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Jim McKee: Traversing Lincoln via interurban railroads

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Citizens Railway Company trolley ca

Employees gather for a photo on a Citizens Railway Co. trolley car. It is impossible to determine which of the Citizens companies is represented, but it is a good bet it is the Woods Bros. merged firm which ran its line down the middle of Sheridan Boulevard in 1908.

Interurban railways are almost universally defined as electric-powered street railways connecting two or more cities. This definition eliminates the half-mail, horse-drawn, 1884 line between Blue Springs and Wymore in Gage County and steam engine-powered trains connecting hundreds of the state’s cities and villages.

If you define a city as a community with a separate government, Lincoln, ultimately, had interurban railway connections with six cities. Not included in the six functioning street railways were the many proposed-but-never built lines and those that were built and initially intended to connect with cities as far away as Milford and Falls City, but never got outside the city limits.

As early as 1887, Lincoln Rapid Transit was completed to the State Insane Asylum and Yankee Hill, south of the Capital City, but it is assumed that this was a horse-drawn line.

John Ames’ North Lincoln Street Railway, which would have been electric if completed, was established in 1889 to connect Lincoln with Bethany Heights several miles east of Lincoln.

The Standard Street Railway was built to University Place in 1890, but almost immediately merged with the Lincoln Electric Railway. In the same year, the Lincoln Lake Park Railway to Belmont and West Lincoln claimed to have opened, but there is no evidence it operated.

The Lincoln City Electric Railway, chartered in April 1891, additionally was allowed to produce electricity. It connected Lincoln to the northern communities of Belmont and West Lincoln, but went bankrupt a year later, and ultimately its assets were acquired by the Lincoln Traction Co.

The Lincoln & Salt Lake Railway to Burlington Beach (later renamed Capital Beach) opened but quickly failed, partially because no viaduct went over the Lincoln railyard. When it was reconstituted in 1892, it optimistically called itself the Lincoln, Capital Beach & Milford Railway, though it never operated west of Capital Beach.

An out-of-state group considered an Omaha-Lincoln link, followed by another proposal from the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway and finally by a Belmont-Wahoo-Omaha line, but none came to be.

In July 1903, the Lincoln Heights Railway actually opened, connecting Lincoln with Belmont.

In May 1904, Omaha newspapers announced the Omaha, Lincoln & Beatrice Railway would build its first segment “to run six miles from Lincoln to Bethany where Cotner College was located. A second section would reach Papillion, and tracks would later go into Omaha.” On June 7, track construction began with grading reaching nearly 5 miles northeast of Bethany, toward Waverly. Grading stopped in 1906, and, in 1907, the OL&B sought a franchise for branches to University Place and Havelock.

Members of the Lincoln Commercial Club conceived a street railway to connect Lincoln, College View, Auburn and Falls City to be called the Citizens Interurban Railway. Within two years Woods Bros. formed the nearly identically named Citizens Interurban and built a bridge over the Rock Island’s railroad tracks at 32nd Street and Sheridan Boulevard, laid track and in the fall of 1908 opened their High Line, or White Line, down the boulevard median from South Street. The following year Citizens Interurban merged with Citizens Interurban Railway, both of which were owned by the Woods Bros.

Another approach to service from Omaha to Lincoln was announced in May 1909. It would begin with service to Ralston and then on to Papillion in 1914 and ultimately connect to Lincoln. It opened, but the partial line closed in 1926 never having reached Lincoln.

When fare increases were challenged but not corrected, a competing line, operated by the Lincoln Traction Co., opened to South Bethany via Holdrege Street and the University of Nebraska’s ag campus in 1912, giving Bethany two interurban lines.

Three more Omaha-to-Lincoln concepts were rumored in 1910, including the proposed Omaha, Western & Lincoln Railway; Illinois congressman W. B. McKinney’s unnamed line and the Omaha, Lincoln Interurban Railway Construction Co. But they all died without a trace. About the same time, the Belmont & Northern Traction Co. changed its name to the Belmont & Northern Railway, but it too never opened.

By 1916 all of the nearly 65 miles of street railway in Lincoln had been consolidated into the Lincoln Traction Co. As the adjacent villages to Lincoln were annexed, what might have been once considered interurbans became a Lincoln neighborhood line. Normal was annexed in 1919; Bethany and University Place in 1926; College View in 1929 and Havelock in 1930.

Lincoln’s last street railway line, the former interurban line connecting Lincoln to College View, closed Sept. 2, 1945.

Still all is not lost. In the 1960s, Lincoln civil engineer Douglas McKnight conceived and proposed an electric rail service from the Lincoln airport to downtown Lincoln, then to downtown Omaha and ultimately the Omaha airport with tracks running down the middle of Interstate 80.

Though never adopted, it is still an idea waiting in the wings.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at


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