Goodbye To The Interurban

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Widely advertised as “the Greatest Mountain Trolley Trip in the World,” the Mount Lowe line operated for over forty years, but troubles plagued it from the start. Fire destroyed Echo Mountain House in 1900, and in 1905 a windstorm toppled the Chalet and started a fire that destroyed every building on Echo Mountain but the observatory. A landslide smashed Rubio Hotel to the canyon floor in 1909, and in 1936 a fire wiped out the last hotel. Two years later a cloudburst destroyed most of the railway itself.

A number of midwestern interurbans constructed baseball parks to stimulate traffic, and several Ohio lines organized leagues among communities along their lines. The Cleveland & Southwestern Baseball Trolley League included six towns reached by the interurban; the railway donated a silver cup to the winning team, assisted in advertising the games, and offered free rides to the players. One of the line’s officials acted as president of the league.

Various kinds of “theatre specials” were always popular on the interurbans. During the twenties the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee operated Grand Opera Specials during the opera season and served a light supper on the return trip. As recently as the mid-fifties it still operated special excursion trains to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at Ravinia Park, north of Evanston. Nowadays, one inches home hungry through the traffic.

Special trains were often operated for company picnics, lodge outings, and similar excursions of the celluloid-collar set, and almost every interurban line of any consequence maintained one or more ornate parlor cars for charter service. As an early text on the operation of electric railways observed, “The chartered car appeals to the feelings of exclusiveness, sense of ownership and comfort beloved of most humans.”

Travel over really great distances never amounted to much, but some rather lengthy interurban trips were possible. One could ride from Shawmut, a little town just north of Waterville, Maine, along a series of connecting lines to New York City and then, after crossing the Hudson River by ferry, continue on as far south as Delaware City, Delaware, or as far west as Newville, Pennsylvania. A 1903 article in World’s Work , which praised the benefits of the “trolley vacation,” outlined a trip from Boston to New York that required two days of “hard and steady electric travel” and cost $3.28 in fares. Trolley travel between the two cities became a little less arduous and expensive a few years later when the Old Colony Street Railway Company joined in an overnight trolley-steamer service. Travellers boarded the cars at Post Office Square in Boston for the trip to Fall River, where they transferred to steamers for the overnight run to New York. The cost of that entire trip, a comfortable one, was only $1.75. (Present cost, by railroad, one way, is $11.58; by air, $16, not counting travel to airports; in turnpike tolls alone, $3.30.)

In 1915 the Interurban Trolley Guide outlined for the “enthusiastic trolley tourist” a Chicago-to-New York trip which could then be made entirely on interurban lines with the exception of two short stretches in New York State, where it was necessary to use steam trains. The journey took anywhere from thirty-one to forty-five hours, depending on connections, cost about twenty-one dollars, and covered twenty-five different electric railways. Needless to say, the arrangement never caused undue concern on the part of competing steam-railway officials.

One of the first efforts by the trolley people to invade the steam roads’ long-haul, luxury market came in 1905, when three electric lines joined in the operation of the deluxe Interstate Limited between Indianapolis and Dayton. The special cars were luxuriously appointed, and a buffet between the two usual compartments—the smoker and the “ladies’ parlor”- served light meals from a menu said to be every bit the equal of those on Pullman buffet cars.

Sleeping-car service was soon afterward commenced by the Illinois Traction lines, on the 172-mile main line from St. Louis to Peoria. In a time before airconditioning, cinder-free sleepers had distinct advantages over steam-railroad Pullmans. Illinois Traction’s berths were fully six inches longer, and its cars were twenty years ahead of Pullman’s in providing windows for upper-berth passengers. Every berth had a plushlined safe-deposit box, and porters served free coffee and rolls in the morning. Only two other lines ever followed Illinois Traction’s lead.

Speed was always a matter of concern with electricrailway men. Even though many interurban cars were capable of whisking along at well over sixty miles per hour, over-all running times were anything but rapid during the early years, for tracks were rarely up to it and almost every line had to pass through the streets of cities and towns. As late as 1906 three Ohio interurbans were claiming the “fastest electric service in the world,” but even their “limiteds” averaged only about thirty-two miles per hour. In local service, they could easily outpace their steam competitors, but when the interurbans made their bid for the long-haul trade, they were at first at a disadvantage.

Many lines stood by conventional car designs, and produced big, powerful steel cars capable of very high speeds. On his three Chicago interurbans, the midwestern utilities magnate Samuel Insull not only introduced handsome new steel cars but spent millions reconstructing and relocating tracks. “Did you ever travel 80 miles an hour?” challenged North Shore Line ads, and all the Insull interurbans enjoyed their most profitable years during the 1920’s.