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Wisconsin Interurban System - $1,000 5.5% Gold Bond (Uncanceled)

Inv# RB5700   Bond
State(s): Wisconsin
Years: 1917
Color: Brown or Orange

$1,000 5 1/2% Gold Uncanceled Bond. Western Bank Note & Engr Co., Chicago. All 40 coupons remain. Also available in $500 5 1/2% Brown and $100 5 1/2% Green.

The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad (reporting mark CNSM), also known as the North Shore Line, was an interurban that operated between the Chicago Loop and downtown Milwaukee in the U.S. states of Illinois and Wisconsin. At its greatest extent, the North Shore Line consisted of two mainlines and a branch line which utilized a combination of private rights-of-way, street running and trackage rights over the Chicago "L" system. The North Shore Line provided both passenger and freight service, as well as streetcar and bus services.

The object of significant capital investment under the ownership of Samuel Insull, the North Shore Line was notable among interurbans for its substantial physical plant, its record-setting operating speeds and the innovative services it provided, such as its pioneering "ferry truck" operations and streamlined Electroliners. The North Shore Line was also notable for its relative longevity; one of the four interurbans still operating in 1960, it was the second and last to undergo complete abandonment. Author and railroad historian William D. Middleton described the North Shore Line as a "super interurban" and opined that its cessation of rail service in 1963 marked the end of the "interurban era" in the United States.

Today, the Chicago Transit Authority operates the Yellow Line from Chicago to Skokie over a short segment of former mainline. Several examples of North Shore Line rolling stock are preserved in railroad museums or private collections, and the former Dempster Street Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When the North Shore Line assumed operations of the Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railroad in 1916, it inherited an arrangement in which its trains operated on the Chicago and Evanston Line of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad south of Laurel Avenue in Wilmette to a terminal at Church Street in Evanston, where passengers transferred to and from Northwestern Elevated trains.

In 1919, further trackage rights agreements were negotiated with both the Northwestern Elevated and the St. Paul Road which permitted North Shore Line trains to operate over the "L" south of Church Street, over the North Side Main Line and through the Loop, to a downtown terminal at Roosevelt Road. From 1922 to 1938 some trains operated as far south as Dorchester Avenue on the South Side Elevated. After its completion in 1943, North Shore Line trains were occasionally diverted through the State Street Subway when travel on the North Side Main Line was impeded.

The arrangements to operate over the "L" were continually maintained with the Chicago Rapid Transit Company (1924–1947) and then the Chicago Transit Authority (1947–1963) until the end of rail service.

  • Waukegan City Lines
    • North Avenue Line
    • Washington Street Line
  • Milwaukee City Lines

In the early 1890s the city of Waukegan granted a franchise to the Waukegan & North Shore Rapid Transit Company for the construction and operation of a local street railway, but this initial effort was thwarted by the Panic of 1893. At this time, the Chicago & North Western Railway was the sole provider of passenger rail service to the North Shore region, but residents reportedly desired the construction of "a new surface or elevated road" to provide an alternative to the steam-powered North Western service.

On July 3, 1894, local businessmen Dewitt L. Jones, S. D. Talcott and Charles Whitney founded the Bluff City Electric Street Railway Company, and on April 15 the following year the Bluff City Electric received a franchise to begin construction. Revenue service began on May 30, 1895, initially provided by two single-truck streetcars. Shortly thereafter, the company began a program of expansion that would continue over the following two decades. On May 12, 1898, Bluff City Electric was acquired by the newly incorporated Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway Company, putting it under the control of businessmen George A. Ball and A. C. Frost. The new corporate identity of the railroad reflected its ultimate goals for expansion. The Chicago & Milwaukee Electric upgraded its facilities and purchased new rolling stock. By fall of that year, the railroad's electrification system had been modernized by electrical engineer Bion J. Arnold. In August 1899 the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric had reached the city of Evanston, constructing a southern terminus at Church Street. From Church Street, passengers could transfer to the Chicago & Evanston Line of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway. With a rudimentary connection from Waukegan to Chicago then complete, the railroad turned its attention to the north.

