The Electric Interurban Railways In America, By George W. Hilton And John F. Due

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

If you are interested in learning about the history of this country's ever-so-brief fling with interurbans than there is really only one book on the subject, at least in the modern era, that thoroughly covers this unique aspect of railroading, The Electric Interurban Railways In America written by noted rail historians George W. Hilton and John F. Due. The book dates all of the way back to its original printing in 1960 although it remains in publication today thanks to the Stanford University Press. Only once has the book been updated with new information, which came in 1964 with additional companies added to the end. Overall, the book offers more than 400 pages of information and is broken down into two primary sections; discussing the history of interurban industry in general and then a look at those states which featured the most mileage (some of the larger companies are even given special coverage). While there are other books out there highlighting certain aspects of interurbans Due's and Hilton's title covers them in far greater detail than any other.

One of the first things to keep in mind with The Electric Interurban Railways In America is that this is in no way a coffee table book with large, vivid photographs (although there is a small section of historic, black and white images). As such, you must enjoy reading, as it can take quite some time to complete the book from cover to cover. In any event, "Part I" of Hilton's and Due's book focuses on, as mentioned above, the interurban industry's history breaking it down into eight different chapters covering nearly 250 pages. The opening chapter entitled "The Rise Of The Interurbans" discusses, as you might expect, the industry's roots and how it all began. Here the authors describe the role street railways played in blossoming interurban systems that served multiple towns, as well as how pure exuberance allowed so much capital to be poured into the industry.

It is a quite fascinating read to the say least and the first chapter is more than 40 pages in length by itself. Chapter two takes a somewhat different approach as the book gets into how these companies gained their rights-of-way (whether through direct property purchase or easements along roadways and through towns). Interestingly, it is here where the interurbans ultimately saw there demise years later as they attempted to survive via freight traffic when passenger patronage rapidly eroded after 1920. Unfortunately, steep and circuitous routes prevented many companies from successfully transitioning over to a profitable freight business. Other sections of this chapter discuss such things as street operations, electrified lines and power systems, signaling and dispatching, passenger equipment and car builders, and freight locomotives/cars.

Moving into chapters three and four these could actually almost be combined into one as they discuss the role of passenger and freight traffic within the industry. Put together both chapters make up nearly 50 pages. The passenger chapter talks about how fast most interurbans operated and the frequency and level of services they offered. One of the more interesting sections of this chapter keys on the "Limited" runs some interurban offers, similar to flagship passenger trains traditional railroads scheduled. These high speed runs offered few stops in an effort to arrive from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the railroad industry had this market virtually cornered although some interurbans still offered such services as parlor, dining, and even observation cars.

One of my personal favorite chapters in the book is the discussion of freight traffic. Most interurbans were not particularly successful at this, as mentioned above, although it was not only because of either poor routes or small markets. Most business they attracted was LCL (less-than-carload) which was not terribly profitable in itself. Some lines, however, beat the statistics and thrived from heavy freight operations; notably the Piedmont & Northern, Illinois Terminal, and the Sacramento Northern although there were others. Other parts of this chapter talks about the freight equipment and locomotives used as well as the difficulties many eastern interurbans had in trying to get main line railroads to provide interchange services with them.

In chapters five and six the reading is interesting although it can also become a bit tedious as the author's speak of the government's involvement in the industry as well as the various financial aspects such as cost of construction, operating expenses, peak profit periods, and so forth. Moving into chapters seven and eight it is here where The Electric Interurban Railways In America becomes especially interesting, at least if you are curious in understanding just how and why the interurban industry collapsed. Along with detailing this the authors also provide interesting charts and graphs physically showing the decline and just how quickly it came about.  It is in chapter eight where you will learn why the industry finally decided to call it quits, save for those few companies that had successfully transitioned into standard railroads. 

In "Part II" of the book you can spend time reading about all of the individual interurbans within a particular state although Due and Hilton do not include every state only those that had notable companies operating within their borders. Some of the states featuring the most mileage included Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and Indiana with the bulk of the industry centered around the Midwest.   One point throughout The Electric Interurban Railways in America that Due and Hilton attempt to drive home is the stark difference between true interurban lines and what were considered street or suburban railways. Essentially, the former connected two or more communities some distance apart while the latter companies focused on a particular city or local region. Once again, if you would like to learn more about the interurban industry this is a book that you will certainly want to have within your collection.