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casionally the interurban builders adopted construc-
tion standards that were equivalent to those for high-
class steam railroads, but such lines were in a minor-
ity. All of the construction short cuts of the early
years, though they helped the interurbans begin
operation in a hurry at low cost, proved to be
fatal liabilities in later years, when high speeds and
the operation of long freight trains became the keys
to survival.

Sometimes communities along the projected route
of an interurban were so eager for the stimulating
effects of electric transportation that substantial
grants or subsidies were offered as inducements to
the promoters. One Indiana line, the Winona Rail-
way, had to build the last section of its line between
Warsaw and Peru in a headlong rush in order to be-
gin operation by the February 1, 1910, deadline date
required to collect the subsidy money proffered by
counties along the route.

Because the interurbans were almost always small,
locally backed ventures, they were usually sensitive
to local aspirations and wants, and as a rule, electric
railwaymen refrained from the sort of "public be
damned" shenanigans practiced by the steam rail-
road barons of earlier years. There were occasional
lapses, however, one of which occurred in 1924 on
the Dayton & Western Traction Company. Valentine
Winters, the D&W manager, became involved in a

squabble with the city officials of New Lebanon, O.,
over paving between the rails of the electric line,
which traversed city streets. Unable to reach a
satisfactory agreement, Winters grandly ripped up
his rails and built a new line around New Lebanon,
on private right of way outside the corporate limits.
"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 D&W
station just outside town. Tempers cooled, and a few
years later the station was quietly renamed New

Stung by the competition of the electric cars,
which quickly siphoned off their local passenger
and package freight business, the steam railroads
often retaliated in heavy-handed fashion. Their
hostility was manifested in many ways. Some tried
to match the frequent service and low fares of the
electrics, which proved to be a costly business. Soon
after the new interurban line was opened between
Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, la., in 1904, the com-
peting Rock Island line began offering an hourly
steam train service at low fares, with extra trains on
Sunday. Similar measures were taken against an-
other new interurban operating between Des Moines
and Colfax. So enamored was the public of the new
trolleys, though, that the steam trains were ignored,
and after only a few months Rock Island retired

Thrusting a rakish wooden pilot ahead of it, a Fort Wayne, Van Wert & Lima inter urban moved
through the Lima Public Square about 1906, a year after the 62-mile interstate line opened for
business. John H. Keller Collection, from Stephen D. Maguire.

from the scene, unhappily licking its fiscal wounds.

Other steam lines attemped to freeze out the new
competition. In 1906 the West and Central Pas-
senger Association, a steam road group, resolved
that it would not recognize its electric competi-
tion either by issuing joint tariffs or by making
traffic agreements. One Midwest steam road, the
Clover Leaf system (now part of the Nickel Plate),
decided to buck the majority trend and issued inter-
line tariffs with interurban lines, realizing a lucra-
tive source of new business in the process.

When the interurbans ventured into carload
freight business, a similar hostility was usually the
rule. In 1915 the Michigan Central Railroad fought
all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it

finally bowed to a decision of the Railroad Commis-
sion of Michigan ordering it to make a physical con-
nection for carload freight traffic with the Detroit
United Railway, an interurban, at Oxford, Mich.

Sometimes the steam road measures were more
subtle. In 1914 former Utah Gov. Simon Bam-
berger hinted darkly that the "keen antagonisms
of the Gould and Harriman interests" had made it
impossible for him to get outside financial aid for
the construction of his Salt Lake City-Ogden inter-
urban. Bamberger managed to raise enough local
capital for the project and built his electric line

Steam roads usually placed every possible obstacle
in the way of electric line construction, and often the

These two interurbans, typical of the distinguished wooden cars constructed
by the Niles Car Works, met in the street at the Lake Shore Electric Railu,n'\
Nor walk (O.) depot in 1908. O. F. Lee Collection.


En route to Fort Benjamin Harrison, a Union Traction Company of Indiana interurban trundled past
the U.S. Court House and Post Office in Indianapolis sometime around World War I. William D.
Middleton Collection.

