Most of our viewers, taking a quick glance at the photo above, might easily mistake it for a trio of vintage streetcars. But they'd be wrong. It's actually an "electric interurban" train. Once popular throughout North America, interurbans, as the name suggests, connected small towns and suburbs with big cities. Sometimes they'd share tracks with the railways but more often than not the interurbans had their own right-of-way.
Our modern equivalent is commonly known as a commuter train, whose journeys may be quicker but are no more interesting than the name suggests. Bring a newspaper, folks, because there's nothing to see outside those windows. Interurban routes, on the other hand, were the railroad equivalent of a car guy's back country road. They wandered through forests, past farms, across bridges that traversed creeks and rivers, alongside highways, and sometimes cruised slowly along a small town's main street. Even if you rode the interurban twice daily it would be difficult not to notice the moving panorama and appreciate its scenic moments.
The trains weren't slow – most could achieve 80 mph and accelerate much faster than a steam or diesel locomotive – but it was the nature of the route and the requirement for frequent stops that kept average speeds down. On the other hand, as electrics, they were both clean-running and quiet.
I'm probably guilty of unwarranted nostalgia here, for I've only ridden on a interurban twice in my life, both times as a teenager. And yet those trips remain large in my memory, even after traveling thousands of miles, usually with my father, on conventional railroad trains. I did admire the fast-moving expresses of the day and yet those interurbans contributed to a romantic vew of travel that, decades later, still hasn't faded
Incidentally, just before the interurban era ended, Milwaukee introduced streamlined three-car trains in which the middle unit contained a bar. Now that's a civilised way to wend one's way home from the office (although some waiting wives may have disagreed)!
My motivation for this blog came from an online sales pitch by Classic Trains magazine, in which it offers an expanded 40-page issue on the interurbans. Of course I'm not here to sell products but it seems to me that this is something anyone who loves vintage transportation (not just cars) would enjoy. It includes a look back at the North Shore Line, the fastest interurban and the one with the bar; a ride on the Pacific Electric line; the 10-best interurban car designs; and a gallery of rare photos. You can buy it on the newsstand for an extra two bucks but the annual subscription is a bargain at $24.95 for four quarterly issues.
The age of the interurbans may be long gone but it still lives in the guise of the East Troy Electric Railroad, a museum that operates heritage passenger excursions on a 7-mile stretch of track from East Troy, Wisconsin to Mukwonago, Wisconsin. There are several cars in the fleet but the railroad's pride is car no. 21, a single-truck open bench replica from the turn of the last century. Worth the trip if you're anywhere near and, oh... next to the museum you can still order traditional ice cream sodas.
[Photo: Classic Trains]