Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Louisville’s Elevated Electric Rail System

R. David Schooling recently emailed me some mind-blowing information about the history of electric rail service in Louisville, including elevated trains? You didn’t know Louisville had an elevated rail system? Neither did I. Here is some fascinating information.

  • Multi-car elevated electric trains with 15 minute headways, operating nearly 24/7, were running in Louisville Ky 114 years ago. The heavy rail elevated steam locomotive commuter trains started running in 1886 and were replaced with all electric trains in 1893. They were an instant hit and wildly popular with heavy ridership.
  • This commuter rail service was owned and operated by the K&I Bridge and Railroad Company. The K&I bridge across the river held commuter tracks as well as a swivel section that allowed it to open for passing ships. This only happened four times, one of which was for an Australian convict ship. You can read more about the bridge on Wikipedia.
  • Louisville also had one of the highest (in elevation) el stations (from ground level) in the country, an elevated station with a subterranean entry, and and electric freight subway.
  • The 3rd rail train that exhibited in Chicago for a few weeks in 1883 came directly to Louisville and ran for 4 years.
  • In the early 1900’s Louisville had nearly 100 steam and electric commuter rail stations. Its electric commuter trains ran on till as late as the eve of 1946.
  • There were pictures of sixteen car commuter trains from Louisville in Life Magazine as late as the World War II era.
  • In the early 1930’s Louisville had electric commuter trains that ran at 70 mph on the Indianapolis run and were capable of nearly 100 mph. They were specifically designed and built with extensive use of aluminum and with special undercarriage trucks also designed for high speed. They were clones of the Ohio “Red Devils, but rebuilt on steroids.

Schooling is working on a book about this, tentatively titled “Louisville’s Elevated Rail and Electric Trains”. It should be fascinating stuff. I know Indianapolis, and presumably most other Midwest cities, also once had an extensive interurban network. It just goes to show that the region was once a leader in rail transit.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Louisville

14 Responses to “Louisville’s Elevated Electric Rail System”

  1. rydot says:

    Looks like Los Angeles and the East Bay aren’t the only victims of “Disappearing Interurban Railroad” syndrome. Simply fascinating!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Would these trains be like saky the ones you see in SF…there is actually one called the Louisville that runs on the F line in SF down Market Street to Embarcadaro

  3. Anonymous says:

    Makes you kind of think how things would be different today if all these trains/interurbans were still running. Just think we wouldn’t need to be screaming as loud as we can about light rail and mass transit in general…”everything old is new again” LOL

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    I don’t believe any of the PCC cars on the F-line cars were from Louisville. IIRC, livery on the cars is not indicative of where they were sourced.

  5. Nickolaus says:

    i’ve actually been mapping out the old interurban lines in my free time at work. using an antique map i found online (the Indiana Historical Society? i forget now) the blue lines represent electric rail lines that actually existed. the purple lines are my own ideas (the map is actually part of a larger “Day’s of Futures Past” piece i’ve been working on.) it’s still not done, especially outside of Indiana, but the rough outline is there.

    i know the routes aren’t correct in many of the smaller towns, as the cars would have left the mainline track to run on local streets, but those routes would be much harder to recreate accurately without extensive research. anyway, hope the link works:

    i’ve been told on good authority that at one time you could travel from downtown Indianapolis to downtown Muncie in 45 minutes on the interurban. it now takes almost 2 hours. now that’s progress!

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    That’s a great map. When you get more of your research done, please do send it my way. I’m happy to promote. I’m fascinated by this.

    There have got to be some rail/interurban historical societies out there that could help with pulling together all the old maps.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t get the link to work. I just got an empty google map page

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    anon, you need to be sure to copy the entire link. Blogger truncates the display of long links, but if you double click it, the whole thing should be highlighted so that you can copy/paste.

  9. D Morse says:

    This just goes to show that we aren’t unequivicably richer now as a society than we were then. Sure, mp3 players and chee-tos are cheaper, but transportation is more expensive.

