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The Lake Shore Electric Railway Story

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From 1901 to 1938 the Lake Shore Electric claimed to be—and was considered by many—"The Greatest Electric Railway in the United States." It followed the shore of Lake Erie, connecting Cleveland and Toledo with a high-speed, limited-stop service and pioneered a form of intermodal transportation three decades before the rest of the industry. To millions of people the bright orange electric cars were an economical and comfortable means of escaping the urban mills and shops or the humdrum of rural life. In summers during the glory years there were never enough cars to handle the crowds. After reaching its peak in the early 1920s, however, the Lake Shore Electric suffered the fate of most of its sister lines: it was now competing with automobiles, trucks, and buses and could not rival them in convenience. The Lake Shore Electric Railway Story tells the story of this fascinating chapter in interurban transportation, including the missed opportunities that might have saved this railway.

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Introduction: The Lake Shore Electric—What It Was and Where It Went

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It never imposed much on the landscape and now has all but disappeared back into it.

Drive west from Cleveland along the rim of Lake Erie to the old lake port of Sandusky, once a serious competitor of Cleveland and Toledo. Then head south to Norwalk, Ohio — another charming nineteenth-century town — and keep moving west on U.S. Route 20 toward Toledo, passing through more nineteenth-century main streets at places like Monroeville, Bellevue, and Fremont. If you are particularly perceptive, along the way you will spot bits of light grading alongside the roads or crossing them; you may spot pole lines marching across fields, and here and there some strange, small, brick buildings of uncertain purpose.

What you are seeing are the dim remains of “The Greatest Electric Railway in the United States,” as it proudly called itself in its earlier days — the Lake Shore Electric Railway. In the few years between the perfection of electric power for railway use and the perfection of motor vehicles and paved highways, the Lake Shore Electric was the premier carrier of people in the well-populated territory between Cleveland and Toledo, and one of the most important links in the network of interurban electric lines which once blanketed the Midwest.

 

Frederick W. Coen, 1872–1942: “Mister Lake Shore Electric”

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The life of the Lake Shore Electric and the life of Frederick William Coen were one and the same. Fred Coen was an incorporator and an official of the railway from the day it began, effectively its chief executive from 1907 to the day rail service ended, and continued as head of the successor bus company until he retired in 1940. More than any single individual, he was responsible for the company’s prosperity during its good days and its survival in the bad ones.

Coen came early to the electric railway business. In fact, he was there as a young man at the industry’s dawn. Born in Rensselaer, Indiana, on June 15, 1872, he moved to Vermilion, Ohio, in 1891 with his brother Edward to go into the banking business. Their little Erie County Banking Company happened to be a major investor in one of the country’s earliest interurban railways, originally called the Sandusky, Milan & Huron. The line opened in July of 1893 but that October was reorganized as the Sandusky, Milan & Norwalk. To protect its now-uncertain investment, the bank dispatched the 21-year-old Coen to Sandusky as the company’s secretary. In effect, he never left.

 

1. Genesis: 1901–1903

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The year was 1901, the first year of the twentieth century. Ohio’s own William McKinley was in the White House and Victoria was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, and monarch of Britain’s other dominions beyond the seas — including Canada. Neither would survive the year — McKinley felled by an assassin’s bullet and Victoria of the more natural effects of age. She was 82, had reigned for 64 years, and had defined an entire age.

And in Ohio, reigning over a wholly different empire — which also included Canada — were Henry A. Everett and Edward W. Moore, two Cleveland entrepreneurs who were rapidly moving to exploit the latest and most promising technological development — the electric railway. By the dawn of the new century steam railroads overwhelmingly dominated American intercity transportation; virtually all overland travel and freight movement was by rail. To get anywhere beyond a few miles, there was no other way.

But a different kind of railroading had suddenly evolved during the decade just past. Electricity was applied to urban street railways beginning in 1888, radically changing their form and potential. Now no longer limited by the speed and stamina of horses, these street railways were built outwards from the cities over increasingly longer distances. By the mid-1890s some were beginning to link towns and cities and distinguishing themselves from ordinary streetcar lines with a new name — interurbans. By the turn of the century the development of high-voltage three-phase alternating current transmission made long-distance electrified lines practical, and proved the key to interurban expansion.