The original arrangement at the railroad's southern terminus in Evanston was for Chicago-bound passengers to transfer to the Northwestern Elevated (one "L" company) there. Following the railroad's acquisition by Samuel Insull, limited-stop North Shore Line trains began connecting with special "L" trains (also controlled by Insull) that ran express to the Chicago Loop. In 1919, the North Shore Line obtained trackage rights over the Northwestern Elevated and modified their cars with third rail equipment, giving them direct access to the Loop. The following year, a new terminal in Milwaukee was dedicated, and in succeeding years, the remaining single-track in Wisconsin was eliminated, with the exception of a one-half-mile stretch of single-track in southern Milwaukee that remained a minor bottleneck until the railroad's end.

During the early 1920s, the railroad instituted a number of named, limited-stop trains, some carrying deluxe dining and parlor/observation cars. One of the railroad's most distinctive named trains, inaugurated in 1917, was the Gold Coast Limited. The North Shore also created a network of motor coach (bus) lines to feed on potential traffic from territory not directly served by the company's trains.

The growth of the north shore communities provided good traffic levels for the railroad, but the increasing congestion of these communities' business districts impeded the railroad's desire to remain competitive with the competing steam railroads for longer-haul passenger business, in particular the Chicago-Milwaukee traffic. The North Shore therefore sought to build a new bypass line through the Skokie Valley – what was then undeveloped rural land approximately four to five miles west of the lake shore route.

The needed real estate purchases and financing were arranged in 1923 and 1924, and construction of the new line began in April 1924. The new line diverged from the Howard Street "L" station located at the boundary between Chicago and Evanston, ran west into the village of Niles Center (now Skokie), continuing to the north-northwest from that point through marshy countryside, paralleling the Skokie branch of the Chicago and North Western Railway. At South Upton, the new route ran eastward along the North Shore's Mundelein branch until just west of Lake Bluff, at which point a new connection diverged to the north onto what had been a freight-only branch which connected to the original main line at North Chicago Junction.

An arrangement was made with the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, wherein local "L" service was begun over the new line to the Dempster Street station in Niles Center in 1925. It had been anticipated that the opening of the new "L" line would help launch a real estate boom in the area as it had decades earlier in other parts of the Chicago area. The Great Depression put a damper on the area's growth, and Niles Center (by that time renamed Skokie) didn't really begin to experience a surge of growth until the 1950s.

Though the Niles Center elevated service failed to prosper, the transit operator benefited from the construction of new shop facilities on vacant land along the southern part of the Skokie Valley line. This spacious facility relieved older, more crowded facilities on the "L" system and remains to this day as the Chicago Transit Authority's primary maintenance facility for its rail system.

The remaining portion of the North Shore Line's new Skokie Valley line entered service in 1926. The new route consisted of 18 miles (29 km) of new double-track railroad, and the route was a mere 2.5 miles (4 km) longer than the old main line. Because it traversed mostly rural area, higher speeds could be sustained for a longer distance. In conjunction with the completion of the Skokie Valley route, the railroad had improved the Mundelein branch, building a new terminal and double-tracking the branch. Mundelein had previously been served by shuttle service connecting with main line trains at Lake Bluff; with the opening of the new Skokie Valley line on June 5, 1926, North Shore inaugurated an hourly Chicago-Mundelein local suburban service, interspersed with the hourly Chicago-Milwaukee limited-stop trains. Diversion of the Chicago-Milwaukee service onto the Skokie Valley line brought a reduction in travel time of 20 minutes.

The original main line – now designated by the railroad as the Shore Line – continued to host Chicago-Waukegan service, which consisted of limited-stop Chicago-Waukegan service as well as all-stop local service, each operating at roughly 30-minute headways.

Initially after the stock market crash in 1929, business went on as usual, but as the depression deepened and as the Insull public utility empire began to crumble, the railroad entered receivership in 1932. The dire economic conditions and high unemployment caused ridership (and hence revenue) to plummet. A labor strike in 1938 precipitated by a 15% reduction in wages kept the railroad from operating for seven weeks.

