William D. Middleton.

The interurban era online

. (page 18 of 23)
Online LibraryWilliam D. MiddletonThe interurban era → online text (page 18 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

specially designed cars developed several decades
later for steam railroad piggyback services.

Interurban roads made early use of special freight
containers which could be lifted from flat cars to
truck beds, permitting "door to door" freight serv-
ice. Many lines were thus able to extend the radius
of their freight service far beyond the limits of their
own lines. The Cincinnati & Lake Erie, for example,
in addition to the overnight "store door" container
service available between Cincinnati and Toledo on
its own line, was able to offer shippers second-
morning deliveries in Kentucky and Michigan cities.

Mechanical refrigerator cars, which have only
recently begun to replace ice-refrigerated cars on
steam railroads, were in operation on several inter-
urban roads during the '20's. Electrically driven re-
frigeration equipment was used.

In 1926 an interurban, the Northern Ohio Trac-
tion & Light Company, even participated in a joint
rail-air freight service. A shipment of 670 pounds
of forgings was moved from Alliance, O., to the
Cleveland airport in 3 hours 18 minutes by trolley
freight and an airplane completed the journey to the
Ford plant in Detroit in another 1 hour 45 minutes.

Freight traffic on interurban railways grew to
substantial proportions. In 1902 it was estimated
that interurban companies received about 2 million
dollars for hauling such commodities as newspapers,
mail, milk, and express. By 1925 trolley freight
revenues were in the vicinity of 65 million dollars
annually, and some 15 per cent of electric railway
gross revenues came from freight.

Unfortunately, the light package freight and ex-
press business that generated most of the trolley
freight income proved just as vulnerable to the com-
petition of the new trucking industry as the passen-
ger business had to the automobile, and during the
'20's it became increasingly evident that develop-
ment of an extensive carload freight business, with
interchange of standard steam railroad equipment,
was required.

A few of the lines originally ill equipped to
handle heavy freight traffic had taken early steps to

develop the necessary facilities. As early as 1906,
for example, Illinois Congressman McKinley was
building belt lines around principal cities on his
Illinois Traction System to permit unrestricted car-
load freight operation, and his system ultimately be-
came a major freight railroad. But not many other
interurbans had equal foresight, and by the time
the need for a heavy freight traffic became apparent,
few of them had sufficient means to undertake the
necessary improvements.

Many of the interurbans which had a capacity for
carload freight operation all along, or managed to
develop it, survived the interurban era as freight-
only short line railroads, usually employing diesel-
electric motive power. But for most interurbans
freight traffic proved to be as ephemeral as passenger
traffic, and when both vanished abandonment was
the only recourse. 1

Almost all of the interurbans that have survived
as freight-only carriers have abandoned elec-
tric equipment in favor of diesel-electric mo-
tive power. Iowa's Fort Dodge-Des Moines
Line still employed both forms of power when
this 70-ton General Electric diesel worked in
the Des Moines River valley in 1955, but the
railway has since taken down its trolley wire.
William D. Middleton.


— L -


hr M^.«


Exit the Interurban

77>e sun set on the interurban at Tuck Station on British
Columbia Electric 's Steveston line. Stan F. Styles.


Exit the Interurban

THE INTERURBAN was, of course, "done in" by
the automobile, a form of transportation almost as
old as the electric cars themselves. In a manner not
unlike that in which the interurban had largely sup-
planted steam railroad local passenger service, the
automobile in its turn captured the public fancy
simply because it provided an even greater utility
and convenience than the electric service it displaced.

In the automobile's infancy few, even among its
most ardent advocates, had any notion of the monster
industry it would one day create. The early autos
were far too costly for any but the well-to-do; they
were extremely unreliable; and the roads were abom-
inable in any case. Clearly, autos were no more than
a rich man's plaything. The electric cars, on the
other hand, were sturdy, dependable vehicles that
had proven their worth and were headed for a gold-
en future which held unlimited promise. Electric
transportation, it was widely felt, would soon be-
come almost universal.

