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Goodbye To The Interurban

July 2024
17min read


The electric cars dusted along beside dirt roads, sped through the meadows, and brought you right into Main Street. Some were little pinch-waisted wooden affairs, like the Massachusetts car at left, and some were enormous, like the one below, a relic of an unfulfilled dream called the Chicago-New York Air Line. This is an account of how, in a few brief years of glory, the interurban laced America’s small towns together with a network of cheap steel rails and copper wire. The automobile, of course, brought all this to an end. Yet today the traffic is so bad that a new kind of interurban is coming back to life.

“Profits almost beyond calculation” prospective stockholders were promised in a series of fullpage ads in Chicago newspapers one Sunday in July of 1906. Thus was launched the Chicago-New York Air Line Railroad, an interurban electric railway that would follow a straight line as nearly as was possible, said its promoters, and woidd whisk passengers between the two cities aboard ioo-niile-per-hour trains in just ten hours, cutting eight hours off the fastest steam-train time. The Air Line was the most ambitious interurban project of them all in what, in retrospect, has been described as an era of “reckless promotion.”

In all of America’s transportation history there has been nothing quite like the electric interurban. An outgrowth of the urban trolley car, it first appeared only a few years before the end of the nineteenth century, and in barely two booming decades grew to a vast network reaching almost every part of the United States—and then vanished, for all practical purposes, less than half a century after it appeared.

Inventors were trying to develop electric transportation as early as 1834, when a Vermont blacksmith named Thomas Davenport operated a toy electric motor on a miniature railway. But not until 1888, when a youthful inventor named Frank J. Sprague built a twelve-mile streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia, did the electric railway really work on a large trolley system. It was quickly followed by wholesale electrification of America’s horse- and cable-car lines.

A United States congressman, Charles L. Henry of Indiana, coined the word “interurban” to describe the two-mile electric line he opened in the spring of 1892 between Anderson and North Anderson, Indiana, but the fifteen-mile East Side Railway, which began operation between Portland and Oregon City, Oregon, in February of 1893, is usually regarded as the first true interurban. Others soon appeared in almost every part of the United States, and by the turn of the century the boom was on.

It seemed to be just what America was waiting for. Local intercity service on the steam railroads was usually slow and infrequent, and the Model T and paved highways were still a few decades away. Frequent service was easy to provide on the interurban, for one car made a train. Fares were almost always lower than steam-road rates. Convenience was still another important factor, for the interurbans stopped almost anywhere, and usually operated into the heart of town over city streets, something that was to doom them in later years.

Travel by interurban was an experience virtually impossible to duplicate today. An infinitely more impressive and elegant vehicle than the city streetcar from which it grew, the interurban car was an imposing sight as it worried its way through the traffic of city streets, bound for the countryside and its own private rails. Once free of the city the big cars sped along at exhilarating speeds, swaying and nosing from side to side on the often uneven track. Windows flung open against the warmth of a summer’s day caught the rich odors of the countryside, sometimes mingled with the ozone smell generated by the electric traction motors or the pungent odor of grinding brake shoes as the car slowed for a stop. There was a high-pitched screaming from the traction motors and gears, and periodically the air compressor beneath the car cut in with its characteristic lung-a-lung-a-lung . The conductor’s signal cord, suspended from the ceiling, flipflopped back and forth, and there was a muffled creaking from the car’s ornate woodwork.

A hissing sound from the overhead trolley wire and the rising clatter of its wheels over rail joints signalled the approach of the interurban, and a wailing air horn brought cross traffic to an abrupt halt at a respectful distance from the track. A massive arc headlight and a wooden cowcatcher of imposing size gave the onrushing interurban a commanding presence. Trackside vegetation bent aside in the breeze, and dust clouds rose from road crossings as the electric car sped by in varnished, Gothic-windowed majesty. At night, particularly when the overhead wire was coated with sleet, the countryside was illuminated with great blue flashes every time the racing trolley wheel, or shoe, momentarily lost contact with the wire.

