A piece of Dixon history: The Dixon-Sterling trolley opened 120 years ago

An interurban car is shown near the West First Street viaduct in Dixon, circa 1910.

When I first heard of an electric trolley car that traveled between Dixon and Sterling, I thought it was a myth, much like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

No one alive today remembers its beginning. But 120 years ago, on May 26, 1904, locals were thrilled when regular service began on the Sterling, Dixon & Eastern Electric Railway, the SD&E.

At the time, public electrification was new, and automobiles were rarely seen. Most people traveled by horse and buggy, and most roads were dirt paths. So, the citizenry gladly welcomed the promise of fast, clean, safe, affordable and regular transportation around town and to the neighboring city.

The SD&E, also called “the interurban,” was a privately run enterprise that required workers to lay 19 miles of railroad tracks and suspend electric wires 18 to 23 feet above the tracks. These tracks and wires ran all the way from downtown Sterling to downtown Dixon and several points in between.

Undoubtedly … the best”

The Dixon-Sterling trolley system was one of hundreds sprouting throughout America. In the early 1900s, as many as 50 Illinois cities were launching or operating similar electric railways. Most of these cities were larger than Dixon, but other small towns such as Amboy-Lee Center, Princeton and Ottawa also had them.

When launched in 1904, the Telegraph gushed, “This service will undoubtedly be the best of any two cities in the country for their size.” The Sterling Gazette bragged that the SD&E cars were “undoubtedly the most magnificently and luxuriously equipped cars of any interurban railway with the exception of an Ohio line.”

“The interurban road has come to stay,” said the Telegraph in 1906. “There can be no doubt about this … [because they are] of incalculable value in bringing into closer touch sections which hitherto have been isolated.”

A fleet of streetcars

Initially, the SD&E purchased nine cars, four for in-city use and five for transport between Sterling and Dixon. A typical in-city car carried 30 passengers, while the intercity cars could accommodate 60 passengers.

Cars operated on a specific schedule from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The initial fare for in-city rides was a nickel, while the fare from Dixon to Sterling was 25 cents. To pay, passengers dropped coins or tokens in a box at the front of the car.

The main Sterling station was at Avenue B and West Third Street. The main Dixon station, which had an office, a waiting room and a car barn, was at West First and Madison streets, next to where Kitzman’s Lumber stands today.

Taking the trolley

Inside Dixon, the route included an additional track that ran down East Fellows to the popular Assembly Park dome. On the south side, an additional track ran to the Chicago and Northwestern railroad depot in Dement Town. After the State School was established in 1915, an extra spur ran north on Brinton Avenue to the State School.

Between Sterling and Dixon, the track did not run along today’s Route 2. Rather, the trolley ran mostly along the south side of Palmyra Road, serving customers at Gap Grove (Palmyra) and Prairieville. This route allowed local dairy farmers to bring their full milk cans to these stops. The trolley would then haul the cans to the Borden factory on the northwest edge of Dixon.

Initially, the interurban cars left Sterling for Dixon every hour on the hour. The in-city cars were expected to run every 15 minutes, while the Dixon-Sterling trip took 45 minutes to an hour.

Rain or snow, wet or dry

In the early 1900s, when the (anti-alcohol) temperance movement was raging, the voters of Sterling and Dixon vacillated between making their cities “wet” or “dry.” But when Dixon was dry and Sterling was wet, Dixonites could hop on the SD&E to Sterling for an evening of imbibing and then return safely to Dixon.

The cars also ran in winter, but heavy snow sometimes delayed service until workers could manually shovel snow off the tracks. In January 1918, “monster snow drifts” were said to be as high as the cars.

The inevitable demise

In 1903, amid all the excitement about the new interurban, few realized that a Detroit man was then refining an invention that would make the interurban obsolete. Within a few years, Henry Ford would be producing hundreds of thousands of his Model T automobile at an affordable price for the average American.

An affordable automobile gave anyone the freedom to go anywhere quickly at anytime. By 1920, automobile traffic had increased so much that a paved highway for cars (the Lincoln Highway) was completed along the Palmyra Road, the same route used by the interurban. By then, the fate of the interurban was sealed.

The end of the line

At its peak of popularity, the SD&E carried 891,000 passengers in 1911. By 1924, the number of passengers had plummeted to 239,000. Over its 21 years of service, the SD&E operated with a deficit in 12 of those years, and the deficits only got worse after 1917.

After the Illinois Commerce Commission approved the trolley’s closure, the glorious era of the Dixon-Sterling electric railway came to an end in October 1925. In memoriam, the Ashton Gazette aptly said that, when the service started, it “was hailed as the beginning of a new era, but the automobile has produced another new era.”

Proof of its existence

Today, you can find proof of the interurban’s existence in some old photos and newspaper articles. But you will be hard-pressed to find physical evidence; all the cars are gone, and all the tracks have been removed or buried.

However, in a 1934 Depression-era project, local workers salvaged 10,000 feet of steel tracks from the SD&E to make the roof rafters of the main airplane hangar at Dixon’s Walgreen Field. Jack Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s father, administrated the federal project.

These tracks, visible both inside and outside the hangar, may be the only remaining physical evidence that the famed Dixon-Sterling trolley is not a myth.

  • Dixon native Tom Wadsworth is a writer, speaker and occasional historian. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament.
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