crew allowed me to ride in the forward baggage compartment as I traveled from Milwaukee back to South Bend. It was a heady time, just one week into a new job at Kalmbach and going home for my wedding. The car had one of those bars you could lower to prop open the door and lean out, so I spent that last half-hour with my face in the warm breeze, taking in one of life’s glorious summer days. 

Today’s South Shore has been updated considerably. The orange Pullmans long ago gave way to the stainless-steel products of Nippon Sharyo. Most of the stations are fairly new, several with high-level platforms. Ticket machines have replaced most ticket agents. There’s WIFI on board. 

But the old South Shore is still there, if you look hard enough, especially from Michigan City east. 

It’s not that I don’t enjoy those first 60 miles out of Chicago, where South Shore behaves like any heavy-duty commuter hauler. Here traffic is dense and the trains are long, loaded with people headed to and from jobs in the Loop. The lakefront ride along the old Illinois Central mainline is exhilarating. Elsewhere, you’re often in sight of either CSX’s or Norfolk Southern’s main lines, or hugging Interstate 90. Big crowds wait on the platforms at East Chicago, Gary, Miller, and Dune Park. An NJ Transit or SEPTA rider would feel right at home. 

Then, quite suddenly, that noisy world falls away as your train slows to a crawl at Michigan City. It’s interurban time! Here is where the famed street running begins. For a couple of miles you jockey with automobiles and pedestrians as your train rumbles past front porches, gas stations, and churches. Even the stop at the NICTD and South Shore Freight shops at Carroll Avenue is a throwback, such are the intimate confines of the old traction terminal.

And still the South Shore rolls on, trundling down 11th Street in Michigan City, Ind., in the classic interurban manner. The date: May 30, 2018. Greg McDonnell
Then, with the flat blaaaat!of the train’s horn, you’re off again. Time to get out of your seat and, if the crew doesn’t mind, take your position at the front window, just behind the woman at the control stand. 

What comes at you for the next half-hour through that small, square window is pure magic, a view that, once upon a time, was familiar to anyone who ever rode the Cincinnati & Lake Erie, or the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern, or the Milwaukee Electric. 

The wooden catenary poles come rushing at you as you chase the single suspended wire. The neat-as-a-pin track is smooth, but these are interurban cars, and there’s just enough sway to convince you to hold onto the standee grip on the seat behind you. 

Author William D. Middleton liked to say the Insull roads were “built to steam-road standards,” but he couldn’t have been thinking of the New York Central. Out here, on the South Shore, you can’t really see all that far down the right of way, despite ruler-straight tangents. That’s how frequently the track ascends and descends. At every crest, you’re happy to see another green signal in the distance.  

You pass points along the railroad that seem fit for traction: the lyrically named La Lumiere and Terre Coupee; the farm town of New Carlisle, where South Shore regains the NS (ex-NYC) main line; Hudson Lake, a flag stop where the old lakeside dance hall is still visible; and the hamlet of Lydick, where your train briefly swings away from the NS tracks, presumably to accommodate an NYC depot back in the day. 

It’s all over too soon. Just after Lydick, you brake for the painfully slow crawl past South Bend’s sprawling old Bendix factory before twisting alongside city streets, crossing U.S. 20, and easing up to the SBN airport station. The 1992-vintage high-level platform breaks the interurban spell.

If you’re like me, though, the mood of that last half-hour will linger for a long time.

There are some railroad museums out there that offer flavorful, authentic-feeling interurban rides, and I love those, too. But nothing matches what the South Shore has to offer: a chance to experience a Midwest interurban that runs every day, as a basic public conveyance, rain or snow or shine. You can’t get any more authentic than that.  

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