Inside the car, passengers reclined in roomy, plush-or leather-upholstered ease. Carpeted floors were common in some of the more elegant cars, and, on the longer runs, travellers were sometimes treated to buffet-parlor cars, fitted with wicker lounge chairs and equipped with small kitchens from which àla carte meals were served. A few of the longer lines even provided sleeping-car service.

There was an easy informality about mterurban travel. Most of the train crews knew their regular clientele on a first-name basis, and they were not above such homely tasks as running a few errands for a housewife along the line, or making a special stop and seeing to the safe arrival of an unescorted child at his destination. The baggage compartment up front was usually piled high with a mélange of express parcels, milk cans, crated baby chicks, and mail bags. On a few of the more important runs the cars even boasted a full-fledged Railway Post Office compartment.

In the earlier years the two-man crew was almost universal. The blue-uniformed, brass-buttoned conductor collected fares, chatted with the passengers, and in the wintertime—if the car wasn’t equipped with electric heaters—stoked the coal stove that kept the interior comfortably overheated. Meanwhile the motorman, sealed off in his special compartment, busied himself with the electric controller, air brakes, and air horn. The title “motorman” was almost universal on the interurbans, but a few lines favored the steam roads’ more pretentious “engineer.” One line, the Puget Sound Electric, couldn’t make up its mind which to use and finally compromised on “motoneer.” In later years, as an economy move, many lines adopted cars that could be operated by a single man.

Usually interurban lines were quickly and cheaply built. The industry grew prodigiously, if not always wisely. Glib promoters and prideful local boosters, with little regard for traffic potential, brought many lines into being where scarcely a chance for success existed. Big-city street-railway companies and electric utilities frequently went into the interurban business, and such giant enterprises as the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company provided not only electric power and local streetcar lines but also fast interurban service over large areas. In some parts of the United States, principally in New England and the Far West, steam railroads developed extensive interurban systems that acted as freight and passenger feeder-lines to the parent road.

But far more often steam railroads and the interurbans were bitter rivals, for the electric cars cut heavily into local travel on the steam trains, and sometimes even made a dent in their light-freight and express revenues. Every possible obstacle was usually placed in the way of electric-line construction, and many an interurban, unable to obtain a grade crossing with a steam line, was forced to construct an expensive overpass or underpass. On a few occasions things got rough. Late in 1906, rival construction forces of the Northern Electric Railway and George Gould’s Western Pacific, both building toward Sacramento, arrived in Marysville, California, at about the same time. The two routes crossed at a point just south of the Yuba River, where an apiary was located. The Western Pacific men got their rails down first, but the interurban’s track gang arrived soon after, and on January 12, 1907, the famous “Battle of the Bee Farm” took place when a hundred Northern Electric men tore out all of the newly laid Western Pacific rails and put down their own. Once the electric cars were running, the steam roads often tried to beat them at their own game, setting up equally frequent schedules at cut-rate fares. Such tactics proved costly and futile, and were usually soon abandoned.

By 1917, when the construction boom had pretty well subsided, there were over 18,000 miles of interurban trackage in the United States and almost 10,000 cars were in operation. Many of the southern, southwestern, and mountain states had only a few miles of track, but few were entirely without any. The interurban achieved its greatest growth in five midwestern states: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin; more than forty per cent of the nation’s interurban mileage was concentrated in them, largely because of the flatness of the landscape, which cut down construction costs. In Ohio and Indiana the traction network reached almost every city and town of any consequence. There was said to be an interurban line wrapped around nearly every Indiana county courthouse. Indianapolis was America’s greatest traction center, with hundreds of miles of track radiating outward in a dozen directions. During 1914, seven million passengers arrived in Indianapolis’ Traction Terminal; 520 passenger cars and nearly 100 freight cars departed daily.

The greatest of all America’s traction systems was the Pacific Electric Railway, which radiated in every direction from Los Angeles with over 1,000 miles of lines, and reached over 125 cities and communities in southern California. Pacific Electric was largely the work of Henry E. Huntington, wealthy nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of the Southern Pacific’s “Big Four,” who acquired a pioneer Los AngelesPasadena electric line in 1901 and, in little over a decade, built it into a giant.