Occasionally, during the early days of motoring,
the auto was even a source of extra revenue for the
interurbans. In 1905 the general superintendent of
the Lake Shore Electric Railway, noting the frequen-
cy with which farmers were hauling in disabled
automobiles from the highway which paralleled the
railway all the way from Cleveland to Toledo, estab-
lished an "automobile ambulance" service, which
employed a flat car drawn by a freight locomotive
and equipped with the necessary apparatus for haul-
ing stranded autos aboard. The service, which cost
$15 and up, was said to be "much less embarrassing
than having to resort to the horse to get back to
town." The Buffalo & Lake Erie Traction Company
was collecting $5 a head in a similar manner by pro-
viding a train of flat cars to haul motorists when
roads became impassable along its line. Even as
late as the '20's the Pacific Northwest Traction Com-
pany was doing a lively business hauling trucks,
buses, and automobiles around gaps in the uncom-

pleted Pacific Highway north of Seattle on the elec-
tric line's "land ferries," which consisted of flat cars
drawn by a freight locomotive.

As early as 1905 the Street Railway Journal took
editorial notice of the rapidly growing number of
automobiles, but only to discount it as a threat of
any consequence. And even 10 years later, when
some interurbans were beginning to feel the effects
of automobile competition, the Journal, still not
sure there was anything to worry about, remarked,
"Whether this condition will be permanent or
whether it will practically disappear, as in the case
of the bicycle, is hard to say."

Any lingering doubts were soon resolved. Auto-
mobile ownership soared and the traction industry
found itself with a competitor that could no
longer be disregarded. The urban transit industry
was the first to feel the severe effects of widespread
auto ownership, but a clamor from the new motor-
ing public set in motion a road building pro-
gram to get rural America "out of the mud,"
and the interurbans soon found that more and more
of their onetime passengers were driving their own
cars over a new network of hard-surfaced roads. A
few of the smaller lines, which had been marginal
propositions all along, promptly folded, but general-
ly the first effect of the new competition was to
bring to a halt the heretofore spectacular growth of
the interurbans. Total U. S. interurban mileage,
which had grown steadily to a peak of about 18,100
miles in 1917, leveled off and then began a gradual
decline, although occasional new construction con-
tinued for another 10 years. The last new interurban
line, for example — Texas' Houston North Shore
Railway — opened as late as 1927. But after 1917
the abandonments always came faster than the new

Interurban car construction, another indicator of
the industry's health, gradually declined from an av-
erage of more than a thousand cars annually during


With the end of over 40 years of service not far away, a lonely Illinois Terminal interurban waited
quietly in a January 1955 snowstorm at the Champaign depot. WILLIAM D. MlDDLETON.


the years prior to 1910 to a low of 128 new cars built
during 1919.

If business was not quite as good as it had once
been, most of the interurbans were still in good
shape, and throughout the '20's the stronger systems
that had been soundly conceived to begin with were
able to wage a determined battle to regain their pas-
senger traffic. Millions were spent on track and pow-

er improvements and on line relocations to provide
faster service. Older rolling stock was modernized,
and as many lines installed brand-new equipment,
interurban carbuilding enjoyed a brief resurgence,
reaching a peak of over 500 cars annually in 1924.
Imaginative new services were started, and freight
traffic, which the interurbans had been giving
increasing attention, grew to unprecedented levels.

Dr. Thomas Conway's prescription for the success-
ful interurban included consolidation, high-speed
equipment, new traffic promotion ideas, and pub-
licity. After one of his new Cincinnati & Lake
Erie interurbans defeated an airplane in a race
staged for newsreel cameras in 1930, a bannered car

toured Dayton streets inviting the public to see
films of the race at a local theater. C&LE later
adopted such innovations as free taxi service to and
from the depot, but the lure of the automobile was
irresistible and the system lasted only until 1939.
Mayfield Photos Inc.



Despite its aged equipment, the Atlantic
City & Shore Railroad tried to keep
right up with the times in 1 940 by pro-
riding its interurbans with hostesses on
the run between Atlantic City and Ocean
City. Ann Hackney, "the world's first
trolley hostess," prepared to board her
Shore Fast Line wooden car in 1 942.
Central Studios, Atlantic City.

A remarkable pair of Pennsylvania interurbans, Lehigh Valley

Transit and West Penn Railways, survived into the '50's as

typical examples of the passenger interurban of old. In

1950, LVT's Liberty Bell Limited No. 1030, a former Indiana

Railroad high-speed car, careened down Lehigh Mountain

near Allentown on its way to Norristown. Abandonment

was a year away. William D. Middleton.