The fierce steam railroad-interurban rivalry of earlier years is typified by this view of a Lehigh
Valley Transit interurban and a Reading train racing down parallel track near Souderton, Pa.
B\ the time this photograph was taken in 1 950, however, there was little traffic left to squabble
over, and in the decade since, electric car, steam locomotive, and this particular passenger train
itself have vanished from the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. Lester WlSMER.


interurbans, unable to obtain a grade-level crossing
with a steam line, were forced to build a costly
overpass or underpass. Sometimes such conflicts were
resolved in a more direct manner. One celebrated
incident of such a nature occurred in California
when rival construction forces of the Northern
Electric Railway and George Gould's Western Pacif-
ic, both pushing toward Sacramento, arrived in
Marysville about the same time. The two routes
crossed at a point adjacent to an apiary just south
of the Yuba River. Gould's men got their track in
first, but the Northern Electric's track gang arrived
soon after and on January 12, 1907, the great "Battle
of the Bee Farm" took place when a hundred inter-
urban men tore out all of the newly laid Western
Pacific rail and put down their own track.

A similar and even more violent skirmish had
taken place two years earlier when a Petaluma &
Santa Rosa Railroad track gang attempted to install
a crossing with the California Northwestern in Santa
Rosa, Calif. On March 1, 1905, after several months
of legal maneuvering, a P&SR construction crew
advanced on the crossing prepared to cut the steam
road rails and install the electric line crossing, only
to find CNW forces ready and waiting to repel
them. Two steam locomotives, specially fitted with

pipes to douse the P&SR men with steam and hot
water, moved relentlessly back and forth across the
intersection. As rapidly as the P&SR men dug be-
neath the CNW rails, CNW men filled the excava-
tion with sand and gravel from waiting cars. The
electric men then drove two double-teamed wagons
onto the rails in an attempt to blockade the steam
men, only to have the wagons demolished by the
charging locomotives, which played live steam on
the panic-stricken horses.

As the locomotives again bore down on the trolley
men P&SR Director Frank A. Brush stopped them
by flinging himself prostrate on the rails in their
path. The two crews then came to grips in a bloody
fist fight. Santa Rosa police arrested several of the
steam road leaders, but the battle continued until
CNW President A. W. Foster arrived from the south
aboard a special train bearing 160 hired toughs and
two Marin County deputy sheriffs. Before Foster
could carry out threats to have Santa Rosa police
arrested for not protecting his property, or fail-
ing that to carry the day by brute force, P&SR ob-
tained a Superior Court order commanding the
CNW to cease its opposition, and the steam men
reluctantly withdrew to San Francisco. A few hours
later the electric men completed the crossing to the
cheers of the crowd that had gathered to witness
the excitement, and shortly before midnight the
first interurban rolled into Santa Rosa under its
own power.

Speeding westward over a freshly built roadbed,
a Sheboygan Light, Power & Railway Company
car traveled to Plymouth, Wis., shortly before 1910.
The trim interurban was built by the Cincinnati
Car Company in 1908.


Southbound to Oakland, the Sacramento North-
ern's Bay Cities Limited stopped in the street op-
posite the company's Sacramento depot shortly
after World War I. The remainder of the trip
would be made over the rails of the connecting
Oakland, Antioch & Eastern, later merged with
SN. In 1921 the electric cars began using the ornate
interurban Union Station at Sacramento. The din-
ing-parlor-observation car Bidwell was built by the
company's Chico shops in 1914 for through service
to the Bay Area. David L. Joslyn Collection.

Some steam railroads, notably in New England
and the Far West, recognized the electrics as poten-
tially valuable feeder lines and developed extensive
subsidiary interurban systems. "I will make con-
nections even though the motive power be only an
ox team," declared the Chicago Great Western's
outspoken president, A. B. Stickney, who promptly
went out and cornered a good share of Iowa's in-
terurban mileage. Exorbitant prices paid for traction
properties in an effort to develop a New England
transportation monopoly accelerated a trip to the
bankruptcy courts for the New Haven. On the West
Coast the Southern Pacific Company had better luck
with its interurban interests, and even today the SP-
controlled Pacific Electric is a major originator of
freight traffic.