 

2. Putting It All Together: 1904–1907

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The year 1903 had been happily hectic — the receivership ended, the new high-speed Brill cars arrived, and Cleveland–Toledo limited services started. A brief breather was now necessary as President Warren Bicknell put the company’s house in more firm order while the banker committee watched over and the Everett-Moore syndicate waited to reassume full control. Thus the years 1904 and 1905 were comparatively quiescent, but they built toward a final expansive burst the next year.

Unfortunately 1904 got off to a disorderly start with another rash of wrecks. In the space of a month, between January 4 and February 7, there were four separate mishaps which ran the gamut of collision classifications — a head-on, a rear-ender, a sideswiping, and the broadsiding of a Pennsylvania Railroad train at the grade crossing in Bellevue. The total toll was the loss of ex–Lorain & Cleveland car 54, six other cars damaged, and some injuries — but thankfully no fatalities.

In between these woes, a January 23 flood washed out bridges over Mud Creek, Sugar Creek, and Cedar Creek and damaged the Portage River bridge at Woodville and Muskellunge Creek bridge at Fremont. Then on March 21 eastbound Barney & Smith No. 3 derailed at high speed near Ceylon Junction, miraculously ending up upright but crosswise to the track.

 

3. The Developing Years: 1908–1913

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If the Lake Shore Electric system was within a few hairs of its full physical growth in 1908, its peak years of long-distance services and high-capacity operations were just ahead. Within three years it would be innovating again with two long-distance interline services, as well as helping sponsor a new line to make one of these operations possible.

It was a time when the Midwestern interurban industry was reaching full flower, too. As it expanded and matured, the industry was now more conscious of itself as an interconnected system instead of a collection of separate localized entities. Back in 1906 it formed the Central Electric Railway Association as a trade association, and in 1908 the Central Electric Traffic Association was created as a CERA adjunct to develop interline rate tariffs and mileage books.

The Lake Shore Electric’s location was one of the most strategic in the developing interurban network, linking lines in Michigan, Indiana, and southwestern Ohio with Cleveland and other such northern Ohio population centers as Akron and Canton. It also connected the Midwestern lines with a somewhat tenuous route along the Lake Erie’s eastern shore to Buffalo and upstate New York. That plus its pioneering of long-distance limited-stop services made the company a natural industry leader. Symbolic of both his company’s stature and his own within the industry, the CERA invited Fred Coen to be the featured speaker at its 1908 annual meeting in Dayton.

 

4. The Great War: 1914–1918

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The summertime of the Lake Shore Electric’s life was like most summertimes — reasonably fruitful but full of annoying insects and turbulent thunderstorms. In the interurban’s case, the insects took the form of more automobiles and, in the cities of Sandusky and Lorain, “jitneys” — privately-owned, unregulated motor vehicles which operated over the streetcar routes stealing passengers. As for the storms of World War I, the LSE — like most interurbans — did not see much of the huge traffic surge which eventually paralyzed the steam railroads, but it did fully experience the material and fuel shortages, the wage and price inflation, the influenza epidemic, and the first efforts at unionization. And while not yet unhealthy, the financial results began to show some instability.

On the plus side, improvements continued, with a new cutoff around Huron, extensive rebuilding in Lorain, a new fleet of steel interurbans, and (through no effort of its own) improved access to Cleveland’s Public Square. The war period also saw the beginning of a new direction for LSE traffic — freight service.

 

5. Not Quite Normalcy: 1919–1922

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When peace returned in 1919 the Lake Shore Electric faced a mixed but mostly sunny outlook. Entry into the general freight business came too late to contribute much for the war effort, but by the early 1920s that traffic was growing as fast as equipment, physical plant, and new interline arrangements permitted. For the first two years after the war, ridership, revenues and profits rose heartily; the profit growth was especially great.

