Convenience before cars: the age of the interurban railway

‘The middle class way to get around’

Before automobiles became a way of life, there was the interurban car.

The interurban railway was a system of mass transit used mainly in the Midwest connecting one city center to another.

>>> PHOTOS: Interurban trave in early 1900s Dayton

In the heyday between 1900 and 1917, there were 10,000 interurban cars in the country running on over 18,000 miles of track. Dayton was the second largest interurban center, behind only Indianapolis.

In Ohio, every town with a population of 10,000 or more had interurban service.

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The cars glided over steel rails laced through cities and stretching into the countryside. Powered by electricity that ran on overhead lines, the cars could transport passengers at speeds up to 75 mph.

While common in urban areas, the interurban railway bridged a transportation gap for people living in rural communities.

“Out in the country, that’s where you were really limited,” said Alex Heckman, director of education and museum operations at Carillon Historical Park.

“If you’re a farmer out in the middle of Preble County and you want to come to Dayton, that’s a long trip by horse and buggy and would be relatively taxing for everyone, the horse included.”

The mode of transportation expanded horizons across the Midwest.

“It was a way to develop regions and a way that cities expanded because of the ease of getting around from one city to another,” Heckman said.

College students attending Ohio State University were able to hop on a car and return home to Dayton from Columbus on the weekend while farm wives could ride into the city, do their shopping and return home in time to make dinner.

Two local brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, rode the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana line eight miles to a pasture now known as the Huffman Prairie Flying Field to conduct tests on their new flying machine.

“That particular line seemed to suffer from a lot of reliability problems and it was derided as the Damned, Slow and Uncertain,” Heckman said.

A typical car would hold 50 passengers who sat on seats made from wicker or were upholstered in cloth or leather. They were surrounded by a rich interior made of mahogany, cherry or oak with inlaid designs.

The cars were “the middle class way to get around,” Heckman said.

Travelers watched the scenery through windows trimmed in brocade drapes with stained glass details.

Elegant designs gilded in gold leaf decorated the heavy wallpaper on the ceilings and were illuminated by ornate electric lights powered by the turning steel wheels.

The rise of more affordable automobiles combined with improved roadways and a desire to travel independently spelled the end for the interurban railway.

By 1939, the interurban lines in the Dayton area were no longer running except for one three-mile stretch between Dayton and Southern Hills that hung on until 1941.

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