Horse and buggy traffic was plentiful but the motor
car had not yet made an appearance when this Rock
Island Southern Railroad interurban, dignified in
Pullman green and gold lettering, circled the
square in Galesburg, III. The car operated over
a 19-mile line to Monmouth. Paul Stringham

Most of the early interurbans were projects of
rather limited objectives, befitting the modest means
of their principally local backers. Later on, men of
greater vision and working capital appeared on the
scene to weld the profusion of small properties into
great traction systems of truly impressive size, often
covering entire states in trolley networks.

An Illinois congressman, William B. McKinley,
assembled a collection of smaller interurbans, along
with the necessary new construction, into the 550-
mile Illinois Traction System, the largest Midwest
interurban. The West's great Pacific Electric system
represented the combination of four major interur-
bans, each itself the product of previous mergers.
During the '20's Midwest utilities tycoon Samuel
Insull assembled a chain of interurban systems that
stretched from Milwaukee to Louisville. In the early
years of the depression, Insull's Indiana holdings
were consolidated into the Indiana Railroad System,
which briefly operated a total of nearly 800 miles of
track before piecemeal abandonments whittled down
its size.

Among the most intriguing of all electric railway
projects, perhaps, were some of the bold schemes —
unrivaled for sheer audacity — which never materi-


alized. Consider the earliest of them all, an 1893
proposal to build a 252-mile air line electric road be-
tween Chicago and St. Louis. Dr. Wellington Adams,
the line's promoter, proposed to use a multiphase
electrification system, and let it be known that
General Electric was prepared to furnish equip-
ment guaranteed to travel 100 miles per hour in
perfect safety. The line, to be completed within a
year at a cost of 5.5 million dollars, was to be double
tracked, with provision for two more tracks at a
later date! In publishing reports that surveys were
completed, right of way secured, and construction
actually under way, the Street Railway Review
cautiously advised its readers, "Just how much is
true is hard to say."

The editors of the steam railroad industry's
Railroad Gazette were less restrained in their criti-
cism, and worked themselves into a lather over the
absurdities of the "electric chicken coops" of the
proposed "through by lightning" railroad. After a
three column editorial tirade against the project and
its promoters, the Gazette refrained from belaboring
the subject further "out of consideration for the

In view of the state of development of the then

infant electric railway industry, the St. Louis-Chica-
go project was nothing short of fantastic, but prob-
ably served well its real purpose of extracting money
from the pockets of the gullible.

The Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Rail-
road, whose plans were unveiled to prospective in-
vestors in a series of full-page newspaper ads in
July 1906, was even more ambitious. To be straight
as an arrow, with maximum grades of Yl of 1 per
cent, and free of grade crossings, the projected Air
Line would have reduced the mileage between Amer-
ica's two greatest cities to 750 miles of double track
"super railroad," fully 160 miles shorter than any
steam railroad. Running times between the two
cities would be reduced to 10 hours ("10 hours
quicker than the quickest") by electric locomotives
capable of 100-mile-per-hour speeds, and fares would
be "S10 cheaper than the cheapest." Captivated by
the enthusiasm of the Air Line's persuasive founder
and president, Alexander C. Miller, and by promises
of "profits almost beyond calculation," thousands
rushed to buy Air Line stock.

If economically unrealistic, the Air Line project
was .tt least within the bounds of technical practi-
cality, and in fairness to its promoters it should be


stated that they were men of considerable railroad-
ing experience and appeared to be honestly con-
vinced of their project's feasibility.

The first 100-mile division of the 150-million-
dollar Air Line, from Chicago to Goshen, Ind., was
to be completed within a year; but after seven years
of effort, less than 30 miles of arrow-straight track
had been finished when the project finally fizzled
out, and the Air Line became part of just another
minor interurban system. The Air Line's impossibly
high construction standards created prohibitive

costs, and stock sales lagged during the severe de-
pression of 1907-1908. Many who had contracted
to buy stock on the instalment plan were unable to
keep up their payments. Miller's construction crews
spent four years erecting a tremendous 2-mile fill
across Coffey Creek Bottoms, east of Gary, Ind. Forty
acres of standing timber went into a temporary
trestle across the valley, and the fill that replaced it
measured 180 feet wide at the base and contained a
million cubic feet of earth. The job was eventually
completed, but it helped to empty the Air Line

Soon after the cars began to operate between Seattle and Tacoma over the high-speed,
third-rail Puget Sound Electric Railway in 1902, a train of Brill inter urbans rolled past
the big totem pole in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Washington State Historical
Society, from Robert S. Wilson.



jttv 8. mor,.

in 1 Hours — Fare $ 1 (

One of the Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Electric Entines That W 111 Take a Train to JVeW Yor% in 10 Hours.