A bright orange West Penn interurban rambled across the high bridge at Brownsville. The broad-gauge
system lasted until the mid-")0's, despite a lack of commuters and carload freight. David A. STRASSMAN.


For a time the rejuvenation had encouraging re-
sults. A good example of the thoroughgoing over-
haul given many properties was that of the Cin-
cinnati & Dayton Traction Company, which had
been in almost continuous receivership for 10 years
when it was reorganized in 1926 as the Cincinnati,
Hamilton & Dayton. Headed by Dr. Thomas Con-
way Jr., the new management refinanced and com-
pletely rebuilt the property. Track was rebuilt
with new rails and ties, drainage was improved, and
the power distribution system completely rebuilt.
New shops were erected, new passenger cars were
placed in service, and a large fleet of freight equip-
ment was acquired for a new fast freight and express

The publicity-conscious Conway management in-
troduced the newly overhauled CH&D with a gala
celebration near Dayton on June 22, 1927. Nearly
400 prominent citizens, public officials, and railway-
men attended a banquet at the new car shops, then

adjourned to a nearby natural amphitheater where
nearly 30,000 were awaiting the public celebration.
There was a night flying exhibition and an elaborate
fireworks display, and a band played while seven old
cars were burned. The climax of the occasion came
when the lights were turned on in the new fleet of
cars to the accompaniment of horns and gongs.

Thus, with much fanfare, the CH&D regained its
competitive position and was soon solidly back in
the black. Other lines enjoyed similar comebacks
and many electric railwaymen, for a few brief years,
looked to the future with renewed confidence. Pre-
dicted Britton I. Budd, president of Samuel Insull's
North Shore and South Shore interurbans at Chi-
cago, in 1927, "Well-located interurban lines, in-
stead of being obsolete, are in reality entering upon
the period of their greatest usefulness." His pre-
diction, although it proved correct in the special case
of his own lines, turned out to be a rather bad guess
about the future of the interurbans.


The first interurban came close to being the last. Portland's Oregon City line,
opened in 1893, lasted until early 1958. Former Pacific Electric car 4018 rolled
across a much-photographed trestle at Milwaukie, Ore., in 1955. William D.


The Milwaukee Rapid Transit & Speedrail Com-
pany was an ill-fated attempt to modernize the
remaining interurban routes of the old Milwaukee
Electric system with the economies of lightweight
cars and one-man operation. A head-on collision of
two excursion trains in 1950, the last big wreck of

the interurban era, brought financial difficulties
and abandonment a year later. On a bright Decem-
ber day in 1950 Waukesha Limited car No. 60, a
Cincinnati curved-side lightweight that had seen
service on three Indiana and Ohio lines, sped
through West Junction. William D. Middleton.


Pacific Electric transported the greatest passen-
ger loads in its entire history during World
War II, and continued to carry a flourishing
rail passenger traffic into the early '50's. During
rush hour at Amoco Tower, on the celebrated
four-track main line of PE's Southern District,
a Watts local on the outer track had just been
overtaken by a fast moving Bellflower express.
Early in 1961 the last PE interurban route — to
Long Beach — was abandoned by its most recent
operator, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit
Authority. William D. Middleton.

Smoking brake shoes and motors testified to the
heat of a July afternoon in 1955 as a North Shore
local, en route from Chicago to W aukegan over the
Shore Line route, braked to a stop at North Chi-
cago Junction, only a week before the route was
abandoned. Once the main line, the Shore Line
continued to operate an extensive, if unprofitable,
commuter business to the suburbs north of Chi-
cago following completion of the high-speed
Skokie Valley main line in 1925. Early in 1963
the remainder of the North Shore system was
abandoned. William D. Middleton.

The great depression that began with the stock
market crash of 1929 brought the interurbans' come-
back to an end. As business activity stagnated, in-
terurban freight and passenger revenues declined ac-
cordingly, and often there was too little left even
for operating expenses, much less further improve-
ments. For 40 major interurbans Electric Railway
Journal reported 1930 net operating revenues that
were down 46 per cent from the year before, while
operating expenses decreased only slightly. Financial
reports for 1931 were even worse. A survey of 23

interurbans revealed that operating revenues had
dropped as much as 60 per cent below 1930 results,
and while 10 of the lines had reported some net in-
come in 1930, only 6 had anything left after oper-
ating expenses in 1931. Further drops in revenues
as high as 40 per cent were reported in 1932. Sys-
tem after system went under, and by 1933 interurban
mileage had been reduced to little over 10,000 miles,
a decline of almost 6000 miles in 10 years. New in-
terurban car construction reached an all-time low of
seven cars in 1932, and then disappeared altogether.