Many of Pacific Electric’s interurban routes were conceived for purposes of real-estate promotion, and Huntington’s profits from his Pacific Electric Land Company were probably at least as great as those earned by his electric cars. Much of southern California grew up along Pacific Electric lines, and such nowpopulous and prominent areas as Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the San Fernando Valley were little more than open fields until the “big red cars” arrived.

But the grandest, most intriguing interurban scheme of them all was the Chicago-New York Air Line. Its promoters proposed to build a 750-mile, double-track “super railroad” between the two cities that would be fully 160 miles shorter than any steam route, with running times “10 hours quicker than the quickest” and fares “$10 cheaper than the cheapest.” Captivated by the enthusiasm of the line’s founder and president, Alexander C. Miller, thousands rushed to buy stock.

As the tracks inched across northern Indiana, the stockholders’ interest and enthusiasm were bolstered by a monthly newspaper, the Air Line News , which trumpeted even the smallest progress as a major achievement, and by such booster organizations as the Kankakee Air Line Stockholders’ Association of the World. But Miller’s impossibly high construction Standards created prohibitive costs, and progress was disappointingly slow. Four years were spent constructing a tremendous fill, nearly two miles long and 180 feet wide at the base, across Coffey Creek Bottoms, east of Gary, Indiana. The mighty mound of earth was finally completed, but it helped empty the Air Line treasury and exhausted the stockholders’ patience. With less than thirty miles of its arrow-straight track built, and only one pair of glossy interurban cars (lettered “Chicago” at one end and “New York” at the other) to show for its promoters’ efforts, the Air Line wound up as part of just another small system.

Interurban men, as a rule, refrained from the sort of “public be damned” shenanigans practiced by the steam-railroad barons of earlier days. There were occasional lapses, however. In 1924 Valentine Winters, manager of the Dayton & Western Traction Company, became involved in a squabble with the officials of New Lebanon, Ohio, over paving between the rails which traversed city streets. Unable to reach a satisfactory agreement, Winters disdainfully ripped them up and built a new line around New Lebanon on private right of way. “New Lebanon says Winters is bluffing,” headlined a Dayton newspaper at the height of the controversy, which may have had something to do with the name “Valley Bluff” which Winters gave the new station just outside town.

Traction lines were normally constructed in the hope of making a profit for the stockholders, but there were several devoted to more lofty objectives. The Winona Interurban Railway, in Indiana, was constructed by the Winona Assembly and Summer School Session, and its profits went to the operation of a trade school for poor children. When a Tulsa, Oklahoma, oilman established the Sand Springs Home to care for orphans and for widows with children, he endowed it liberally with tracts of industrial land and a multitude of business enterprises, chief among them an interurban, the Sand Springs Railway, which carried passengers until 1954.

Almost from the beginning, interurban proprietors were alert for new methods of attracting extra revenue. Amusement parks were one of the most common traffic builders, and many a company had an “Electric Park” or its equivalent located along its route. When the Stark Electric Railroad was built in northern Ohio soon after the turn of the century, an elaborate park was included in the construction plans. A pond that was dammed to provide water for the line’s powerhouse was also stocked with fish, and a large fleet of rowboats was purchased for rental. Playground equipment and picnic facilities were installed on the edge of the pond, and a dance pavilion was erected. Skating on the pond built up winter traffic on the cars.

Pacific Electric operated the world’s largest bath house and salt-water plunge at Redondo Beach, California, and an auto race track, the Motordrome, near Playa del Rey. But its greatest tourist attraction was the famed Mount Lowe line, originally built in 1893 by Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the Civil War balloonist. Interurban cars carried excursionists from Los Angeles up Rubio Canyon, north of Pasadena, to a hotel, dance hall, and refreshment stand. Above Rubio the Great Cable Incline carried them to the summit of Echo Mountain, and there two additional hotels, the Chalet and Echo Mountain House, were surrounded by such attractions as hiking trails and bridle paths, a zoo, a museum, and an observatory equipped with a sixteen-inch telescope. The three-million-candlepower Great World’s Fair Searchlight, which Professor Lowe bought and installed on Echo Mountain in 1894, was visible 150 miles at sea.