  10. Robert says:

    I am from Boston, and I am dumbfounded that the city of Louisville does not have commuter trains. The tracks are good enough for freight trains. The public should be outraged that a city can be enlarged for tax purposes, but not give anything back to those same taxpayers. I have heard about the bridge nonsense, and an alternative to driving is what this city needs. With an energy crisis, we need various viable methods of transportation to get around, to work to play, etc. Hell the city could even get a proffessional team here. Right now the highway system looks pretty antiquated. We need Trains

  11. Panamerican99 says:

    Mr, Schooling is partly correct and partly incorrect about Louisville's rail network. First, the structures he refers to as being for "El" trains were simply not built for that purpose.

    An elevated railway system is usually a local commuter hauling operation with the tracks on structures above the streets. Think of it as a subway system that runs above instead of below ground level. The equipment operated on subway and elevated commuter lines is the same, generally powered by an electrified third rail. In some cases, these evolved from steam drawn trains that were converted to electric operation during and after the 1890's. Louisville has never had such an operation.

    The elevated structures in his photos were part of main line steam railroads. The Big Four bridge handled connecting freight moves of the C C C& St. L Railway, part of the New York Central system. The moves were from the old yard near the river. This yard handled freight trains from the C&O Ry, which reached Louisville via trackage rights over the L&N RR from Lexington. The C&O was also an original partner with Big Four in building the Big Four bridge but C&O sold their interest later. The bridge also handled trains of the B&O Railroad for a time but they later moved to the K&I bridge. What he describes as elevated structures were merely approaches to the bridge for the tracks. The approaches were on both sides of the river. The Jeffersonville Big Four depot was on the bridge as shown in one of the photos. As someone mentioned, the Big Four bridge was also used by the Indiana Railroad interurban line from Indianapolis and they had their own approaches on each end of the bridge. In the photo taken from the top of the bridge span you can see the IRR approach branching off to the left. Because the electric powered interurban cars could climb steeper grades, that approach is shorter and steeper than the freight line that goes straight into the distance. Originally, there were Big Four intercity passenger trains on the line but they were dropped in the 1920's or '30's. The last interurban ran over the bridge in 1939. An interurban is an electric car similar to a streetcar but much bigger. The original interurban company on this line ran trains of two or three cars and even had overnight sleeping cars and diners on it's Dixie Flyer and Hoosier Flyer schedules to Indianapolis. Those were gone by the time the last car ran in 1939 when single cars called "high speed cars" were used.

    The bridge structure along the river front past 2nd, 4th, and the other streets was built to accommodate a plan by C. P. Huntington to put together a transcontinental railroad empire that was to link his C&O Ry with the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern RR and the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas RR. The bridge replaced street level trackage that made the connection. The CO&SW was sold to Illinois Central in 1893 and became their Kentucky Division, The ICRR depot at 7th and River handled trains of the IC, C&O, B&O, Big Four, and Southern Ry and may have also hosted the Monon RR for awhile. By the 1950's, only the first three still used it. The last IC train ran in January, 1957 and the last B&O train ran in 1959. The C&O later moved to Union Station on Broadway and Central Station closed. It is doubtful that C&O ever ran commuter trains in Louisville because they reached the city on L&N rails. The 4th street elevated station was likely a convenience stop for C&O trains but they were not commuter trains, although they made stops in Crescent Hill and other places east for passengers traveling beyond Winchester where they entered their own rails. The ICRR ran regular intercity passenger service to Paducah and beyond to New Orleans and stops were made at Valley Station, Ft Knox and other places. They also ran many troop trains to Ft. Knox into the late 1950's and most of these came to them from connecting railroads.

