COLUMNS

As It Were: Interurban era was fast and fleeting in Columbus

ED LENTZ
A Redbird car of the Columbus, Delaware and Marion Railway Co. sits at Stratford Barn in 1903.
Ed Lentz

Almost 100 years ago, a local journalist and historian named Osman Castle Hooper waxed eloquently about what many people of his era considered to be the wonder of the age.

"Soon after the advent of electricity as a motive power, there began the development of a system of electric roads reaching out into the country and connecting the city with neighboring cities and towns."

To see how and why the people of a century ago were so impressed by this, it might be helpful to provide some background.

Trains had been around for quite some time. The first experimental railroads in America dated to the 1820s, and the first locomotive pulled into central Ohio in 1850.

The railroad system grew across America and transformed the country.

Small towns like Columbus became major centers of transportation and trade and were cities of national importance.

With economic success and national reach, locomotives became bigger and more intrusive steam-powered behemoths. They carried people and goods quickly and efficiently on precise schedules; therefore, the locomotives didn't often stop.

To find a vehicle with frequent stops, the residents of cities and towns looked to other forms of transportation.

Some people of wealth and standing had a carriage of their own or hired a "hack" or carriage.

For people of more limited means or parsimonious habits, the streetcar was the answer.

The first streetcar had appeared in Columbus in 1863 during the American Civil War. Columbus was a town of 18,000 playing host to about another 25,000 Union soldiers -- more than enough people to keep the streetcars full.

In the years after the war, small streetcar lines serving different parts of the city came forth. But streetcars also had their limitations. They were horse-drawn and hot in the summer and cold in the winter. And they were slow.

Electrified streetcars changed that.

By the early 1890s, Columbus -- like most Midwestern cities -- had a single, large streetcar company running electric streetcars that were heated in the winter and flew along city streets at the extraordinarily rapid speed of 15 mph.

It didn't take long for entrepreneurs to see the possibilities.

If electrified streetcars worked so well on city streets, why not build a larger, heavier and stronger car that would travel rapidly from town to town, carrying people and small freight packages?

The first of these new electric lines was the Columbus and Westerville Railway Co., which was incorporated in 1891 and was in operation by 1895. It would not be the last.

In some parts of Ohio, the new electric systems were called the "traction line." In central Ohio, the system was called the "interurban."

Eight other public lines began operating soon thereafter. Some of the new lines served limited areas.

The Columbus, London and Springfield Railway and the Columbus, Buckeye Lake and Newark Railway served those communities and not much more.

Others like the Scioto Valley Traction Co. reached as far south as Chillicothe and as far southeast as Lancaster.

Some companies actually reached all the towns they proposed to reach.

By 1920, Ohio had the most miles of interurban service in the country. But building these new companies was an expensive undertaking.

The Columbus, Urbana and Western Railway ran nine miles from Columbus to the Fishinger Road bridge and never reached the rest of the west.

Many of these companies were unstable financially and often were reorganized and fiscally reformed. But from 1900 to 1920, they were something to behold. In an age when automobiles were fragile and expensive and airplanes were the same, the interurban traveled at speeds approaching 90 mph. They were fast, and they were fun.

But they had only a brief heyday.

In time, Henry Ford and others began to make inexpensive and reliable automobiles, and federal, state and local money began to pave the roads they used. The financially troubled interurbans struggled to compete.

In 1920, Hooper was hopeful.

"These lines have ministered to the growing city and materially aided in its development, but few have been without their financial troubles and losses.

"The period of stability and steady growth is believed to be at hand."

During the Roaring Twenties of economic growth and prosperity, the interurbans managed to survive, and a few were prosperous.

But what Hooper could not foresee was the Great Depression of the 1930s.

By 1939, the age of the interurban was over.

At places like the Ohio Railway Museum in Worthington, one still can see a Redbird car of the Columbus, Delaware and Marion Railway Co. and remember the transport of another time.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.