Goodbye To The Interurban

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Many of Pacific Electric’s interurban routes were conceived for purposes of real-estate promotion, and Huntington’s profits from his Pacific Electric Land Company were probably at least as great as those earned by his electric cars. Much of southern California grew up along Pacific Electric lines, and such nowpopulous and prominent areas as Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the San Fernando Valley were little more than open fields until the “big red cars” arrived.

But the grandest, most intriguing interurban scheme of them all was the Chicago-New York Air Line. Its promoters proposed to build a 750-mile, double-track “super railroad” between the two cities that would be fully 160 miles shorter than any steam route, with running times “10 hours quicker than the quickest” and fares “$10 cheaper than the cheapest.” Captivated by the enthusiasm of the line’s founder and president, Alexander C. Miller, thousands rushed to buy stock.

As the tracks inched across northern Indiana, the stockholders’ interest and enthusiasm were bolstered by a monthly newspaper, the Air Line News , which trumpeted even the smallest progress as a major achievement, and by such booster organizations as the Kankakee Air Line Stockholders’ Association of the World. But Miller’s impossibly high construction Standards created prohibitive costs, and progress was disappointingly slow. Four years were spent constructing a tremendous fill, nearly two miles long and 180 feet wide at the base, across Coffey Creek Bottoms, east of Gary, Indiana. The mighty mound of earth was finally completed, but it helped empty the Air Line treasury and exhausted the stockholders’ patience. With less than thirty miles of its arrow-straight track built, and only one pair of glossy interurban cars (lettered “Chicago” at one end and “New York” at the other) to show for its promoters’ efforts, the Air Line wound up as part of just another small system.

Interurban men, as a rule, refrained from the sort of “public be damned” shenanigans practiced by the steam-railroad barons of earlier days. There were occasional lapses, however. In 1924 Valentine Winters, manager of the Dayton & Western Traction Company, became involved in a squabble with the officials of New Lebanon, Ohio, over paving between the rails which traversed city streets. Unable to reach a satisfactory agreement, Winters disdainfully ripped them up and built a new line around New Lebanon on private right of way. “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 station just outside town.

Traction lines were normally constructed in the hope of making a profit for the stockholders, but there were several devoted to more lofty objectives. The Winona Interurban Railway, in Indiana, was constructed by the Winona Assembly and Summer School Session, and its profits went to the operation of a trade school for poor children. When a Tulsa, Oklahoma, oilman established the Sand Springs Home to care for orphans and for widows with children, he endowed it liberally with tracts of industrial land and a multitude of business enterprises, chief among them an interurban, the Sand Springs Railway, which carried passengers until 1954.

Almost from the beginning, interurban proprietors were alert for new methods of attracting extra revenue. Amusement parks were one of the most common traffic builders, and many a company had an “Electric Park” or its equivalent located along its route. When the Stark Electric Railroad was built in northern Ohio soon after the turn of the century, an elaborate park was included in the construction plans. A pond that was dammed to provide water for the line’s powerhouse was also stocked with fish, and a large fleet of rowboats was purchased for rental. Playground equipment and picnic facilities were installed on the edge of the pond, and a dance pavilion was erected. Skating on the pond built up winter traffic on the cars.

Pacific Electric operated the world’s largest bath house and salt-water plunge at Redondo Beach, California, and an auto race track, the Motordrome, near Playa del Rey. But its greatest tourist attraction was the famed Mount Lowe line, originally built in 1893 by Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the Civil War balloonist. Interurban cars carried excursionists from Los Angeles up Rubio Canyon, north of Pasadena, to a hotel, dance hall, and refreshment stand. Above Rubio the Great Cable Incline carried them to the summit of Echo Mountain, and there two additional hotels, the Chalet and Echo Mountain House, were surrounded by such attractions as hiking trails and bridle paths, a zoo, a museum, and an observatory equipped with a sixteen-inch telescope. The three-million-candlepower Great World’s Fair Searchlight, which Professor Lowe bought and installed on Echo Mountain in 1894, was visible 150 miles at sea.

Above Echo Mountain a narrow-gauge “Alpine Division” carried the excursionists through spectacular mountain scenery to Mount Lowe Springs, where a fourth hotel, the Alpine Tavern, was built 1,100 feet below the summit of the mountain. The narrow-gauge track wound through 127 curves in four miles, and crossed eighteen trestles, one of which described an almost complete circle. The roadbed was carved out of solid granite throughout its entire length.