    Louisville did have an extensive streetcar and interurban system under the operation of the Louisville Railway and the Louisville & Interurban. L&I was owned by L Ry. The lines ran on surface trackage and city streets. Most of the interurban tracks were adjacent to highways although one ran next to the L&N right of way to La Grange and one used an old L&N right of way to Prospect. The interurban lines ran to Prospect, La Grange, Shelbyville, Jeffersontown, Fern Creek, Okolona, and Orell. In some cases, they operated interurban cars and iin others they ran streetcars as interurbans. The last line was abandoned in 1935.

    The streetcars ran virtually all over the city with the last line (4th St.) closing on Derby Day, 1947. While a steam railroad was built from downtown to Portland in 1830, it soon closed. The real expansion of street railways came just after the Civil War as line from several companies were merged to eventually become the Louisville Ry. At one time, LR was the biggest employer in the city.
    Some of the city lines were operated with trailers behind the streetcar pulling it. However, do not confuse these with "commuter trains" because they were not and they ran on streets, not on elevated structures. TARC took over the bus operations of the LR after LR went out of business.

    Someone mentioned the PCC cars that never operated. That is true. The only PCC car that ran in Louisville was a 1940 demonstrator from Philadelphia and free rides were given in an effort to get the public interested. The cars were bought and the 4th St. line was overhauled for them but they never ran and were sold to Cleveland.

    The Daisy Line ran over the K&I bridge to reach New Albany after running at street level from downtown Louisville. There were no stations on the K&I bridge so it cannot be considered an elevated railroad, just a crossing of the river. In fact, the track gauge of Louisville's streetcars was 5 ft, wider than the standard gauge of railroads. To cross the bridge, an extra rail was laid for their use. This is called a gantlet track. After LR quit running streetcars, the Daisy Line leased a couple of LR's bigger cars and a couple of trailers. As mentioned by someone else, Daisy Line converted to buses later. At one time, there was another interurban that ran over this route and on to Silver Hills.

    L&N's elevated line through East Louisville is a grade separation dating from the 1930's. The baxter Avenue station was merely a convenience stop but not part of a commuter network. L&N once ran several local trains over that line to such places as Cincinnati, Lexington, Bloomfield, and on to Ravenna and Hazard. They all made many stops but you can't classify them as commuter trains. Generally speaking, passengers had to ride a minimum number of miles to get aboard. Most of these were outbound from Louisville in the morning and returned in the evening. This is the opposite of how a commuter system works with trains coming into the city in the AM and going out in the late PM.

    All of this is without saying that in the very early days these railroads may have offered many more schedules on some of the routes. Obviously, commuter service was unprofitable and fell to the economics of the time. The interurbans and streetcars could not compete with the automobile although today streetcars are making a comeback in many locations. They are faster and more economical than buses in most cases.

    If you want more information on Louisville's streetcars and interurbans, you might want to pick up the DVD "Streetcars of River City" from Herron Rail Video. It traces the complete history of LR and L&I and includes the only known movies of the streetcars plus a ride over the Big Four Bridge on the last interurban car to cross it in 1939. Just do a web search for the producer or the title and you'll find it.

  12. R. David Schooling says:

    Baxter Ave Elevated station and the 1.6 mile Baxter Elevated elevated line, was an L&N operation and opened to 14 daily passenger trains. While many long distance trains served the station many commuters also rode in and out of Louisville on this El structure and at this El Station… what's confusing about this? It's and elevated station and and elevated line, with 14 passenger trains, (some commuters took advantage) Surprised?

    Numerous bedroom communities lie beyond this station Crescent Hill, St Matthews, Buckner, LaGrange, Yada, yada, etc. Our predecessors were well accustomed to using trains and also knew how to use schedules to their advantage… to tag into an inbound and outbound long distance trains which also happended to serve their particular suburban station, at which the distant trains stopped for boarding and VIOLA ! indeed what was resultant ? commuters rode these trains. Thats what.

    It is our generation, with absolute zero access to trains, who lack the knowledge of how things worked who consequently also lack the vision as to what transpired.