Above Echo Mountain a narrow-gauge “Alpine Division” carried the excursionists through spectacular mountain scenery to Mount Lowe Springs, where a fourth hotel, the Alpine Tavern, was built 1,100 feet below the summit of the mountain. The narrow-gauge track wound through 127 curves in four miles, and crossed eighteen trestles, one of which described an almost complete circle. The roadbed was carved out of solid granite throughout its entire length.

Widely advertised as “the Greatest Mountain Trolley Trip in the World,” the Mount Lowe line operated for over forty years, but troubles plagued it from the start. Fire destroyed Echo Mountain House in 1900, and in 1905 a windstorm toppled the Chalet and started a fire that destroyed every building on Echo Mountain but the observatory. A landslide smashed Rubio Hotel to the canyon floor in 1909, and in 1936 a fire wiped out the last hotel. Two years later a cloudburst destroyed most of the railway itself.

A number of midwestern interurbans constructed baseball parks to stimulate traffic, and several Ohio lines organized leagues among communities along their lines. The Cleveland & Southwestern Baseball Trolley League included six towns reached by the interurban; the railway donated a silver cup to the winning team, assisted in advertising the games, and offered free rides to the players. One of the line’s officials acted as president of the league.

Various kinds of “theatre specials” were always popular on the interurbans. During the twenties the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee operated Grand Opera Specials during the opera season and served a light supper on the return trip. As recently as the mid-fifties it still operated special excursion trains to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at Ravinia Park, north of Evanston. Nowadays, one inches home hungry through the traffic.

Special trains were often operated for company picnics, lodge outings, and similar excursions of the celluloid-collar set, and almost every interurban line of any consequence maintained one or more ornate parlor cars for charter service. As an early text on the operation of electric railways observed, “The chartered car appeals to the feelings of exclusiveness, sense of ownership and comfort beloved of most humans.”

Travel over really great distances never amounted to much, but some rather lengthy interurban trips were possible. One could ride from Shawmut, a little town just north of Waterville, Maine, along a series of connecting lines to New York City and then, after crossing the Hudson River by ferry, continue on as far south as Delaware City, Delaware, or as far west as Newville, Pennsylvania. A 1903 article in World’s Work , which praised the benefits of the “trolley vacation,” outlined a trip from Boston to New York that required two days of “hard and steady electric travel” and cost $3.28 in fares. Trolley travel between the two cities became a little less arduous and expensive a few years later when the Old Colony Street Railway Company joined in an overnight trolley-steamer service. Travellers boarded the cars at Post Office Square in Boston for the trip to Fall River, where they transferred to steamers for the overnight run to New York. The cost of that entire trip, a comfortable one, was only $1.75. (Present cost, by railroad, one way, is $11.58; by air, $16, not counting travel to airports; in turnpike tolls alone, $3.30.)

In 1915 the Interurban Trolley Guide outlined for the “enthusiastic trolley tourist” a Chicago-to-New York trip which could then be made entirely on interurban lines with the exception of two short stretches in New York State, where it was necessary to use steam trains. The journey took anywhere from thirty-one to forty-five hours, depending on connections, cost about twenty-one dollars, and covered twenty-five different electric railways. Needless to say, the arrangement never caused undue concern on the part of competing steam-railway officials.

One of the first efforts by the trolley people to invade the steam roads’ long-haul, luxury market came in 1905, when three electric lines joined in the operation of the deluxe Interstate Limited between Indianapolis and Dayton. The special cars were luxuriously appointed, and a buffet between the two usual compartments—the smoker and the “ladies’ parlor”- served light meals from a menu said to be every bit the equal of those on Pullman buffet cars.

Sleeping-car service was soon afterward commenced by the Illinois Traction lines, on the 172-mile main line from St. Louis to Peoria. In a time before airconditioning, cinder-free sleepers had distinct advantages over steam-railroad Pullmans. Illinois Traction’s berths were fully six inches longer, and its cars were twenty years ahead of Pullman’s in providing windows for upper-berth passengers. Every berth had a plushlined safe-deposit box, and porters served free coffee and rolls in the morning. Only two other lines ever followed Illinois Traction’s lead.