In spite of the difficult conditions during the 1930s, the North Shore was able to undertake a major grade separation project along the Shore Line. The North Shore had for nearly a quarter century sought to eliminate the hazards and operating costs associated with running a busy railroad through the business districts of one built-up suburb after another. Prior to the Depression, grade separation projects had been funded by the railroads' private capital, and neither the North Shore Line nor the paralleling steam-operated Chicago and North Western Railway were in a financial position to undertake such a venture even before the stock market crash in 1929.

However, in 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes (a Winnetka resident), announced a Public Works Administration program to "prime the pump" of the American economy. This timely program allowed the railroads and the communities of Winnetka and Glencoe to obtain federal funding for the grade separation of the two railroads through their business districts. The project was complicated by the need for construction work to take place under traffic – the two railroads combined operated more than 200 daily trains. The grade separation was completed in late 1941 – just nine weeks before the United States went to war – and cost $4.3 million.

To meet the competition of modern streamlined trains operating on the steam railroads connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, the North Shore in 1939 embarked on a program to modernize a portion of its steel coach fleet for both commuter and intercity service. Some 15 coaches dating from 1928 were modernized, practically from the ground up. All-electric heating was installed with a new ventilation system, new flooring, new interior decorations and fittings. The cars' exteriors were painted green with gray and red trim, and were dubbed "Greenliners". These cars were regularly assigned to Skokie Valley limited-stop service.

The most significant component of the passenger equipment modernization program was the purchase of two articulated streamlined trainsets. The trainsets consisted of four cars semi-permanently attached. The two end units included operating cabs and smoking and non-smoking coach seating. An additional car provided more coach seating, and the tavern/lounge car rounded out the four-car consist. These trains were dubbed Electroliners and were the railroad's premiere service run as fast as 90 mph between Dempster Street and North Chicago Junction on the North Shore's excellent track and roadbed. Entering service on February 9, 1941, each trainset was scheduled to run five one-way trips in Chicago-Milwaukee service every day. The Electroliners continued in service until the end of the railroad's operation in 1963. The Electroliners were sold to the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company and were renamed Liberty Liners and run between 69th Street Philadelphia and Norristown. The Liberty Liners were retired around 1979.

The outbreak of World War II caused the railroads of the United States to see a sharp rise in traffic. Even before the imposition of rationing of fuel and rubber made auto travel difficult, the North Shore saw its freight and passenger traffic rise to record levels, in part due to the railroad serving important military facilities: the Army's Fort Sheridan just north of Highwood, and the Navy's Great Lakes Naval Training Station, just south of North Chicago. North Shore saw its traffic increase to the extent that the railroad was forced to borrow equipment from the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and fellow interurban Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, both former Insull properties.

Wartime earnings were high enough that the railroad's bankruptcy trustees were able to pay some of the company's outstanding debt and submit a reorganization plan. After the plan was approved, a new corporation (with a different corporate name from before) assumed the property in 1946.

The failure to resolve a wage dispute taken to the National Mediation Board in 1948 led to a 91-day work stoppage that spring. The dispute was resolved by increasing both fares and wages, though the company's employees continued to earn less than their counterparts at other area railroads. Simultaneously, a decline in rail travel began as initial postwar shortages of automobiles ended. These national trends—coupled with the lost revenue from the three-month strike and the effects of the strike-settling wage increase—created serious passenger revenue losses for the line. In 1949, the railroad sought to curtail some of its more unprofitable services. Dining car service (other than that on the Electroliners) was dropped, service (particularly on the Shore Line) was reduced, and the railroad applied unsuccessfully to drop Shore Line service altogether.

When the franchise held by the North Shore subsidiary operating streetcar service in Waukegan expired in 1947, the company felt that a renewal was not justified, the company replaced its city operations there with bus service. Shore Line trains that used the streetcar tracks to reach downtown Waukegan were simultaneously cut back to allow the tracks to be abandoned. The subsidiary city streetcar service in Milwaukee was discontinued in 1951 but the tracks remained, as they was used by main line services to access the North Shore's Milwaukee terminal.

