Goodbye To The Interurban

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.