Separate Chicago Aurora & Elgin cars from Aurora and Elgin had just been con-
solidated into a single Chicago express at Wheaton, III., on a summer evening
in 1955. A few years later, with insufficient freight revenues to cover com-
muter traffic losses, the CA&E became the first of Samuel Insult's "super inter-
urbans" to abandon service. William D. Middleton.


' '■■■ ■ . '. /'

1 :<h 9 i&-u

mill HMMWiiMiit;iiiin;'!»i

- ~- '":*•

Even under the crushing effect of depression there
were a few major efforts to modernize and to consoli-
date separate lines into strong systems. In Ohio in
1929, Dr. Conway, with his overhauled CH&D as a,
nucleus, assembled the new Cincinnati & Lake Erie
system stretching from the Ohio River to Lake Erie,
bought 20 new high-speed cars, and installed im-
proved through services. In 1930 the Insull inter-
ests organized the statewide Indiana Railroad Sys-
tem, bought 35 new high-speed cars, spent thousands
on line improvements, and inaugurated vastly im-
proved service. In 1932 the Fonda, Johnstown &
Gloversville in New York placed new Bullet cars on
limited schedules that cut as much as half an hour
from previous Gloversville-Schenectady timings, and
enjoyed a 78 per cent increase in net revenues over
those for 1931. Such efforts were widely hailed, and
many thought the winning combination for the in-
terurban had at last been found.

Still going strong in 7965, the Philadelphia Suburban
Transportation Company was the only surviving in-
terurban east of Chicago. A lightweight Brill subur-
ban car, one of the last cars turned out by the once-
great Philadelphia carbuilder, rolled through a rock
cut at S medley Park in 1956, en route from Media
to 69th Street terminal. William D. Middleton.

A South Shore Line express from Gary, Incl., slid into Illinois Central's
Randolph Street Suburban Station in Chicago in 1955. Lengthened
and fitted with picture windows, foam rubber seats, and air condi-
tioning, this equipment helped place the South Shore in the fore-
front of passenger inter ur bans, but tonnage freight traffic moving
behind heavy electric motive power had a lot more to do with the

South Shore's continued prosperity in /965. WILLIAM D. MlDDLETON.


One of Dr. Conway's wind-tunnel-designed Bullet cars raced through Gulph Cut
on the third-rail "super-interurban" Philadelphia & Western line, since 1954 a
part of the Philadelphia Suburban system. William D. Middleton.


r t. x-

But such measures provided only a temporary
stay of execution. By 1932 piecemeal abandonments
had reduced Indiana Railroad mileage from 850 to
only 300, and the entire system was gone by 1941.
Dr. Conway's Cincinnati & Lake Erie lasted only
until 1939, and the high-speed cars that had shown
such early promise on the FJ&G were returned to the
builders in default of payments several years after

The few interurbans that survived into the '40's
and '50's could generally be fitted into one of two
special categories. Some, which entered large metro-
politan areas, found new usefulness as home-to-work
transportation for burgeoning bedroom suburbs. All
three of the major Insull interurbans at Chicago, for
example, became important commuter railroads.
Others which had become essentially electric freight
railroads continued to operate an interurban pas-
senger service which was by this time no more than
a minor sideline. A few fortunate systems enjoyed
both a substantial freight traffic and a large com-
muter business. Los Angeles' Pacific Electric, with

A lightweight interurban car of the Evansville &
Ohio Valley Railway in Indiana was one of
the first to fall to the bus. In 1928 No. 136
posed beside its replacement on the Hender-
son (Ky.) run. George Krambles Collection.

both a tremendous suburban passenger business and
enough on-line industries to make the railway Cali-
fornia's third largest originator of freight traffic,
was one of these.