Right-of-way and trackage between Leland Avenue in Chicago and Linden Avenue in Wilmette was sold to the CTA in 1953, though the Shore Line continued to operate. In turn, the railroad received $7 million USD in CTA revenue bonds.

The railroad repeated its petition to abandon the Shore Line in 1954. Though rush hour traffic levels remained strong, off-peak ridership had declined sharply, leading to further losses. The remaining street running and numerous stops eliminated many of the advantages of rail transportation on this route. Travel time on the Shore Line was roughly twice that of the slightly longer Skokie Valley route. The completion of the Edens Expressway through the Skokie Valley in late 1951 caused mounting ridership losses reflected on the railroad's earnings statements. Though the abandonment proceedings garnered strong opposition in the communities affected, the railroad was successful in proving its case and was authorized to end service on the Shore Line. July 24, 1955 was the final day of service on that route. A short portion of the line was retained to provide access from North Chicago Junction to the railroad's shops in Highwood. The rest of the line north of Linden Avenue in Wilmette was removed, much of the right-of-way becoming automobile parking spaces for commuters who switched to the suburban trains of the parallel C&NW North Line.

With its transportation holdings proving increasingly unprofitable, the Susquehanna Corporation, a Delaware-based holding corporation formed after a 1953 reorganization, moved to cut its losses; in 1958, the railroad filed with state and federal regulatory authorities for the authority to discontinue all service and abandon the entire property. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) examiner handling the case recommended abandonment, but the Illinois regulators recommended the continued operation of the railroad. For the time being, ridership remained fairly stable, but the completion of the Northwest Expressway (now the Kennedy Expressway) in late 1960 provided a link between the Edens Expressway and the Chicago Loop. The North Shore Line's passenger traffic began to hemorrhage at the rate of 46,000 passengers per month.

The Chicago Transit Authority researched the possibility of continuing truncated rail service between Waukegan and Howard Street in Chicago, with buses assuming operations between Lake Bluff and Mundelein. The report, released that October, revealed that passenger service had dropped to an average of 14,000 daily riders, and that the line was in dire need of modernization. The report recommended that the CTA only assume operations under the conditions that the acquisition of the railroad's property and modernization of the fleet could be achieved without cost to the agency, and an operational subsidy would be provided. In February 1961, an updated study was released, revealing that patronage had become even lighter than it had been when the initial study was conducted. Ultimately, no action was taken as a result of the study, as none of the recommended conditions could be met.

That February, the railroad requested expedited action by the ICC on its abandonment petition, citing its mounting losses. On May 17, 1962, the request was approved under the condition that no buyer stepped forward within 35 days. Both the Illinois regulators and an association of commuters opposed the action, the association offering to buy the railroad at salvage value but ultimately failing to raise sufficient funds to buy the property. That November, the state of Illinois ruled in favor of the ICC, and prevented the commuters association from having the abandonment postponed any further. The last full day of service came on January 20, 1963, with the final trains reaching their destination in the early hours of the following morning. Sporadic freight movements continued into the next week, as the remaining cars on the line were collected from various points on the system.

Most of the rails were removed in the succeeding two years. The Chicago Transit Authority purchased the southernmost portion of the Skokie Valley line between Howard Street and Dempster Street, Skokie, and in early 1964 obtained federal funding for what turned out to be a successful mass transportation pilot project, dubbing the new non-stop service as the "Skokie Swift." That same year, the Skokie Valley Transportation Council was formed by the towns of Glenview, Northbrook, Northfield and Skokie, with the goal of reviving rail service by funding an extension of the "Skokie Swift" further north. This was prevented, however, by the sale of the trackage between Dempster Street and Lake-Cook Road to the Chicago & North Western Railway for use as a freight line. The Union Pacific (into which the North Western was merged in 1995) continued to operate the line until 2001, and it was dismantled in 2004–05. CTA is studying possible extension of the Yellow Line along the North Shore right-of-way as far as Old Orchard Road, opposite the Old Orchard shopping center.

