Goodbye To The Interurban

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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.