Streetwise in Michigan City

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 17, 2020

Puddle-filled gutters flank a South Shore M.U. train trundling down 11th Street. The landmark street-running in Michigan City, Ind., is set for replacement. Donald F. Kaplan
To stand on the corner in front of the old First Christian Church on a sunny summer day is to witness a wonderful anachronism of transportation.

At first, all you hear are the sounds of passing cars and kids playing on someone’s front porch. But soon, a few blocks away to the west, comes the reassuring blaaaat! of a three-chime air horn. Then you detect a familiar rumble. Moments later, a gleaming train of silver M.U. cars sails through the gentle S-curve, trundling off to the east, peace returning in its wake.  

Welcome to 11th Street in Michigan City, Ind., where every day America’s last interurban — the South Shore Line — performs a ritual that, once upon a time, was a familiar sight in Massillon, Muncie, Muscatine, and hundreds of other towns and cities across the Midwest.

South Shore train 22, the Randolph Limited for Chicago, does a brisk business at the South Shore’s Michigan City station in 1927. Classic Trains collection
Don’t pass up a chance to see this, though, because South Shore’s operator, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, is inching ever closer to getting off the street.

Last week, news came that Michigan City officials have nearly completed eminent domain proceedings and before long should acquire the property necessary to essentially move the entire stretch of street running onto a separate, parallel right of way. This is all part of a massive double-tracking project between Gary and Michigan City, designed to ease congestion and significantly improve running times for NICTD’s passenger trains, not to mention those of tenant South Shore Freight.

The cost of the entire 25-mile project is projected at more than $290 million. Still to come is approval of a federal financing component, but the writing is on the wall: Michigan City’s lovely little slice of the trolley-car era can’t last. 

South Shore’s legacy in Michigan City goes back to 1906. The company was known then as the Chicago, Lake Shore & South Bend when its backers pushed westward from South Bend to Hammond, which included 11th Street as well as other street running in South Bend and East Chicago. Interurbans generally were built on the cheap, and using streets through towns — usually with the enthusiastic backing of pliant local officials — was preferable to building private right of way.

In October 1989, a two-car train of “orange cars” rolls west past the houses and trees lining 11th Street. Lou Gerard
Except the South Shore was anything but cheap, occasional street running notwithstanding. As traction author Bill Middleton noted in his definitive book South Shore Line: The Last Interurban (Golden West, 1970, now in a new Indiana University Press edition), this was one interurban that took its cues from railroading’s big boys.

“Construction standards for the line were unusually high,” wrote Middleton. “The roadbed was built to ‘modern steam railroad practice’ and was planned for maximum speeds of 75 m.p.h. For almost its entire length the line was installed on private right-of-way 66 feet or more in width, and a minimum overhead clearance of 17 feet 6 inches was maintained.” 

Those standards were among the attributes that led Chicago utilities tycoon Samuel Insull to pursue the CLS&SB, which by the early 1920s had fallen into financial stress. Insull’s Midland Utilities Co. took over in 1925 and it was off to the races, so to speak, as the new owners poured millions into beefing up the physical plant and converting to an all-steel Pullman Car & Manufacturing fleet that initially included 25 coaches, 2 diners, and 2 parlor-observation cars.

But one thing Insull couldn’t get around was the need to penetrate Michigan City at street level. Thus, one of the humbler aspects of South Shore’s interurban past endured, hanging on through various owners until after NICTD began running the trains in 1989. 

It’s amazing to think of the variety of equipment that has rolled past the modest houses, churches, gas stations, and eateries that once lined 11th Street: everything from arch-windowed wooden Niles cars of the CLS&SB years to those orange steel Pullmans to today’s products of Nippon Sharyo. Not to mention the early box-cabs, streamlined 800-series motors, and brutish ex-New York Central 700s that pulled freight trains from one side of town to the other — a service that continues today behind South Shore Freight’s orange-and-maroon GP38-2s and SD38-2s.

Baldwin-Westinghouse motors 1004 and 1009 pass the Michigan City station with an 18-car freight heading west in April 1948. P. F. Johnson
The centerpiece of the street running is the beautiful but faded Insull-era station at 114 E. 11th Street. Opened in 1927 as a joint rail-bus station and designed by Insull staff architect Arthur U. Gerger, the derelict building was purchased in 2017 by the city’s Redevelopment Commission, which hopes to somehow reintroduce the building as a station as part of the double-tracking project.  

Insull built a number of outstanding buildings for his South Shore, including a handsome edifice in downtown South Bend and a number of small Mission-style depots along the line. But Michigan City was special, an usually spacious facility for an interurban. Finished in a buff terra cotta on its street-facing exterior, the building boasted an ample waiting room, large ticket and information booths, fancy men and women’s lounges, and a luncheonette counter.

I hope the city is able to deliver on its station plans. One of life’s joys used to be standing in that waiting room on a rainy night, looking out the big picture windows for a glimpse of the big orange cars squeaking to a stop outside the main doors. With the tracks destined to come out of the pavement, a functional depot at 114 E. 11th Street would be a useful, vital reminder of the South Shore’s illustrious traction heritage. 

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