Amtrak's Hiawatha Service currently serves the passenger rail market between Chicago and Milwaukee. Metra Union Pacific / North Line commuter trains serve the market between Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Also, Metra's Milwaukee District / North Line and North Central Service now serve Libertyville and Mundelein, respectively.

The former North Shore right-of-way from the Illinois border to Milwaukee was sold off piecemeal to numerous private interests. In Illinois, extension to the Skokie Swift into the now-fully-developed territory in the Skokie Valley is discussed periodically. In other places, parts of the North Shore right of way have been turned into paved and limestone recreational trails, such as the Green Bay Trail, as part of the rails to trails program.

Electroliner trainset 801–802 is preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois; the museum's holdings also include 15 other passenger and freight cars from the railroad. Both Electroliners saw use on SEPTA's Norristown High Speed Line in Pennsylvania from 1964 to 1980 before being retired. The other Electroliner set, former 803–804, still painted in SEPTA "Liberty Liner" colors, is stored at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania. Other museums that have North Shore Line cars preserved include the Fox River Trolley Museum, in South Elgin, Illinois; the East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy, Wisconsin; the Shore Line Trolley Museum, in East Haven, Connecticut, and the Seashore Trolley Museum, in Kennebunkport, Maine. The Iowa Terminal Railroad, in Mason City, Iowa, also owns former North Shore Line equipment. Unrestored North Shore Line equipment is also in storage at several other museums.

The Dempster station has been preserved, although moved 150 feet to the east. Both the Briargate and Kenosha stations also survive, currently housing commercial operations.

Abandoned and overgrown sections of track exist between Dempster Street and Lake Cook Road in the former Skokie Valley right of way.

The Interurban (or radial railway in Europe and Canada) is a type of electric railway, with streetcar-like electric self-propelled rail cars which run within and between cities or towns. They were very prevalent in North America between 1900 and 1925 and were used primarily for passenger travel between cities and their surrounding suburban and rural communities. The concept spread to countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland. Interurban as a term encompassed the companies, their infrastructure, their cars that ran on the rails, and their service. In the United States, the early 1900s interurban was a valuable economic institution. Most roads between towns and many town streets were unpaved. Transportation and haulage was by horse-drawn carriages and carts. The interurban provided reliable transportation, particularly in winter weather, between the town and countryside. In 1915, 15,500 miles (24,900 km) of interurban railways were operating in the United States and, for a few years, interurban railways, including the numerous manufacturers of cars and equipment, were the fifth-largest industry in the country. By 1930, most interurbans in North America were gone with a few surviving into the 1950s.

Outside of the US large networks of high-speed electric tramways have been built in countries across the world that survive today. Notable systems exist in the Low Countries, Poland and Japan, where populations are densely packed around large conurbations such as the Randstad, Upper Silesia, Tokyo Metropolitan Area and Keihanshin. Switzerland, particularly, has a large network of mountain narrow gauge interurban lines.

In addition, many tram-train lines are being built, especially in France and Germany but also elsewhere in the world. These can be regarded as interurbans since they run on the streets, like trams, when in cities, while out of them they either share existing railway lines or put lines abandoned by the railway companies to a new use.

The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, a state senator in Indiana. The Latin, inter urbes, means "between cities". The interurban fit on a continuum between urban street railways and full-fledged railroads. George W. Hilton and John F. Due identified four characteristics of an interurban:

  • Electric power for propulsion.
  • Passenger service as the primary business.
  • Equipment heavier and faster than urban streetcars.
  • Operation on tracks in city streets, and in rural areas on roadside tracks or private rights-of-way.

The definition of "interurban" is necessarily blurry. Some town streetcar lines evolved into interurban systems by extending streetcar track from town into the countryside to link adjacent towns together and sometimes by the acquisition of a nearby interurban system. There was a large amount of consolidation of lines following initial construction. Other interurban lines effectively became light rail systems with no street running whatsoever, or they became primarily freight-hauling railroads because of a progressive loss of their initial passenger service over the years.