Speed was always a matter of concern with electricrailway men. Even though many interurban cars were capable of whisking along at well over sixty miles per hour, over-all running times were anything but rapid during the early years, for tracks were rarely up to it and almost every line had to pass through the streets of cities and towns. As late as 1906 three Ohio interurbans were claiming the “fastest electric service in the world,” but even their “limiteds” averaged only about thirty-two miles per hour. In local service, they could easily outpace their steam competitors, but when the interurbans made their bid for the long-haul trade, they were at first at a disadvantage.

Many lines stood by conventional car designs, and produced big, powerful steel cars capable of very high speeds. On his three Chicago interurbans, the midwestern utilities magnate Samuel Insull not only introduced handsome new steel cars but spent millions reconstructing and relocating tracks. “Did you ever travel 80 miles an hour?” challenged North Shore Line ads, and all the Insull interurbans enjoyed their most profitable years during the 1920’s.

Unlike Insull, many traction operators could not afford to reconstruct their roadbeds, and the quest for speed therefore concentrated on new designs for a fast, light car that could operate smoothly over rough track. In 1929 Dr. Thomas Conway, Jr., led a group of investors who assembled the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad from several failing properties, and immediately ordered twenty radical, high-speed interurban cars in an effort to win back the system’s declining traffic. They made wide use of aluminum and were equipped with the most powerful motors ever installed in cars of comparable size and weight. They were capable of speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour; in the extensive publicity that surrounded their introduction in 1930, one of them was raced against—and ostensibly defeated—an airplane.

The same year Dr. Conway acquired control of another interurban, the Philadelphia & Western, which was also badly in need of new equipment. The Conway management, setting out to construct an even better car than their Cincinnati & Lake Erie lightweight, launched an intensive research program. In a wind tunnel at the University of Michigan, Professor Felix W. Pawlowski determined that a streamlined car body could be constructed which at speeds over sixty miles per hour would save forty per cent or more of the energy required to move conventional equipment. The ten all-aluminum Bullet cars which were the result of this study could make ninety-two miles per hour.

Almost every interurban was built with an eye toward the passenger trade, but most of them found freight traffic a profitable sideline. Steep grades and the sharp curves common in city streets ruled out the use of standard freight cars on many of the lines, and the interurbans designed and built their own cars for hauling light freight. The service was fast, especially by modern standards, and Indiana interurban people boasted that they could deliver shipments anywhere within seventy-five miles of Indianapolis on the same day the goods were ordered. In 1902 interurban lines took in about two million dollars for hauling such commodities as newspapers, mail, milk, and express. By 1922, their freight operations were bringing in forty-five million dollars a year. Interurbans were “piggybacking” truck trailers on flatcars years before the steam railroads enthusiastically adopted the idea. Insull’s North Shore Line was the pioneer, in 1926.

No one realized it at the time, of course, but the interurban was doomed almost from the beginning. The villain was the automobile, which had already been invented before the interurban’s heyday. Few traction men took it seriously at first; and a few interurbans even found a source of extra revenue in the automobile. In 1905 the general superintendent of the Lake Shore Electric Railway, noting the frequency with which farmers were hauling in disabled cars from the highway that paralleled the railway all the way from Cleveland to Toledo, established an “automobile ambulance” service. It employed a specially equipped flatcar drawn by a freight locomotive. The service, which cost fifteen dollars and up, was said to be “much less embarrassing than having to resort to the horse to get back to town.” For a few years around the end of the twenties the Pacific Northwest Traction Company did a lively business hauling trucks, buses, and automobiles around gaps in the uncompleted Pacific Highway north of Seattle.