•team roa

a. it will

tied" with
U*f length

Sly built
d of the
- on this


and uw

tty BTflet* a

pari and

■harg. J
ery part
.co that
the run-

Port.' Soutl Elkhart, Oosru

many others, it serves a population of lPn.iKlu

It has been shi « n Ui it eh eti Ic
through n re irlon ot this .1, trader 1 IcM a

gross i mill, ;: r from J] tlT.nup •

he lowci
esUmati ol *i'i I- r 1 iplta, th< grm profits

flK'ir, up to one 1 thi u

eahd dollars O111 operating expense* will
not exceed GO p< r <■< nt •>!" the gross receipts,
and this would leave t,t ... .
hundred and fifty thousand dollars cii:.o i«»n
on a section of mad ,»r.l\ one hundrel
loraj. This_w"nid enable the road to pay

k .ft- 1


a tnrh 1. ui wr. ck Its

1 m tne n ment th< road begins v

ire of str.ik will be Just

t 1 «« n n«-yi ft ur> tinxs «« gio.l if

nought atacrestr.l prices. It will be easy to

turti I: Into instant cath if you don'i wart

'• nsportatlon, because any ticket broker

•1 It at a small <Us<-< unt ror brokerage,

even In one year from date. vf\ 1. n the first

humlrtilmilf cctlon of the rood is In actual

. peratlon between Chicago and Goshen.


. 'In


value of the stoek n'nd bond __
railroads In the United States umounti
about fourteen billion dollira. whloh la a
ope-clghth of all the weakh c f the cuur



■■ SO LOW.

Railroad forturxeare th» greatest fbrrt

on earth. The awn th«t piled up uotcld

llonn by raUrowd Investments «m iwn

Electric locomotives such as these, claimed promoters of the Chicago-New York Electric Air
Line Railroad, would travel between the two cities in 10 hours at speeds up to 100 miles per
hour. The Air Line, which proved to be anything but the "proposition nith every element of
risk absolutely done away with" claimed in an early prospectus, was the greatest fiasco of the
inter urban era.

treasury and to exhaust the stockholders' patience.

Throughout the life of the Air Line project, stock-
holder interest was sustained and additional con-
tributions solicited by means of such booster organ-
izations as the "Kankakee Air Line Stockholders'
Association of the World," and the monthly Air Line
News, which dramatized every development in the
construction work {e.g., "A huge Vulcan steam
shovel is already on the job, taking big bites out of
hills that stand in the path of the straight and level
speedway that is to be the Air Line" ) .

Despite occasional flops of the magnitude of the

Air Line fiasco and the far more frequent failures
of lesser schemes, which normally expired with con-
siderably less notice, the interurbans grew prodi-
giously, and seemed destined for a future of unlim-
ited promise when all America would be laced to-
gether by a splendid electric network. During those
golden years of growth and triumph no one could
have taken seriously the suggestion that many of the
very same people, and perhaps even the same train
crews, who attended the gala opening celebrations
would one day be present for the melancholy de-
parture of the last car. i


The Interurban Era

Bound for a summer outing, a capacity crowd rode this Sheboygan
Light, Power & Railway Company open car on the company's inter-
urban line to Elkhart Lake, Wis., about 1909. Trains Collection.