But the picture was darkening on its outer edges. The general postwar business boom masked some subtle signs of trouble which were noticeable only in certain special types of business. The interurban’s managers discovered, for example, that the peak loads that they traditionally carried to fairs and on day-trip excursions were substantially smaller; many were driving autos to the events.

The two local city systems were their own special kind of problem. Unregulated jitneys continued to take passengers off the streetcar routes, some of which were economic albatrosses to begin with. Yet the cities seemed indifferent to regulating the competition and, especially Sandusky, hostile to fare increases or route adjustments.

 

6. A Snapshot at the Summit: The Lake Shore Electric in 1923

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True to the perverse cycles of corporate fortunes, the Lake Shore Electric reached the zenith of its physical growth in 1923, three years after its traffic and income had peaked and had begun to decline. That year marked its last line acquisition when, on November 5, its Lorain Street Railroad subsidiary picked up the bankrupt Cleveland Southwestern’s Oberlin Avenue streetcar line in Lorain. At that time too, the system still operated all its original lines including several weaklings it would soon shed. Including its various subsidiaries, the company’s route mileage totaled almost 210 miles. Later it would add its Sandusky cutoff, but by then several branches and city lines were gone, so the system never again would be as large or as active. Thus late 1923 is an opportune point to pause in the historical narrative and look at the Lake Shore Electric system in some detail.

Despite its size, the LSE was an uncomplicated system essentially consisting of a Cleveland–Toledo main line with several secondary and feeder branches and local city lines in Lorain, Sandusky, and Norwalk.

 

7. Transition: 1923–1929

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By 1923 the Lake Shore Electric was settling down from its World War I turmoil and inflation problems, although already it was facing new kinds of trauma. But those were not yet severe, and its management turned its attention to developing its newly emerging freight business and to upgrading its physical plant, most of which was some 25 years old by now.

The LSE’s first order of business in 1923 was to purchase ten new box freight trailers. And as part of its freight expansion it built or expanded freight houses in Lorain, Vermilion, Norwalk, Clyde, Fremont, Woodville, and Castalia during the year. The following year it bought some land on the east side of Toledo from the Sun Oil Company for development as a new freight house and yard for interchanging freight with its various Toledo connections. Called Glendale, the new facility eventually enabled the LSE to handle freight interchange with its connections and its local shipments in a more spacious and uncongested off-street location. On the passenger side it also began a program of lengthening its wood Niles cars to 60 feet, but gave up after only two cars were completed.

 

8. The End of the Line: 1930–1938

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The stock market had taken a dive, to be sure, but most people believed it was only a temporary hiccup — perhaps a little worse than in 1921, but nothing for serious concern. Even so, interurban lines like the Lake Shore had much to worry about. On January 18, 1930, Fred Coen wrote his mysterious master, “A. Hayes,” and began:

The time is not far distant when the question of the future policy to be followed in regard to the Lake Shore Electric must be determined. In other words, whether this railway can be rejuvenated and rebuilt so that it would be the same as an electrified steam railroad and made a profitable institution or whether it is to be abandoned, or partially abandoned, and recover therefrom as much as possible in the way of salvage or sale as a going concern.

He went on to propose a consulting study to determine the LSE’s fate. Coen then hinted at his own feelings by recommending the consultants who had helped Samuel Insull successfully rebuild and modernize his Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee and Chicago, South Shore & South Bend — implying that perhaps the LSE might be made into “an electrified steam railroad.” Whether or not there was any such hope, the letter clearly recognized that continuing to operate the system as it then existed was undoubtedly doomed.

 

9. Epilogue: The Afterlife

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One certainty during the LSE’s last several years was that finality was a flexible concept. Nothing seemed to end cleanly or exactly as planned.

All Lake Shore Electric revenue services ceased May 15, 1938 — or May 25, or May 30, depending on one’s preference. But even afterward, genuine LSE trains, with LSE crews, ran for another two years. Unlike many defunct interurban lines, the LSE was not turned over to commercial scrappers. Fred Coen remained very much on the scene, now managing the Lake Shore Coach Company and still responsible for the deceased but still-intact railway. Apparently under no pressure from Toledo Edison to vacate the rights-of-way, Coen decided that his own employees would dismantle the line themselves — thus keeping many of them employed for some time longer. For accounting purposes, all remaining rail employees were transferred to the Toledo Edison payroll on July 1, 1938, but during 1938, 1939, and early 1940 they regularly operated salvage trains with LSE work motors and line cars under Coen’s management.