But gradually the auto began to win out. A few of the weaker interurbans failed soon after World War I, and by the end of the twenties the whole traction network was beginning to crumble as hard-surfaced highways and mass-produced cars spread across the land. Bold, depression-induced interurban consolidations such as the Indiana Railroad System and Ohio’s Cincinnati & Lake Erie served only to delay the inevitable; both were gone by World War II. A few lines survived into the war years and enjoyed a brief revival of the bonanza traffic they had once known. Henry Huntington’s vast Pacific Electric network, for example, which went into the war virtually intact, handled more passengers in 1945 (109 million of them) than at any other time in its history. But by 1961 the last of its many passenger routes had switched to buses.

The earliest interurban of all, the Portland-Oregon City line, came close to being the last; it survived until early in 1958, having served the Willamette Valley for sixty-five years. Samuel Insull’s Chicago lines had become commuter carriers of major importance, but once the wartime traffic had ceased and new roads and freeways made commuting by private automobile as fast as taking the interurbans, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin and the North Shore line folded up. Of the three Insull interurbans, only the South Shore line continues in operation. The line loses over $500,ooo a year on its passenger business, but freight-hauling is so profitable that it offsets the loss. Now major railroads are making efforts to buy control of the South Shore, and once this is accomplished, there will almost certainly be attempts to cut down, and then eliminate, passenger service; the road will probably end up as a dieselized branch of a larger railroad line.

The only other commercial interurban line in Canada or the United States is operated between Upper Darby and Norristown, Pennsylvania, by the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company. Recently it purchased two high-speed, streamlined, four-section articulated interurban trains from the defunct Chicago North Shore line and placed them in rush-hour service to supplement Dr. Conway’s wind-tunnel-designed Bullet cars, which are now showing their age. The new trains contain a vanishing amenity, a bar-lounge section for suburban commuters. How long this service will last is problematical, especially in view of the impending takeover of the line by a transit authority. Authorities and amenities rarely go together.

The interurban may be nearly gone, but it will not soon be forgotten. Once it was evident that the few remaining lines were disappearing and their cars and other equipment were headed for the scrap heap, a new fraternity arose—trolley-museum enthusiasts, who now number in the thousands. Several museum groups have been formed for the sole purpose of saving representative interurban cars by purchasing them at scrap prices, buying an abandoned right of way, and putting the cars in service again for the entertainment of children who have never ridden an interurban and of their elders in whom nostalgia runs strong.

A dozen such lines are now in service, and more are in the planning stage. The largest, and the first to be formed, is located at Kennebunkport, Maine, where the right of way of a defunct interurban line was purchased all the way to Biddeford, six miles to the north. Although only a mile of track is now in operation, more than eighty trolleys and interurban cars have been acquired, and the line, the Seashore Electric Railway, can eventually build its track right into the streets of Biddeford. Similar lines run at Branford and Warehouse Point, Connecticut, with cars of many varieties.

The real interurban is gone—yet not quite. The highways and freeways that doomed so many interurban lines—simply because it was much cheaper to run a bus over someone else’s roads than to build a railroad with expensive poles and overhead wire—are now so overburdened that in rush hours traffic stagnates. The answer in all urban areas now is clearly rapid transit, the electrically operated rail line that can whisk riders into and out of cities without the long rush-hour delays.

Consider, for instance, Louisville, Kentucky, where sixty-five years ago a rapid-transit system was developed at considerable cost. It took riders from suburban areas into downtown Louisville along seven different routes by interurban lines of the Louisville & Interurban Railroad. Then the automobile and bus came along, and the competition was too much. The interurban lines gave up and were dismantled. The rights of way were sold. Today city planners in Louisville, as in San Francisco, Washington, and most other swollen urban complexes, are planning vast expenditures for rapid-transit lines. What routes will they take? You guessed it: much the same as the interurbans of the past. As Louisville’s city works director says, “I think we’re coming around full-cycle on this thing. It’s a shame that the old interurban lines didn’t survive.”

The big old electric car, dusting through the meadows with its air horn shrieking for the crossings, is only a museum piece. Yet something is coming back, something without the wicker and the inlaid woodwork, something a little too streamlined and shiny perhaps, but something to hearten those who loved the most open road of all, the rails of the interurban.

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