A few remarkable interurban systems managed
to survive as purely passenger-carrying intercity
railroads. Notable among them was Pennsylvania's
Lehigh Valley Transit Company, which served the
populous communities of the Lehigh Valley and
had good connections for Philadelphia-bound pas-
sengers. When the Cincinnati & Lake Erie folded in
1939 LVT acquired the major part of C&LE's fleet
of high-speed, lightweight cars, completely refur-
bished them for its "Liberty Bell Route," and con-
tinued to operate an interurban passenger service
in the grand old manner until 1951.


rAUlU^ '

A sober-faced group gathered in the main street of New Philadelphia, O., in 1929
for the departure of the last interurban car on the Northern Ohio Power &
Light Company. Stephen D. Maguire Collection.


Those lines that survived the depression enjoyed
a brief return to the bonanza traffic of an earlier
era during the World War II years of gasoline ra-
tioning and the great industrial activity of national
defense. The Southern California population ex-
plosion generated by an extraordinary defense in-
dustry growth, for example, provided the Pacific
Electric system with more rail passengers (a peak of
109 million in 1945) than it had ever handled

With the end of the war the forces which had
been at work on the interurbans resumed. More
autos than ever before rolled off the assembly lines,
and continuing declines in what passenger traffic
was left combined with growing operating costs to
force the abandonment of the remaining marginal

passenger operations. Low fares and excessively high
peak hour requirements served to make commuter
traffic less and less attractive, regardless of its vol-
ume; and even those few systems that operated ex-
ceedingly large suburban traffics found remaining
solvent more and more difficult. Within less than 10
years Pacific Electric had almost entirely converted
its passenger operation to more economical, if less
satisfactory, bus services, and in 1961 its last interur-
ban route, by then part of a metropolitan transit
authority, was discontinued. By early 1963 two
of the three Insull interurbans at Chicago — the
Chicago Aurora & Elgin and the North Shore Line
— had quit entirely. Only the South Shore Line
transported enough freight traffic to underwrite
its passenger losses and continue operation.

Sometimes the interurbans last run was the occasion for a celebration every bit the equal of its

inaugural trip. This croud gathered at Thurmont, Md., one rainy day in 1954 to see the last trolley

off on the Potomac Edison's inter urban line to Frederick. H. N. PROCTOR.

A handsome 1903 Niles wooden interurban of classic lines, originally owned by
the Toledo. Port Clinton & Lakeside Railway, approached Proprietors' Road on
trackage of the Ohio Railway Museum at W'orthington. John Mallov.


~ /W^-. j .^- Hr>sr - J» V^T

Excursionists boarded a restored Connecticut
Company open car in 1 959 for a ride over the
Branford museum's line near East Haven, Conn.
William D. Middleton.

Traction enthusiast E. ]. Quinby, a former inter-
urban mo tor man, took the controls of a well-
restored open car on the Branford Electric Rail-
way museum. William D. Middleton.

A former Connecticut Company open car rolled through a New England wood
on the Connecticut Electric Railway trolley museum, whose rails are laid on the
long-abandoned roadbed of a Hartford & Springfield Street Railway branch.
William D. Middleton.

East of Chicago only a single system, the Philadel-
phia Suburban Transportation Company, favored
with unusual circumstances that helped level off the
peak demands of its suburban passenger business,
continued to operate.

As the interurban, along with the urban trolley
car, vanished from North America, its determined
fans, who seemed to grow in numbers as the elec-
tric cars became increasingly uncommon, com-
menced to assemble its history in painstaking texts,
countless photographs, maps, timetables, and other
memorabilia. Their ultimate achievement was to
preserve and operate the cars themselves, and the
first such group formed for this purpose, the Sea-
shore Electric Railway, was established at Kenne-
bunkport, Me., in 1939. Others followed, and by
1961 there were more museum groups operating in-
terurban cars than there were surviving interurban
railways. Over two dozen groups had preserved well
over 200 pieces of electric railway equipment, and
more than a dozen of these were actually operating
the cars or had definite plans to do so. The Seashore
undertaking alone, the largest of the projects, had
preserved no less than 71 items of traction rolling
stock of every description.

In retrospect it is all too easy to write off the

interurban railways as ill-conceived ventures, for
clearly they failed to achieve the lasting position and
universal application that was once so freely pre-
dicted for them, and only rarely did they reap the
promised rich financial returns that once made them
so popular with investors. But in their time the elec-
tric cars served well the transportation needs of a
growing nation, and this essential contribution can
never be overlooked.

It is worth noting, too, that the interurban rail-

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryWilliam D. MiddletonThe interurban era → online text (page 18 of 23)