This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in January 2015 before the launch of this weblog.
Trolley cars on Pekin’s streets
By Jared Olar
In terms of public transportation in Pekin today, we have the Peoria-based CityLink bus system. But in the past, Pekin was served by its own bus lines — and before that, by street cars. Pekin’s trolley system began as an abortive private venture which was taken over and run by the city.
Here are excerpts from the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume’s account of Pekin’s old trolley system, on pages 24-26:
“A familiar song of many years ago begins ‘Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell . . .,’ and so it was in 1912 when the first street railway began in Pekin. Initially a private business, the line consisted of one battery-operated car that ran on track from Capitol Street near Court to the ‘Distillery Road.’ Each night the car batteries were charged to get ready for the next day’s run. The ill-fated line lasted but two years before financial problems forced it out of business.
“But all was not lost for trolley enthusiasts. The City of Pekin entered the public transportation field in July of 1914 with the passage of Ordinance Number 38: The Purchase, Rehabilitation, and Construction of a Municipal Street Railway. Voters passed a referendum which allowed the city to issue $48,000 in street railway bonds. . . .
“The city purchased the bankrupt line, including all track and equipment, for $8,500. The balance of the money was used to expand services and purchase new equipment. Very specific and demanding requirements were set forth in the law, for example: cars were required to be constructed of red cypress or cedar, 32 feet long, with one longitudinal seat on each side; gauge of the track had to be four feet, eight and one-half inches; steel poles along Court Street to Seventh Street, had to be in two sections totaling 27 feet in length, with the tops 22 feet above the pavement; the trolley wire had to be grooved, hard-drawn copper, with a minimum tensile strength of 51,000 pounds per square inch.
“Besides the route previously described, the street railway expanded from the corner of Court and Capitol Streets as far east on Court as the GM&O Railroad tracks (just west of the present hospital). The usual scheduled involved two cars, one leaving the east end of the line on Court Street, while the other would leave the west end of the line on South Second and Industry. The two cars would meet at the business district close to the Court House. There was a double track at this point, and one car would side-track until the other car passed, then proceed to its destination at the other end of the line. This operation ran seven days a week from early morning until late evening.
“Many Pekinites remember the trolley cars and the friendships which developed while riding to and from work or uptown to shop — all for a nickel fare. The street railway continued until 1935, when it was replaced by our present bus service . . . .
“The street cars went out fighting, though, with much City Council debate. C. F. Gehrig, one-time City Commissioner, appeared before the Council and urged that Court Street not be paved down the center so that the tracks could remain undisturbed because ‘we might want the street cars back.’ Many did, but the coming of the automobile was making travel too hazardous, with many auto/street car collisions. No more ‘clang, clang, clang’ — just some fond memories for many residents and a slice of nostalgia for the younger set.”
This following added detail is mentioned in “Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004), page 17: “Also for 5 cents a day, local youth Roy Williams was paid to push the wooden seats back when the train reached the park so the passengers could face forward on the return trip.”
Roy Williams died just a year ago last month – but the old Pekin Municipal Street Railway garage is still there on South Second Street, the location of Walt’s Garage.