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Interurbans, and their suburban counterparts (the streetcar), were once common throughout the country. The mania began during the late 19th century and spilled over into the early 1900's as thousands of miles were laid down from New England to California. In retrospect, the financial interests behind these traction railroads were largely misplaced.
The latter alternative was cheaper but the resulting grades and curves were less than ideal, a problem only compounded when freight movements were involved.To make matters worse they contained extremely high operating ratios of 85-90% (some were even greater than 100%) while the average rate of return never exceeded 3%.Most were gone by the immediate postwar years and only the strongest survived to see 1960.By 1950 just 1,519 miles remained and the number dropped to 209 miles by 1959.As William Middleton notes in his book, " The interurban was conceived as a transit system, developed from the basic streetcars of the era.Ironically, the commuter services inteurbans provided are actually making a comeback as LRT (light rail transit) systems as cities look for alternatives to increasingly crowded highways.
What became the classic interurban all began in the 1870's with two key developments; in 1870 Zenobe Gramme unveiled a generator for commercial use while Werner von Siemens showcased the world's first electric locomotive at an exhibition in Berlin, Germany during 1879.For power, most interurbans used overhead catenary (energized electric lines attached to line-side poles), usually rated at around 600 volts.However, in some cases third-rail was utilized and the electricity greater.Sprague failed to interest the New York Elevated but others were impressed.He eventually secured a contract in May of 1887 with the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Virginia to provide cars for its operation. Brill Company Jewett Car Company Niles Car & Manufacturing Company St.Visually, the interurban was classic Americana as a car sped along a grass-covered right-of-way with its trolley pole extended high.