8.10.18

INTERURBAN INTERLUDE.

Book Review No. 26 is Clemson historian H. Roger Grant's Electric Interurbans and the American People.  I'm tempted to marvel simply that the product of an academic press (Indiana, in this instance) doesn't have a sub-title.  Yes, it has pictures, but no, it is not a Central Electric Railfans' Association style corporate history with rosters and notes on the disposition of cars.  It's closer in organization and scope to Frank Rowsome's old Trolley Car Treasury: there's the emergence of the cars, the prosperous years, the decline and fall, and the preservation, this time limited to the interurban (as opposed to the city and suburban) services.

It's the social history and political economy of the interurbans that give Grant's book its structure.  The electric car came along at an inopportune time: yes, it could overcome the inflexibility of the steam train with lighter construction, more frequent schedules, and the possibility of covering costs in more thinly settled areas.  Thus, between the electric cars and the introduction of rural telephones, rural folk could arrange the delivery of stuff or go into town for church or a social event or interact with a greater range of people or otherwise be spared the centuries-old idiocy of rural life.  Likewise, they could bring their goods to market, loading milk cans on the baggage section of the cars, or bringing the eggs into town and being home in time to make supper.

The timing was inopportune, though, as the private automobile, sometimes using the same electric technology, later with the Otto cycle engine, gave people even more freedom of movement (once the taxpayers started picking up the tab for improved roads, that is) and the private automobile provided courting couples with even more opportunities to escape eyes on the front porch as well as a safe space, if you will, for women who might otherwise be hit on on the electric cars.  Thus, although the interurbans made efforts to improve service and retain passengers, they "ran out of time."

There are probably additional research opportunities for people looking into how the extent of the market affects the division of labor.  As consumers used the cars (and later their flivvers) to comparison shop, creative destruction took place.  For instance, the merchants of Elyria, Ohio, complained that interurbans led to store closings: was that because shoppers could now discover lower prices in Lorain?  The beat goes on today.

Likewise, the contemporary light rail transportation lines have a lot in common with the lighter interurbans.  Heck, the Shaker Heights lines east of Cleveland and the Sharon Hill and Media lines west of Philadelphia are lighter interurbans.  Whether they provide "commuters and other riders alternatives to congested roadways, automobile wear-and-tear, parking costs, and gyrating fuel prices" (page 151) remains to be seen.  Perhaps, though, there will be a second interurban era.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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