Riding the Rails

Interurban ushered in new era
for Oldham County commuters

La Grange, Buckner train depots
were busy stops on route

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. (January 2003) – In its heyday, the Interurban Railway brought convenience to Oldham County by providing a fast, safe mode of transportation. Its dramatic impact was felt all across the county at the turn of the 20th century.
The interurban electric railway typically drew its power from overhead wire. Unpowered trailer cars were often used, making a two-car train.

The Interurban ferried passengers
from Louisville to La Grange and other
towns. Below are the La Grange train depot (right) and the Buckner train depot (left).

Percival Moore was a wealthy Anchorage, Ky., resident who instituted an electric railway line that began service on Nov. 18, 1901, traveling to Beard’s Station in Crestwood. Known as the Louisville, Anchorage and Pewee Valley Electric Railroad, this new method of transportation took residents of Oldham County to and from Louisville in one day.
“It was just a blessing,” said Oldham County resident Jim Calvert, who has always been fascinated by trains. “It was fast, and warm in the winter.”
By 1903, the line was reorganized, now under the control of the Louisville and Eastern Railway Company (L&E). In an era when the only other way to travel was by horse and buggy over unpaved, dusty roads, the interurban was a luxury to those who used it.
Calvert, 80, remembers riding the interurban to Camp Kavanaugh when he was a boy. “A round trip ticket to Louisville cost 60 cents. It meant a lot to Oldham County,” he said.
In competition with the L&E, a second interurban company, The Louisville and Interurban Railroad (L&I), opened its first interurban line east to Jeffersontown in 1904. The L&I was owned by the Louisville Traction Co., a holding company that also owned the Louisville Railway Co.
Interurban tracks continued to stretch across Oldham County as the county embraced this new concept. A new line was opened northeast to Prospect the same year by electrifying a Louisville & Nashville steam railroad branch.
The L&E interurban line to La Grange was completed by 1906. According to the History and Families of Oldham County, Ky: The First Century, 1824-1924,” it had “established itself as a quick and convenient way for people to travel between Louisville and La Grange, which just a few years earlier, would have been impossible to imagine.”
The idea of the interurban had trickled down from the larger cities to the suburbs. Cars usually had a two-man crew, the motorman and conductor. If a trailer was used, a second conductor was added.

Calvert said it was great for dairy farmers and their wives. It was now possible for the farmer’s wife to go to town, do her shopping, and still arrive home in time to fix dinner. The interurban could travel at speeds of “65 to 80 mph on the long runs such as Louisville to La Grange,” said Jack Diehl. Diehl has researched the interurban and written a column about it for the Division 8 National Model Railroad Association. In the city, they averaged 15-20 mph, said train enthusiast Charles Keeling of Louisville.
Keeling, 86, also rode the interurban, a ride that he compared to, “A rolling barn-with wheels on it.”
For the most part, the ride was smooth, and the cars were fast, said Diehl. His mother, Sylvia Vatter, lived in Louisville around 1918. Now 93, he said she remembered riding the interurban on its Jeffersontown line.
The ride was “smooth because they were heavy in comparison to other types of vehicles. They were fast because the trains were short and the locomotives were electric and accelerated much faster than steam engines.”
The interurban was not just a passenger electric train. Some lines also provided freight and cattle services.
Farmers could ship milk to Louisville creameries more quickly. If taken by regular train, there was no method of refrigeration and the milk would often heat as the railroad cars were being switched out.
Calvert said the La Grange line was easy to build. There were no major bridges to construct, as occurred within some of the seven routes that branched out from the downtown Louisville terminal at Third and Jefferson streets to points in Jefferson, Oldham and Shelby counties, as well as Jeffersonville and New Albany, Ind.
Five of these routes were the Prospect line, the Shelbyville and La Grange line, the Fern Creek and Jeffersontown line, the Okolona line, and the Orell line. Stops were made every hour on each route in such towns as Harrod’s Creek, Glenview, Glenarm, Anita Springs, Eastwood, Buechel, Valley Station and Pleasure Ridge.
There were also suburban lines running from the downtown Louisville terminal over the Big Four bridge to Jeffersonville and over the K&I bridge to New Albany. These routes had been arranged between the Louisville & Southern Indiana Traction Co. and the Big Four steam railroad.

One of the earliest passenger specials was a Sunday trip labeled, “Meet The Steamer,” in which a resident of Seymour, Ind., or points south could take the interurban to Louisville to board one of two steamers, City of Cincinnati or City of Louisville. The combined cost of this enjoyable scenic river cruise and interurban ticket was only $1.75.
Most interurban routes passed through serene countryside en route to the bigger, bustling cities like Louisville and New Albany, Ind. Calvert said that Henry Watterson, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, remarked that traveling the interurban to and from work each day was “the most peaceful time of day for him.”
“The interurban had a quick rise, and a slow decline,” said Calvert. By 1935, the La Grange route was defunct, the Depression having taken its toll on America. The advent of the automobile slowly contributed to its demise, as many workers carpooled.
Bus lines eventually began operating in competition with streetcars and the interurban railway routes. This was perhaps the biggest detriment to the success of the interurban, as many lines were phased out and replaced by such companies as the Chaudoin Bus Line. This line replaced the La Grange interurban route.
Interest in light rail travel may rise again with the completion of the Interurban Greenways Trail. The nonprofit Greenways for Oldham County have chosen to institute a walking and bike trail along the original route of the interurban railway.
It will run from the La Grange train depot to Pewee Valley, a distance of roughly 10-13 miles. Greenways president Judy Hall said the interurban route was chosen because it represented “the history of the railroad itself. We thought it was a golden opportunity.”
Phase I of this project is scheduled for completion in late spring of 2003, said Hall. The trail will eventually be part of the county parks system.

Back to January 2003 Articles.



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