 

10. The Predecessors: 1883–1906

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The Lake Shore Electric’s family tree dated back to the electric railways’ equivalent of Pilgrim Father days and included some especially distinguished pioneers. Inevitably too, it was a complex assemblage of different personalities and lineages. At least ten different company names showed up at one time or another, but by the time the LSE was created in 1901 these had boiled down to four — the Lorain & Cleveland, the Toledo, Fremont & Norwalk, and two Sandusky-based companies, the Sandusky & Interurban and the Sandusky, Norwalk & Southern. A fifth, the Lorain Street Railway, joined the family in 1906.

Three of these had comparatively simple, straightforward histories, but the city of Sandusky seemed to spawn financial and corporate instability for its two railways — perhaps the result of too much competition in a stagnant and marginal market. Whatever the reasons, the Sandusky predecessors were both the oldest and the most complex.

Sandusky’s modest street railway system had its origin in the Sandusky Street Railway, a locally promoted horsecar line which was built primarily to connect its steamship piers and downtown area with the then-remote Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway station. The LS&MS main line was the city’s primary rail route, and originally had entered town from the east along the waterfront. In 1872, however, it was relocated a mile south of the city’s center, and reaching it became a hardship. The first solution was a horse-drawn omnibus line organized by Sandusky’s Gilcher brothers in 1882. But even by then competition was brewing; another group of local businessmen headed by Clark Rude had incorporated the Sandusky Street Railway on August 3, 1881.

 

11. Passenger Services

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The historical text of this book broadly described the Lake Shore Electric’s interurban services. But for those more specifically interested in the subject, this chapter takes a more detailed look at these schedule and general service patterns. Even so, it should be remembered that the LSE’s passenger schedules were often adjusted for traffic peaks, valleys, and shifts in riding patterns — sometimes on an ad hoc basis. This was especially so in the summer, when hordes would head for Cedar Point and the numerous parks and resort communities lining Lake Erie’s shore.

The primeval Sandusky, Milan & Norwalk’s earliest known timetable is dated December 1, 1893, and shows not only the line’s service but the specific car numbers for each run. Cars 9 and 11 alternated, with runs every two hours between Sandusky and Norwalk; the 18-mile trip took an extremely leisurely one hour and 50 minutes, a terminal-to-terminal average of ten mph. (For some SM&N riders the specific car numbers were relevant, since combine No. 9 carried baggage; coach No. 11 did not.) Virtually every run connected with one or more steam railroad local trains, which also were shown on the timetable. SM&N cars regularly exchanged passengers with trains of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and the Wheeling & Lake Erie at Norwalk, the W&LE’s Huron branch at Milan, the Nickel Plate at Avery, and no less than five railroads at Sandusky — the LS&MS, Big Four, Lake Erie & Western, Baltimore & Ohio, and Sandusky & Columbus Short Line (later Pennsylvania Railroad).

 

12. City Operations

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Although noted primarily as an interurban system, the Lake Shore Electric operated extensive local city routes in Lorain and Sandusky plus a single franchise-required service in Norwalk. Their traffic and economic characteristics varied enormously, from heavily burdened, industrially oriented lines to casual and folksy little Toonervilles with no visible means of support.

Sandusky’s city streetcar lines were a perennially vexing financial burden, but because its interurban services depended on city franchises the company could not walk away from them. Its problems stemmed partly from early competitive overbuilding and partly from the nature and development of the city. When its horsecars began running in 1883, Sandusky’s population was more than 16,000 and it was Ohio’s eighth largest city. But afterward the city attracted little new industry and experienced little growth. There was only an 8 percent population gain between 1890 and 1910, the period when most of the streetcar lines were built. By 1920 Sandusky ranked only 24th among Ohio cities. The lines built into the outlying areas never attracted new residential subdivisions as they surely would have if Sandusky had enjoyed the remarkable expansion of some other Lake Erie shoreline cities. As a result, much of the territory served by the city cars was always relatively unproductive.

