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Travelers aboard an interurban in New York State in the 1930s. By then, the private car was starting to make these electric train lines obsolete. 

Travelers aboard an interurban in New York State in the 1930s. By then, the private car was starting to make these electric train lines obsolete. 

Photographer: Schenectady Museum Association/Corbis Historical
CityLab
Transportation

Before Interstates, America Got Around on Interurbans

At the beginning of the 20th century, a network of electrified “rural trolleys” raced between small towns and cities. Their fate could offer lessons for today’s train boosters. 

Once, there was no better selling point for your town than an interurban line.

These small railways connected small towns and large cities throughout the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, giving residents a chance to go places, literally and metaphorically. The cars were bigger and better-appointed than your standard streetcar, and instead of soot-chuffing steam locomotives, they used the latest clean-energy innovation: electric power provided by the overhead wires known as catenary lines.