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High Speed Interurban or Inter-city Trolleys Connect Many Major U.S. and Canadian Cities

Interurban Trolley Lines Spread Across North America

It wasn't long after the city or urban street railways were electrified, that companies were formed to provide frequent, inexpensive, high speed trolley service between cities, all over the United States and many parts of Canada. These larger, and much faster inter-city trolleys, were called interurbans.

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Early 20th century interurban train which was operated by the Coeur D'Alene & Spokane Railway in the State of Washington. (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell)

Interurban Trolleys Had Many Advantages Over Steam Railroads

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, the interurban trolley lines spread very rapidly, competing against the steam railroads for inter-city passengers in many areas of North America.  The interurbans had several advantages over the steam railroads. 

  1. Because the electric interurban trolleys were very economical to operate, they could carry passengers between the same cities as the steam railroads, for less money.  So the fares on the interurbans, in most cases, were cheaper than the steam railroads.

  2. The ability of the interurban lines to operate their trains more economically, allowed  them to provide more frequent service than the steam railroads.

  3. Because the interurban trolleys had powerful electric motors, and were able to accelerate to top speed much more rapidly than a steam locomotive, they were able to maintain faster schedules than the steam railroads could between two cities.  Even though the interurban trolleys quite often made more frequent stops in rural areas, than the steam railroads did, the interurbans could still maintain a faster schedule, because of their ability to accelerate more rapidly.

  4. Also, because interurban trolleys could make more frequent stops, they became popular with farmers, and other people who lived in rural areas.  The ability to stop at rural road crossings for passengers, and then accelerate back to top speed quickly, allowed the interurban lines to serve a market, that was impossible for the steam railroads to serve economically.  Also, the interurbans could move the farmer's products to market, in the big cities along it's lines.  In many parts of North America, before automobiles and trucks, the interurbans were the only way to travel, and move products to market quickly, and economically.

  5. Interurban trolleys, entered many of the cities and towns along their lines, directly over the rails of the local trolley line in each city or town.  This allowed the interurbans, to bring passengers directly to the downtown business district of the cities and towns they served.  In many cases, the steam railroad depots were a few blocks outside the downtown business district.  This required passengers of the steam railroads to either walk downtown, or hire a livery (early horse drawn taxi) to take them downtown.  This advantage, became a disadvantage for the interurbans in later years, as buses and automobiles became more popular.   Because of the traffic congestion created by these motor vehicles, the interurban trolleys quite often got caught in traffic, in the downtown areas of the cities and towns they passed through.  This caused the interurban lines to lose some of the time advantages, that they had enjoyed over the steam railroads in earlier years.  And, this was one of the major factors, that led to the eventual demise of many interurban lines.

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Interurban trolleys of the Ohio Electric Railway, meet at the interurban station, on West Market Street, in downtown Lima, Ohio. (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell)

At one time, Indianapolis, Indiana had the world's largest interurban terminal.  It was located right in the downtown area.

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Opened in 1904, the great "Traction Terminal" in Indianapolis, Indiana, grew to become the largest interurban railway terminal in the world.   In its heyday, this terminal hosted some 7 million passengers a year, and 500 interurban trains a day, from all over the state of Indiana, and as far away as, Louisville, Kentucky. (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell).

Interurban Trolley Lines Also Provided Freight Service

Many interurban trolley lines supplemented their income from passenger service, by providing car load (CL), and less than car load (LCL) freight and package delivery services.  Many merchants and manufacturing companies, depended on the fast, frequent service provided by the interurban trolley lines, to deliver their goods to customers in the cities, towns and rural areas, they served.

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Indiana Railroad trolley freight motor (used to carry LCL freight and packages), hauling a box car (for car load freight) into the freight station in Muncie, Indiana (Photo from the collection of  Rick Russell)

In the 1930's Some Interurbans Upgraded Equipment to Attract Passengers

In order to compete against the automobile and buses, some interurban trolley lines made an attempt to stay in business, by purchasing modern, lightweight, more economical, high speed equipment, such as #1030 of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company (pictured below).

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Lehigh Valley Transit Company #1030, formerly Indiana Railroad Company #55, shown arriving at "Arundel Station" at the Seashore Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport, Maine. (Photo by Rick Russell)

Car #1030, ran in Indiana on the Indiana Railroad as #55, and later in Pennsylvania, on the Lehigh Valley Transit Company's high speed, interurban trolley line, between Philadelphia and Allentown.  This car is capable of speeds close to 100 miles per hour.  It is a deluxe parlor car, and can be seen, and on special occasions, ridden at The Seashore Trolley Museum, in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The World War ll Years Bring Short-lived Prosperity to The Few Interurbans Still Operating

The World War ll years were prosperous times for the few interurban trolley lines, which were still in business when America was drawn into the war, by the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The rationing of gasoline and tires, and the limited availability of new automobiles, forced Americans to turn to public transportation, to get to work, or to travel for business or pleasure.  Some interurban trolley lines enjoyed passenger counts, which they hadn't seen since the very early 1900's, before automobiles became readily available.

This may be the reason why, in 1946, The Illinois Terminal Railroad, a large mid-western interurban trolley system, which connected St Louis, Missouri with much of the central part of the state of Illinois, made an ill advised million dollar investment in new interurban passenger equipment.  That decision would turn out to prove once and for all, that the interurban railroads could not compete against the automobile.

It was hoped that the new equipment, would help the Illinois Terminal Railroad, maintain its passenger counts, at levels close to those they enjoyed during the war years.  

However, by the time the new equipment started to arrive in the fall of 1948, it was too late.  The ready availability of new automobiles, and gasoline after the wartime years of rationing, was too much for the American public to resist.  People were once again able to be mobile, when they wanted to be, and were not tied to the schedules of public transportation systems.

One of the three new streamlined, electric interurban trains, the "Fort Crevecoeur", delivered to the Illinois Terminal Railroad, by the St. Louis Car Company, is shown above at the terminal in Springfield, Illinois.  This appears to be a publicity photo, commissioned by the Illinois Terminal, and put on a post card.  It is assumed that the post card was sold in company terminals.  The other two trains were named the "City of Decatur" and the "Mound City". (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell).

The three new streamlined trains, which were ordered from the St. Louis Car Company, were state of the art, and had all the amenities (including air conditioning and a parlor-lounge-observation car), of the modern streamlined trains, which were being operated by the steam railroads, that competed with the Illinois Terminal, for passengers traveling between central Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri.


Copy of desk calendar issued by the Illinois Terminal Railroad in 1950, to promote the three new streamlined interurban trains. (Calendar from the collection of Rick Russell).

Click on "RAPID TRANSIT RD." to Continue your ride through the history of the trolley era.




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Page Last Updated: March 10, 2001