The Interurban Era

AN infinitely more impressive and elegant vehicle
than the urban trolleys from which it evolved, the
interurban car was an imposing sight as it rumbled
and worried its way through the traffic of city streets,
bound for the countryside and the freedom of its
own private rails. Once free of the city the big cars
hurried 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 scooped up 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. A high-pitched screaming came
from the traction motors and gears, and the steady
thump and hiss of the trolley wheel overhead
was faintly heard. The wheels beat a measured
rhythm over staggered rail joints, and now and then,
to the clank of loose fitting switch points and frogs,
the car lurched through turnouts that led to spurs
or sidings. Occasionally the air compressor beneath
the car cut in with its characteristic lung-a-lung-a-
lutig. The conductor's signal cord, suspended from
the ceiling, flip-flopped back and forth, and there
was a muffled creaking from the car's ornate wood-

At night the powerful headlight knifed through
the darkness ahead, and when the trolley wire was
coated with sleet, the countryside was fleetingly
illuminated with great blue-white flashes every time
the racing trolley wheel, or "shoe," momentarily
lost contact with the wire.

Sealed off in his special compartment at the front,
the motorman, clad in the cap and pin-striped cover-
alls of real railroading, busied himself with con-
troller, brakes, bell, and air horn. The blue-uni-
formed, brass-buttoned conductor collected the fares,
chatted amiably with the passengers, and in the
wintertime, if the car wasn't equipped with electric
heaters, stoked coal into the hot water heater that
kept the car comfortably overheated. There was an

easy informality to interurban 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 seeing to the safe arrival of an unescorted
child at his destination.

The interurban was everyone's conveyance in the
days before the family car, and it provided far more
than just the transportation necessities of farmer,
small-towner, or commercial traveler. Whether for
business, a family picnic outing, a Sunday excursion
to town, or simply the thrilling experience of high-
speed trolleying, almost everyone rode the cars.

Resourceful interurban entrepreneurs were rarely
content just to accommodate those who had to travel,
and many were the ideas employed to lure the public
aboard. Few lines of importance were without an
"Electric Park" or its equivalent, located far enough
from town, of course, to require a trip on the inter-
urban to get there. Typical was the elaborate park
that was an integral part of construction plans for
the Stark Electric Railway, built in northern Ohio
soon after the turn of the century. A pond that was
dammed for the line's powerhouse was also stocked
with fish, and a fleet of rowboats was purchased for
rental. Playground equipment and a picnic pavilion
were installed on the edge of the pond, and a dance
hall was erected in a nearby wood. Provision for ice
skating on the pond made the park a year-round
traffic builder for the interurban.

Any interurban such as the Chicago, Ottawa &
Peoria, which was fortunate enough to have a
Chautauqua Park along its route, could count on
heavy traffic when great crowds thronged to the
annual camp meeting, which was the occasion for
addresses by noted orators and lecturers. Other
lines offered such attractions as beaches, salt water
plunges, or auto race tracks.

Another form of traffic development, and per-
haps the first "park and ride" plan, was tried in
1910 by the Iowa & Illinois Railway, which operated


-; \' 71

/!» amusement park was a sure-fire traffic builder for interurban lines. This was the Lackawan-
na & Wyoming Valley Railroad's Rocky Glen Park at Moosic, Pa. Edward S. Miller.

between Clinton and Davenport, la. As a means of
encouraging farmers to use I&I service, the company
erected wooden sheds at highway crossings into
which prospective rural passengers could put their
horses without charge while taking a trip to one of
the terminal cities aboard the electric cars. To pro-
tect against horse thieves, each farmer was expected
to bring his own padlock.

Hardly any interurban of consequence failed to
have one or more handsome parlor cars available for
charter service, for as an early text on the operation
of electric railways commented, "The chartered car
appeals to the feelings of exclusiveness, sense of
ownership and comfort beloved of most humans."

The trolley car funeral, said to be "vastly superior
to a horse-drawn hearse" service, was commonplace
too in the early years of the century. Special cars,

equipped to handle caskets and designed to provide
privacy for the mourners, were usually employed.
For large funerals a charter car followed along be-
hind the funeral car with the overflow of mourners.
Sunday visitors were another source of revenue that
made a suburban cemetery along the line an asset to
any interurban.

Excursion and sight-seeing traffic was intensive-
ly promoted by the interurbans. The Lake Shore
Electric Railway in Ohio regularly operated "theater
specials" into Toledo and Cleveland shortly after
the turn of the century. A caterer was usually hired
to serve coffee and a light luncheon aboard the cars

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Online LibraryWilliam D. MiddletonThe interurban era → online text (page 2 of 23)