Electric Interurbans and the American People

Electric Interurbans and the American People

Electric Interurbans and the American People

Electric Interurbans and the American People


One of the most intriguing yet neglected pieces of American transportation history, electric interurban railroads were designed to assist shoppers, salesmen, farmers, commuters, and pleasure-seekers alike with short distance travel. At a time when most roads were unpaved and horse and buggy travel were costly and difficult, these streetcar-like electric cars were essential to economic growth. But why did interurban fever strike so suddenly and extensively in the Midwest and other areas? Why did thousands of people withdraw their savings to get onto what they believed to be a "gravy train?" How did officials of competing steam railroads respond to these challenges to their operations? H. Roger Grant explores the rise and fall of this fleeting form of transportation that started in the early 1900s and was defunct just 30 years later. Perfect for railfans, Electric Interurbans and the American People is a comprehensive contribution for those who love the flanged wheel.


Today, many of us are familiar with the DOT-COM boom of the 1990s followed by the economic collapse of 2007–2008. a century before, in the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, another industry burst into American life, the electric railway interurbans. Expansion of this industry was first affected by the financial impact of 1907’s panic, and the building of paved roads sealed the interurbans’ doom. Essentially the industry was born, matured, and died within a human life span.

Interurbans were the transition between horse-drawn and motorpowered vehicles, passenger and freight. Their very name, evoking the thought of something running between cities, reflects their profound effect on urban and rural life. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the interurbans is the genesis of rural electrification.

Especially in midwestern states, the industry was largely owned and promoted by electric utility interests. a power distribution system was needed to provide electric energy for the trains. the investment in these distribution systems was, in part, economically justified by selling power to towns, villages, hamlets, and even individual farms along the way. Electricity changed farm life forever.

Due to their local focus, interurbans created linkages, economic and social, between their terminal cities and the clusters of businesses and population along the way. Markets were created where before none existed. Mobility was provided beyond the range of a horse for both business and pleasure. While the financial and technical aspects of the interurbans have been well documented, the profound sociological impacts of this industry have been rarely addressed. Into this breach H. Roger Grant has stepped.

Grant has nailed it in the work that follows. We now have a definitive study of the impacts of the electric railway industry on life a century ago. Why is this important? Slowly but surely the lines that were abandoned decades ago are being rebuilt at huge capital costs. Where, you ask? Would . . .

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