    Louisville also DID have an elevated commuter train that ran on elevated trackage, along the riverfront wharf. It ran atop a purpose built elevated railway as a multi-car initially steam operation started in 1886 then converted to electric operations in 1893. These elevated commuter trains were operated by the K&I Bridge and Railroad Co. between 1886 til 1908. The downtown portion had 3 purpose & company built El Stations at 7th, 4th and 1st Streets. There were additional grade level stations along the route in the West end prior to re- elevating for long stretches and then finally the upramp for the bridge approach. The El stations were used only by K&I Bridge trains.

    Panamerican99 mentions some kind of bridge structure running somewhere along the river front past 2nd and 4th and other streets …

    That wasn't a bridge…THAT WAS THE FIFTEEN BLOCK, 1.52 mile "Short Route Ry Transfer Companys elevated". This is the El that the electric 3-car STANDARD gauge trains ran upon.

    Louisville's El is listed as being the first elevated heavy steam commuter line in the country to electrify, according to George Yeater, Louisvilles renown and premier rail historian and authority.

    There is a lot of confusion surrounding the trains operated by another outfit who bought up K&I electric car equipment along with trackage rights over the Ohio River. That company decided to cross the River via a gauntlet trackage and immediately downramp it's newly "trolley-ized" 5 ft. re-gauged version of "Daisy" trains to go street running for 30 plus blocks to reach downtown.

    That is a totally seperate era, time-frame, seperate company, routing, everything….than the original K&I Bridge Co. elevated trains. (stm-1886-ele-1893-1908)

    The electric K&I Bridge Daisy trains on the elevated were normally in 3 car consist, although longer on accasion and there are documented records of one special event 10 car train. The El trains well patronized had ridership of over 1500 daily and millions of riders per annum.

    Multi-unit high speed trains continued into and out of Louisville all the way up til 1939. In fact a special movement of three IRR 3-car high speed trains ran from Columbus Ind. to Louisville on a special event trip in 1939 loaded with 4 -H farm kids and their adult leaders.

    I highly recommend The Encyclopedia of Louisville, particularly the sections on "Railroads" Railroad Stations" Interurban, and Streetcars" These are all overseen and authored by George Yater….the rail historian and authority locally, Read carefully, and closely and between all the rails, and you'll find a plethora of commuter rail activity in Louisville. Also "Interstate" by Jerry Marlette, whos volumunous and wonderful work also deals with original K&I Bridge trains, the original ones as well as the later and later again itterations. Of course the New Albany Library is absolutely indespensable for anything about the original multi-unit bridge trains. The U of L Archives. The Yater Papers,documents and files and the Kentucky Historical Society.

    Plus for an overview, condensed, concise result of much painstaking research….re-read this blog. The specifics in the top of the blog are dead on accurate and super- documented. Louisville was not like Chicago or New York but we did actually have an El, Commuter Rail Companies, and at one time over 250 local area train & Interurban stations and stops….and sadly too much more that we will never have again.

    I am additionally available and open to direct comments or questions, from anyone and more than pleased at this level of interest. Call 812-944-9666

  13. Panamerican99 says:

    There is no doubt that George Yater was the untimate authority on Louisville railroads. If he wrote it, it can be considered as fact. What I wrote about the elevated line along the river which started behind the Belknap Hardware property and ran along the river to Central Station originally known as the Short Route Railway Transfer Company is also factual. But it is also possible that a local electric passenger operation used it as described by David Schooling. George Yater didn't mention it to me when we were doing interviews with him but then, I didn't ask him about it, either. Since he wrote it in his history of Louisville railroads, it no doubt happened. During my lifetime, the only passenger trains to run over that line were those of the C&O Railway.

  14. R. David Schooling says:

    The electrification of the elevated trains was so overwhelmingly popular that ridership shot up exponentially. A 1906 survey tracked over 3,425 commuters crossing daily by train…One Million Two Hundred Fifty Thousand such passengers on an anual basis. I inadvertently quoted a much lower ridership figure earlier in the above. These are the actual survay results.

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