RAILWAYS, INTERURBAN. Electric interurban trains grew out of city-based networks of electric streetcars, commonly known as trolleys. Transit companies nationwide began to electrify their lines following the successful installation of a so-called "Sprague" system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888. Inventors had been experimenting with electricity as a source of motive power for at least fifty years prior, but their systems had proved unworkable or unreliable. Frank Sprague, a young graduate of the Naval Academy and former assistant to Thomas Edison, developed a system that made electrically powered streetcars feasible, and electricity quickly replaced animal, cable, and other motive systems. In 1890, 70 percent of streetcar power was supplied by animals, but by 1902, 97 percent of all streetcars were powered by electric motors. Because electrifying streetcar lines was expensive, a period of consolidation followed within the transit industry that often left a local transportation market with only one or two competitors, all of which were much better capitalized than their predecessors.
These larger companies were interested in and dependent upon expansion. Many generated the electricity that moved the streetcars themselves, and constantly sought new uses for excess capacity. The search for ways to use excess power along with other social forces such as urbanization, increasing literacy, industrial growth and consolidation, and the impending end of rural isolation combined to impel the extension of the electric networks into the countryside, and eventually into vast interurban networks that operated in competition with the ubiquitous steam railroad.
The first electric railroads that were consciously "interurban" originated in the Midwest, particularly Ohio and Indiana. While the actual definition of "interurban" was a matter of some confusion even then, the distinction that emerged over time is essentially based on the primary operating goal of the railroad: interurbans were electric trains that carried passengers (not freight) from one city to another. The terrain of Ohio and Indiana was ideally suited for this kind of transportation, dotted, as it was, with small yet significant towns that needed quick and easy connections to the major metropolitan centers where most business took place.
Nationally, mileage increased quickly, yet sporadically. From 1900 to 1904, more than 5,000 miles of track were built, and a second boom from 1907 to 1908 added roughly 4,000 additional miles. These 9,000 miles of track represented over 55 percent of the eventual total of 16,000 miles. Ohio led all states with 2,798 miles of track, Indiana followed with 1,825 miles, and Illinois was also in the top five. Pennsylvania, New York, and California ranked three, five, and six in total mileage, demonstrating that interurbans grew outside the Midwest as well.
One such place was California, where Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric interurban network in Los Angeles had a profound impact on the nature of that city's famously decentralized spatial arrangement. Huntington used his interurban trains to spur residential and commercial development in his massive land holdings, creating a metropolitan network of smaller towns linked to central Los Angeles (whose streetcar system, the LARY, he also owned) and determining the directions in which this network would grow. While Huntington was not unique in this respect, the situation in which he operated was: Los Angeles was small, yet rapidly growing, and relatively free from legal restrictions that might have impeded the growth of the interurban network. As a result, inter-urbans in Los Angeles played a crucial role in determining the spatial arrangement of the city. The effect in other cities was important as well; in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, the main interstate highway routing follows a right-of-way by which interurban trains once entered the city.
The replacement of an interurban right-of-way with an interstate highway is symbolic of the fate of the industry as a whole. The interurbans peaked at a time (reaching peak mileage in 1916) when fast intercity transportation was demanded by the regionalization and nationalization of business, but before the automobile brought an astonishing level of comfort, convenience, and flexibility to travel. Electric interurban trains always provided lower quality service than steam railroads, and competed on price and frequency of service. When both lower steam railroad fares and affordable automobiles threatened this niche, the industry was doomed. Some companies turned to freight hauling or express delivery service in an attempt to make up lost revenue, but the growth of both trucks and air delivery eroded any cost or frequency edge that they might have had. The industry declined almost as precipitously as it had climbed: more than 5,000 miles of track were abandoned, and by 1940 4,000 miles, at most, remained in service—only 25 percent of the peak total. By 1960, and throughout the 1970s, the South Shore Electric, between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, was the only electric interurban railway in the country.
In many ways, interurbans were victims of their own success. Their promises of cheap, frequent service created expectations that made the automobile appealing to millions of Americans tired of the tyranny of railroad schedules. By 1950, the automobile had replaced local trolleys and interurbans for short-haul traffic, and commercial air service was a well-established competitor that was over-taking long-distance passenger rail service. The decline of electric interurban service is but one aspect of the marginalization of all forms of passenger rail service in the United States. Despite their almost total demise, inter-urbans have taken on a second life as a hobby. Enthusiasts across the nation restore, preserve, and recreate interurban cars, routes, and buildings, indicating the powerful hold that rail travel has on the American imagination, if not its travel dollars. Recent proposals for the revival of rail service are often simply calls to reinstitute old inter-urban service. Many of the runs, such as St. Louis to Chicago and Los Angeles to San Diego, were the sites of actual or proposed high-speed lines in 1910; and the Midwest is the site of an immense proposed high-speed rail network, much as it was once the site of the largest of the interurban networks.
Friedricks, William B. Henry E. Huntington and the Creation of Southern California. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.
Harwood, Herbert, Jr., and Robert S. Korach. The Lake Shore Electric Railway Story. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Hilton, George W., and John F. Due. The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Middleton, William D. The Interurban Era. Milwaukee, Wis.: Kalmbach, 1961.