In 1905, the United States Census Bureau defined an interurban as "a street railway having more than half its trackage outside municipal limits." It drew a distinction between "interurban" and "suburban" railroads. A suburban system was oriented toward a city center in a single urban area and served commuter traffic. A regular railroad moved riders from one city center to another city center and also moved a substantial amount of freight. The typical interurban similarly served more than one city, but it served a smaller region and made more frequent stops, and it was oriented to passenger rather than freight service.

Interurban electric railway cars once crisscrossed the United States. Self-propelled, efficient, fast and inexpensive, they ran within and between cities before the general public owned automobiles. At one point in time beginning in 1901, a traveler could easily ride via interurban from Elkhart Lake to Little Falls, a village in central New York.

The development of interurbans in the late nineteenth century resulted from the convergence of two trends: improvements in electric traction, and an untapped demand for transportation in rural areas, particularly in the Midwestern United States. The 1880s saw the first successful deployments of electric traction in streetcar systems. Most of these built on the pioneering work of Frank J. Sprague, who developed an improved method for mounting an electric traction motor and using a trolley pole for pickup. Sprague's work led to widespread acceptance of electric traction for streetcar operations and end of horse-drawn trams.

The late nineteenth-century United States witnessed a boom in agriculture which lasted through the First World War, but transportation in rural areas was inadequate. Conventional steam railroads made limited stops, mostly in towns. These were supplemented by horse and buggies and steamboats, both of which were slow and the latter of which was restricted to navigable rivers. The increased capacity and profitability of the city street railroads offered the possibility of extending them into the countryside to reach new markets, even linking to other towns. The first interurban to emerge in the United States was the Newark and Granville Street Railway in Ohio, which opened in 1889. It was not a major success, but others followed. The development of the automobile was then in its infancy, and to many investors interurbans appeared to be the future of local transportation.

From 1900 to 1916, large networks of interurban lines was constructed across the United States, particularly in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and California. In 1900, 2,107 miles (3,391 km) of interurban track existed, but by 1916, this had increased to 15,580 miles (25,070 km), a seven-fold expansion. During this expansion, in the regions where they operated, particularly in Ohio and Indiana, "...they almost destroyed the local passenger service of the steam railroad." To show how exceptionally busy the interurbans radiating from Indianapolis were in 1926, the immense Indianapolis Traction Terminal (nine roof covered tracks and loading platforms) scheduled 500 trains in and out daily and moved 7 million passengers that year. At their peak the interurbans were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.

In Belgium, a sprawling, nation-wide system of narrow-gauge vicinal tramways have been built by the NMVB / SNCV to provide transport to smaller towns across the country with the first section opening in 1885. These lines were either electrically operated or run with diesel tramcars, included numerous street-running sections, and inter-operated with local tram networks in the larger cities. Similar to Belgium, a large network of interurbans was constructed in the Netherlands in the early 1900s called streektramlijnen.

The first interurban railway in Japan is the Hanshin Electric Railway, built to compete with mainline steam trains on the Osaka to Kobe corridor and completed in 1905. As laws of that time did not allow parallel railways to be built, the line was legally defined as a tramway and included street running at the two ends, but was based on American interurbans and operated with large tramcars on mostly private right-of-way. In the same year, the Keihin Express Railway, or Keikyu, completed a section of what is today part of the Keikyū Main Line between Shinagawa, Tokyo and Kanagawa, Yokohama. This line competes with mainline Japanese National Railways on this busy corridor. Predecessors of the Meitetsu opened their first interurban lines in 1912, what today form parts of the Meitetsu Inuyama Line and Tsushima Line. In 1913, the first section of what will become the Keiō Line opened connecting Chōfu to just outside Shinjuku with street running on what is today the Kōshū Kaidō or National Route 20. Kyushu Electric Railroad, predecessor to Nishitetsu opened its first interurban line in 1914 serving Kitakyushu and surrounding areas, taking heavy inspiration from Hanshin Electric Railway.

