The Wrong Track
At the dawn of the century, electric interurban trains looked like a sure-fire transportation revolution. But they were doomed from the start.
In retrospect it’s obvious that the first decade of this century was a time of great innovation in transportation—the beginning of our revolutionary shift to the automobile. But, like so many revolutions, that one was not evident at the outset. The big news in the early 1900s was the nearly complete conversion of urban transportation from horses to electric streetcars. With Henry Ford’s Model T not even on the market yet, the electrification of intercity transport looked like the logical next big change.
Thus arose the short-lived boom in intercity electric railways. The basic idea may have been plausible, and it was indisputably a clever technological development, but few things in economic history have turned out worse. The interurbans never achieved a period of even ordinary profitability. They were declining as early as World War I, and they passed out of existence as an organized industry early in the Great Depression. Even memories of the interurbans have largely faded, and on that level at least, the industry deserves better.
Interurbans were basically a cross between the streetcar and the railroad: small (usually single-car) electric-powered trains that ran in frequent service, with many stops, mainly between medium-size cities. Ideally they were going to make the convenient service and low fares of streetcars available over distances that had formerly been covered only by steam railroads and horse-drawn vehicles. The idea was appealing, but adapting the technology took some doing.
When Frank J. Sprague perfected the electric streetcar in the late 1880s, he had developed something that suited urban conditions very well but would present serious problems for rural use. Direct-current (DC) motors were common-place by then, but before Sprague no one could build them rugged enough for streetcars. To avoid cumbersome and unreliable transmission belts and chains, the motors had to be mounted right on the axles, where they absorbed a mighty pounding from irregularities in the track. Sprague’s key innovation was a spring mounting for the motors. He also pioneered the adoption of five-hundred-volt direct current for streetcars, and many streetcar companies were the first generators of electricity in an area, often making a nice profit selling power to households and businesses.
Such current, which shortly was increased to six hundred volts almost everywhere, was ideal for frequent stops and starts within a city, but over long hauls too much of the current was lost to resistance. Thus the earliest major intercity electric lines went between large cities and smaller ones close by, such as Portland-Oregon City, inaugurated in 1893, and Cleveland-Akron in 1895. Their operators found it difficult to maintain voltage over even these moderate distances.
In 1896 Bion J. Arnold designed a system of three-phase alternating-current (AC) transmission that greatly reduced losses. The system was installed in 1898–99 on what became the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee, one of the most important and longest-lived of the interurbans. There Arnold’s arrangement entailed generating and transmitting AC at 5,500 volts and converting it locally along the way to DC with rotary converters. The early substations required continual attention, but in 1915 Arnold introduced automatic control devices to adjust the DC outputs to the demands of the line.
Once the transmission problems had been worked out, designing cars was simple. The equipment was an adaptation of the electric streetcar, but bigger, faster, and suited to longer distances. The typical interurban car of the early 190Os was part baggage compartment, part smoking parlor, and part a larger no-smoking area. The cars were things of beauty, wooden with stained-glass fanlights above the passengers’ windows. In a warm climate or a scenic area, there might be open cars. Because most interurbans used streetcar tracks in towns, the cars were joined by special radial couplings that could get them around curves as small as a forty-foot radius. This required the cars to have rounded ends, creating an unplanned streamlining that was aesthetically very pleasing.
The void the trains filled was a big one. Steam railroads served most large towns, but in the Midwest they usually stopped at the smaller ones only once or twice a day, sometimes at inconvenient hours. Even when they did stop in a town, the surrounding farm population had to take a horse and buggy to reach the station. Interurbans, by contrast, ran hourly in most cases and not only served towns but would halt at rustic crossroads or even in front of farms. Their coming was looked on as the greatest boon to rural mobility since the railroad itself. For the first time, residents of farm communities could travel twenty or thirty miles into town, spend several hours on shopping, amusement, or business, and be back before nightfall—all at their convenience, not the railroad’s. Commercial travelers could visit far more towns in a day on the interurban than when confined by a railroad’s schedule.
The early interurbans also handled freight, mainly in “box motors”—electric boxcars—and could provide better service than steam railways for short hauls. Thanks to the interurban, a store owner in Delaware, Ohio, could phone an order into a Columbus wholesaler early in the morning and know the shipment would arrive by early afternoon.
Such quick and convenient service looked very attractive in a world of buggies and dirt roads. In fact, optimism about interurbans went far beyond the rational, producing what can only be considered one of the classic manias. In Indiana alone more than three hundred lines were projected, and in the Maumee Valley from Toledo to Napoleon and Defiance, Ohio, no fewer than twenty-nine interurbans were proposed, none of them ever completed. Geography made Indiana and Ohio the hub of interurban development.