 

13. Freight Services

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Passengers were the Lake Shore Electric’s primary business, or so it originally thought. But after a belated start, the company established a substantial and far-flung freight operation which eventually overtook passengers in importance. Indeed, by the early 1930s freight appeared to be the key to whatever future the railway had. Describing it is more difficult, however. Unlike its passenger operations with their myriad timetable publications, the LSE’s freight services are only spottily documented; it was a complex business, some parts of which followed no fixed patterns.

First, some definitions are needed. Actually, “freight” on the LSE (and most other rail carriers) consisted of at least four disparate types of traffic lumped under one loose definition: (1) “express” or “package freight,” (2) less-than-carload freight, universally abbreviated as “LCL” by the rail lines, (3) forwarder or consolidator shipments, and (4) straight carload movements of several different types. To one degree or another each of these varieties involved different handling methods, rate scales, equipment, traffic patterns and economic characteristics. Often, too, their patterns of growth and decline varied from one another.

 

14. The Equipment

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“Mishmash” is the only appropriate word to describe the Lake Shore Electric’s original roster. When the company was formed on September 25, 1901, it inherited a mixed collection of rolling stock from its four predecessor companies — none of it really suitable for the type of operations its creators envisioned. In total there were 41 interurban passenger cars (“interurban” sometimes being rather loosely defined), 22 city streetcars, five box freight motors, four powered work cars, 33 work trailers, and three steam locomotives no less. Some of these cars dated to the pioneering days of interurban and street railway operations in the early 1890s and, although young in years, already were obsolescent if not completely obsolete. Only the former Toledo, Fremont & Norwalk’s 22 Barney & Smith cars of 1900–1901 were usable for long-distance interurban operations, but these were rather austere and, worse, were underpowered and thus slow. Nonetheless the new company had to rely on them until it could buy equipment specifically designed for its planned high-speed, deluxe services.

 

Appendix 1: Equipment Rosters

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Abbreviations used in these Rosters

 

Equipment

ACF

American Car & Foundry Company

American

American Car Company, St Louis, Mo.

B&S

The Barney & Smith Car Company, Dayton, Ohio

Bald

Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pa.

Brill

The J. G. Brill Company, Philadelphia, Pa

Cincinnati

Cincinnati Car Company, Cincinnati, Ohio

Dupont

A. B. DuPont, designer

Fruehauf

Fruehauf Corporation

GE

General Electric Company Schenectady, N.Y.

Haskell

Haskell Car Works, Michigan City, In.

Jewett

Jewett Car Company, Newark, Ohio

Kuhl

G. C. Kuhlman Car Company, Cleveland, Ohio

LSE

Lake Shore Electric Railway, Cleveland, Ohio

MCB

Master Car Builder

McGuire

McGuire-Cummings Manufacturing Company

Niles

Niles Car Company, Niles, Ohio

Peck

Peckham Truck Company, Kingston, N. Y.

 

Appendix 2: Carbarns, Shops, Power Houses, and Substations

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Each of the LSE’s five predecessors built its own central operating complex consisting of a power house, car shop, and car storage facilities. All of these were taken over by the LSE in 1901, and all but one of them served the railway until its last days. Always economy-minded, the Lake Shore itself never built a new car shop of its own. In 1902 it planned a carhouse on Whittlesey Avenue in Norwalk, and after the Fremont barn was seriously damaged by fire on October 16, 1906, it announced that it would build a large new shop there. Neither materialized, and the company managed to spread various construction and repair functions among the old facilities.

Beginning in 1903, heavy repairs and new construction work were concentrated primarily at Sandusky and secondarily at Fremont; the other carhouses handled only storage, light repairs, and servicing. The five were:

Beach Park

Built by Lorain & Cleveland 1897; located at Stop 65 in Avon Lake. Brick carhouse 65.5´×200´, with 12´×12´ brick oil house. Carhouse included passenger facilities.

 

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