In the first half of the 20th century, an extensive interurban network covered Northern England, centered on South Lancashire and West Yorkshire. At that time, it was possible to travel entirely by tram from Liverpool Pier Head to the village of Summit, outside Rochdale, a distance of 52 miles (84 km), and with a short 7 miles (11 km) bus journey across the Pennines, to connect to another interurban network that linked Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds.

The fortunes of the industry in The US and Canada declined during World War I, particularly into the early 1920s. In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Electric Railways Commission to investigate the financial problems of the industry. The commission submitted its final report to the President in 1920.

Many interurbans had been hastily constructed without realistic projections of income and expenses. They were initially financed by issuing stock and selling bonds. The sale of these financial instruments was often local with salesmen going door to door aggressively pushing this new and exciting "it can't fail" form of transportation. But many of those interurbans did fail, and often quickly. They had poor cash flow from the outset and struggled to raise essential further capital. Interurbans were very vulnerable to acts of nature damaging track and bridges, particularly in the Midwestern United States where flooding was common. Receivership was a common fate when the interurban company could not pay its payroll and other debts, so state courts took over and allowed continued operation while suspending the company's obligation to pay interest on its bonds. In addition, the interurban honeymoon period with the municipalities of 1895–1910 was over. The large and heavy interurbans, some weighing as much as 65 tons, caused damage to city streets which led to endless disputes over who should bear the repair costs. The rise of automobile traffic in the middle 1920s aggravated those trends. As the interurban companies struggled financially they faced rising competition from cars and trucks on newly paved streets and highways, while municipalities sought to alleviate traffic congestion by removing interurbans from city streets. Some companies exited the passenger business altogether to focus on freight, while others sought to buttress their finances by selling surplus electricity in local communities. Several interurbans which attempted to exit the rail business altogether ran afoul of state commissions which required that trains remain running "for the public good," even at a loss.

Many financially weak interurbans did not survive the prosperous 1920s, and most others went bankrupt during the Great Depression. A few struggling lines tried combining to form much larger systems in an attempt to gain operating efficiency and a broader customer base. This occurred in Ohio in year 1930 with the long Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad (C&LE), and in Indiana with the very widespread Indiana Railroad. Both had limited success up to 1937–1938 primarily from growing revenues earned from freight. The 130-mile (210 km) long Sacramento Northern Railway stopped carrying passengers in 1940 but continued hauling freight using heavy electric locomotives into the 1960s.

Oliver Jensen, author of American Heritage History of Railroads in America, commented that "...the automobile doomed the interurban whose private tax paying tracks could never compete with the highways that a generous government provided for the motorist." William D. Middleton in the opening of his classic 270 page book "The Interurban Era" said: "Evolved from the urban streetcar, the Interurban appeared shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, grew to a vast network of over 18,000 miles in two decades of excellent growth, and then all but vanished after barely three decades of usefulness."

Interurban business increased for the survivors during World War II due to fuel oil rationing and large wartime employment. When the war ended in 1945, riders went back to their automobiles, and most of these lines were finally abandoned. Several systems struggled into the 1950s, including the Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad (passenger service ended 1950), Lehigh Valley Transit Company (1951), West Penn Railways (1952), and the Illinois Terminal Railroad (1958). The West Penn was the largest interurban to operate in the east at 339 miles and had provided Pittsburgh area coal country towns hourly transportation since 1888.

By the 1960s there were only five remaining interurban lines serving commuters in three major metropolitan areas: the North Shore Line and the South Shore Line in Chicago, the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company, the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway in northern New Jersey and the Long Beach Line in Long Beach and Los Angeles (the last remaining part of the Pacific Electric system). The Long Beach Line was cut in 1961, the North Shore Line in 1963; the Philadelphia Suburban's route 103 and the NYS&W in New Jersey, both ended passenger service in 1966. Some former interurban lines retained freight service for up to several decades after the discontinuance of passenger service. Most were converted to diesel operation, although the Sacramento Northern Railway retained electric freight until 1965.

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