Indianapolis, a planned city at the center of its state, lay south of a number of moderate-size cities. Toledo, the commercial center of northwestern Ohio, had a similar pattern of medium-size cities to its south. Both were in flat country, where laying track was fairly cheap. Indianapolis developed a radial pattern of thirteen lines owned by five companies, including a short suburban line, while Toledo was served by the largest number of companies, nine. Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Evansville, also surrounded by flat country with numerous towns, developed interurban networks too. The radial pattern of the industry was so universal that the Canadians called interurbans “radial railways.”
These lines sprang up mainly during a boom from 1899 to 1908—or more specifically, two booms separated by the Rich Man’s Panic of 1903 and ended by the Panic of 1907. In 1900 569 miles were completed. Not all of this was in the Midwest; upstate New York developed an extensive network in the Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes regions, and isolated lines were undertaken elsewhere, including the West Coast. The remainder of the boom saw more than 1,000 miles built in every year except 1905.
One reason for the boom’s end, besides the panic, was a series of laws passed in the Midwestern states in 1906 and 1907 limiting steam railroads’ passenger fares to two cents per mile. This put an end to the interurbans’ price advantage, losing them the long-distance riders and leaving the industry more dependent on purely rural traffic.
In an attempt to drum up business, some lines built amusement parks, promoted their scenic views, established baseball leagues along their routes, and even offered trolley-car funeral processions. Nonetheless the industry grew too unprofitable, with returns on investment of usually less than 3 percent. Total interurban mileage peaked at 15,580 in 1916, but the building of new interurban lines had already started to plummet.
Starting in 1917, the mileage abandoned by interurban lines exceeded the mileage built every year. Several of the longer-lived interurbans became railroad subsidiaries, notably the vast Pacific Electric system in Southern California, a Southern Pacific property, and the Sacramento Northern, owned by the Western Pacific. The Pacific Electric had been built largely to stimulate real-estate development in the Los Angeles area; its builder, Henry Huntington, made as much from land sales as from carrying passengers.
The speed of the interurban boom and bust left many interurbans too unfinished after the mid-teens to compete for anything but local traffic. Charles L. Henry, president of the Indianapolis & Cincinnati Traction Company and a former congressman who had popularized the term interurban in the early 1890s, predicted in 1916 that “the fad feature of automobile riding will gradually wear off.” His own Indianapolis & Cincinnati never made it more than halfway to the latter city.
Shortfalls of this sort abounded. The Toledo & Indiana projected a line from Toledo to Fort Wayne that never got beyond the little county seat of Bryan, Ohio. The Lee County Central, in Illinois, ran from Amboy (population 1,900) through Lee Center (population 250) and terminated at Middlebury, a country crossroads with only a grain elevator and a school to identify it as a community. The Cleveland & Eastern’s Garrettsville line had such feeble generating capacity that its cars were limited to ten or fifteen miles per hour, and one could not start at all if another happened to be running.
Withal, the interurban system as completed served the eastern Midwest quite thoroughly. Between 1910 and 1922 it was possible to make a continuous trip of about 1,087 miles from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to Oneonta, New York, by interurban, though it would have meant riding some two dozen lines along the way.
But if interurbans were numerous, they by no means formed a homogeneous system. The connection between the lines radiating from Chicago and those of central Indiana, for example, was the Winona Interurban, a strange enterprise built by followers of the evangelist Billy Sunday to serve a camp they operated for religious meetings. Demand for transportation on the Winona was of course greatest on Sundays; but its proprietors refused to operate on the Lord’s Day.
The early interurbans’ typical overall speeds of about twenty miles per hour improved somewhat over time, but even if they could open up in rural areas, the interurbans generally traveled over street-railway tracks in major cities, where they couldn’t much exceed ten miles per hour. A few lines found ways to avoid street traffic. The Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee and the Chicago Aurora & Elgin bypassed urban congestion by entering Chicago over the elevated lines, which helped them survive well beyond World War II. In 1928 the interurbans in Rochester, New York, got off the streets onto a rapid-transit right-of-way fashioned out of an old canal bed, but they used it for only three years before succumbing to the Depression and the automobile.
Most interurbans were almost entirely limited to local passenger service, at which the automobile soon offered overwhelming advantages: it was faster and cheaper, made fewer stops, traveled point to point, and was available at a moment’s notice, day or night. World War I kept its full impact from being felt until the early 1920s. But then, in the course of a single decade, Americans shifted their principal dependence on intercity movement to the private car. The change crippled the interurbans.
The Republican administrations of the 1920s carried on the biggest public-works project in American history up to then, the building of hard-surfaced highways, which spread quickly through the interurbans’ heartland. Meanwhile, the farm economy, on which interurbans were so highly dependent, missed out on the decade’s general prosperity. The lines could not finance extensions, bypasses, and other major improvements, and then even routine upkeep became difficult.
