I remember being in a car at a very young age on the road to see relatives in southwest Ohio and seeing tracks running parallel to the road.

I remember being in a car at a very young age on the road to see relatives in southwest Ohio and seeing tracks running parallel to the road.

But unlike railroad tracks, these tracks were rusty, unused and full of weeds. I asked my father whose tracks they were. He simply said, "That is where the traction line used to run."

Some people called it a "traction line." To many others, it was "the interurban." In any case, it was something of the wonder of its age. Ohio in general and Columbus in particular were right in the middle of it all.

To people living a little more than 100 years ago, "the interurban" seemed to be something of a dream come true. In a world without airplanes and where most automobiles were expensive, unreliable and rather slow, the Interurban seemed to be the realization of a wish only whispered.

In the Age of Steel of early 20th-century America, most people knew about trains - even if they did not often ride on them. Trains were expensive. They were noisy, dirty and not all that fast with their frequent stops in every village along their routes.

Trains were also disliked because they represented the public face of corporations - the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad and the Erie Railroad, to name a few - which had made their fortunes gouging the average citizen with unfair and exorbitant rates. A revolt of small farmers and rural residents was spearheaded by a fraternal group called the Patrons of Husbandry - more commonly called "The Grange." The Granger Wars of the 1880s united rural America in opposition to the railroads and eventually led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.

Even a decade later, during the economic depression of the 1890s, people in the Midwest would still reflect on how much they disliked the railroads and how much they needed them. It was into this world of disdain and necessity where interurban rail transport burst upon the American scene.

In a very short period between 1900 and 1910, much of the Midwest and especially Ohio saw the construction and success of literally dozens of new railroad lines connecting the major cities of the state. These were not new trains on old tracks. These were whole new rail systems, often running literally right beside existing railroad lines.

The new trains were something different. Unlike existing trains with many cars for passengers and freight, the new interurban trains consisted of one big, long car that could hold 90 people and a lot of freight. Unlike the coal-burning trains of the day, these new trains ran on electricity and were quiet and clean.

The interurbans were also very fast. Their large electric motors accelerated quickly with enormous power and permitted the trains to reach speeds of 80 miles per hour in open stretches. On an average day, an interurban train on the Columbus Delaware and Marion Railroad could travel from Columbus to Delaware with several stops in less than 45 minutes. Most people in cars cannot do that today.

The interurban railroads were not a unified system. Many different lines passed through Columbus. The Columbus Delaware and Marion competed with the Ohio Electric Railway system, which ran east to west across the state. Additional competition came from the Scioto Valley Traction Co. and several other smaller companies, as well. Initially stopping at several different places, the lines eventually came together at a new station at Rich and Third streets in 1912.

As much as the interurbans were liked - and they really were liked - they soon began to run into fiscal trouble. Like the street railroads of the era, the interurbans had a very predictable traffic pattern.

A lot of people rode them in the morning and in the early evening, to and from work, and then hardly ever rode them at all. This meant there were a lot of hours when the trains were carrying hardly anybody. One might think that the trains would make up for this by hauling freight. But the traditional railroads, with whom the interurbans competed, were quite reluctant to give up their customers and their trade to the newcomers.

The interurban railroad lines were quite popular through the years of World War I and into the decade of the 1920s. But through most of this period, the interurban railroads continued to make very little money. The traditional railroads jealously guarded their contracts and a mixture of ticket sales and special attractions brought few new customers.

In the end, the Great Depression of the 1930s killed the few interurban lines that had not already declared bankruptcy. Over the next few decades, the tracks were removed and bridges over rivers and other roads were removed as well. Today, little remains of interurban railways but memories of a time when one could "ride the Red Devil" or sit in comfort on "the Green Line."

The large and spacious interurban station in downtown Columbus later became the home of an A&P supermarket until the building was removed as part of "urban renewal" to make way for a new bus station.

All of this was part of the story of one mode of transportation making way for something new. It is not a new story for Columbus, which has seen the coming and going of canals and the arrival and success of interstate highways and modern air transport.

As for me, I am convinced central Ohio will once again see a way to travel legally across the county at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour. I would just be pleased to see it in my lifetime.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.