Streetcar rails reveal Gary’s early beginning
GARY — Workers resurfacing 5th Avenue have unearthed relics from a bygone era dating back to the dawn of the city’s roots as a mill town.
Lodged under the busy roadway are the old streetcar rails that once made it possible for workers to zip in and out of U.S. Steel and adjacent industries.
Today, they can be seen jutting up from the center of 5th Avenue, near the U.S. Steel Yard. Workers from Rieth-Riley Construction are removing the rails quickly as the $14.2 million Indiana Department of Transportation two-year project continues.
Last year, 4th Avenue was resurfaced. The work encompasses almost 5 miles of heavily traveled stretches of 4th and 5th avenues from Bridge Street to Virginia Street.
The work includes road resurfacing, pavement replacement, sidewalks and new traffic signals.
INDOT plans to place a sign at 5th Avenue and Broadway detailing the history of the city’s streetcar system.
An early need
Built around the needs of major steel industries, the need for transportation to get workers into the mills spurred the development of an electric interurban railway that extended to Hammond on the west and into Porter County to the east. The rail lines were built in the middle of roadways as streetcars rambled along side automobiles.
From the front window of her 5th Avenue home, Dharathula “Dolly” Millender, founder and CEO of the Gary Historical and Cultural Society saw the workers removing the rails along 5th Avenue.
“The town was created to support the mill,” said Millender who hopes to establish a museum with an exhibit on the city’s railway system. “Why did they leave them there so long,” she wondered.
INDOT officials said the rail lines on 5th Avenue were first paved over in the late 20th century. In the early 21st century, they became visible again in some places under deteriorated pavement.
Deitchley said the rails hastened the pavement’s deterioration.
Rails of discord
Not surprisingly, politics determined the early development of Gary’s railway system. In 1907, Thomas Knotts, the town board president who would later become the city’s first mayor, convinced the board to award the streetcar franchise to the Gary and Interurban Co. over U.S. Steel’s preferred subsidiary, the Hammond Traction Co.
Knotts backed Gary and Interurban’s construction route south along Broadway, while U.S. Steel favored an east-west route along Fifth Avenue.
Historian James B. Lane reports in his book, “Gary’s First Hundred Years,” that Knotts and his brother, Armanis Knotts, a land agent, both owned property along Broadway. Lane wrote that Armanis Knotts sold a lot at 11th Avenue and Broadway for $1,200, six months after he bought it for $100.
The first streetcars began operating in 1908 on Broadway between Fourth Avenue and 20th Avenue. By 1913, historian Kendall F. Svengalis wrote that the Gary and Interurban Railway was operating on track that linked Gary with Hammond, Lake Station, Hobart, Crown Point, Valparaiso, Chesterton and LaPorte.
During its height, fares were 8 cents a ride and the streetcar system carried 50,000 passengers daily over 100 miles of track.
The era of streetcar travel lasted just a few decades. In 1917, the Gary and Interurban Co. fell into receivership and was taken over by Gary Street Railway, Svengalis wrote. By the 1930s, bus service became a more popular mode of transportation.