The only kind of improvement most companies could afford now was cost-saving passenger equipment. Beginning in 1918, they began buying lightweight cars designed to be run by one man, not two, and in 1929 the Cincinnati Car Company produced a series of high-speed lightweight cars, the first to make extensive use of aluminum.
Their buyer, Thomas Conway of the large Cincinnati & Lake Erie line, believed the interurbans still could thrive in intermediate-distance runs, even as they were losing their short-distance business, and he believed his new cars could develop that market. As a promotional stunt, he had one of his cars race against a rather slow airplane and, predictably enough, win. With modernization the C&LE stayed in business longer than most interurbans, but in the end it too failed, going out of business in stages from 1932 to 1941. At the other technological extreme, the Lake Shore Electric and several other lines continued to operate with the wooden cars of the century’s first decade, or the heavy steel cars of the second, until the very end.
Some interurbans tried to survive by developing their freight operations. But after World War I their advantage over steam railroads in moving small loads over short distances was quickly lost to trucks, which could go anywhere there was a road. (The automobile explosion did bring temporary—albeit suicidal—benefits: since many interurbans ran alongside local roads, some of them did a nice business handling sand and gravel to pave the highways that were causing their demise.) The most attractive way to expand freight operations was to cooperate with the railroads, but here too there were numerous technical impediments, and most of the railroads themselves were hostile. They rejected attempts to set joint rates and schedules, withheld permission for grade crossings, thus forcing interurbans to build expensive overpasses or underpasses, and refused the physical interchange of freight as far as government regulators would allow. Fistfights occasionally broke out between gangs of railroad and interurban workers.
There was one outstanding attempt to upgrade an interurban into a heavy-duty electrified railroad with extensive freight interchange: the Chicago South Shore & South Bend. The electric-power baron Samuel lnsull took control of Chicago’s three major interurban lines in 1925 and began improving them. He succeeded so well with the South Shore line that he decided to attempt a similar upgrading of the interurban network of central Indiana. By 1930 he controlled all but one of the interurbans radiating from Indianapolis. He brought together his holdings into a single company, the Indiana Railroad System, planning to abandon the weaker lines and improve the rest, and he ordered better cars from Pullman and American Car & Foundry. His timing could hardly have been worse. The Depression was already starting to devastate the industry, and in the years from 1930 to 1933 mileage was abandoned almost as fast as it had been built in the century’s first decade.
More than a thousand miles per year disappeared in the early 1930s, and the Ohio-Indiana network lost its identity. The connection between Fort Wayne and Ohio was abandoned in 1932, and the direct line between Indianapolis and Dayton fell five years later, ending the physical connection between the Indiana and Ohio lines. Insull’s Midland United Corporation failed in 1932, and the Indiana Railroad was reduced to liquidating its system. Abandonment of the company’s Indianapolis-Muncie-Fort Wayne line on January 18, 1941, represented the end for the Ohio-Indiana network.
By the time America entered World War II, nothing was left except a handful of interurbans that had integrated themselves with the railroads: the three Chicago lines, the Iowa interurbans, four lines in Utah, what remained of the Pacific Electric and Sacramento Northern in California, plus a few others scattered around the country. The last interurban to operate with traditional technology and without handling railroad freight was the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, from Norristown to Allentown, Pennsylvania. It finally shut down in 1951. The industry became utterly extinct in 1961, when the North Shore line and what was left of the Pacific Electric gave up. All that remained were a few remnants of former interurbans being used to switch freight. One, the Mason City & Clear Lake, in Iowa, still does this with standard interurban electric locomotives. The South Shore line hangs on, but barely, under heavy public subsidy. It may not last much longer.
Beyond that the interurbans have passed into the realm of museum preservation and industrial archeology. The Ohio Railway Museum at Worthington, just north of Columbus, has probably the best example of an early heavy wooden interurban, Ohio Public Service Company 21. The Illinois Railway Museum at Union has a big collection of Illinois Traction cars, and the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, is the Valhalla of old Pacific Electric equipment.
Here and there you can still spot a few old culverts, some utility-pole lines that follow old rights-of-way, stretches of paved-over track in the streets of small towns, and a few surviving stations put to other uses. To those who loved the interurbans, there is a thrill in spotting the old substation in Almont, Michigan, which until recently served as a church, or seeing the interurban station in Clarksville, West Virginia, still handling the dwindling passenger counts of Greyhound bus lines. But today it is becoming difficult to find even such transformed survivals. The interurbans were just too transitory. They were a clever idea that didn’t go.