[Editor’s Note: Ron Schooling is an avid transit enthusiast and is working on a book detailing early mass transit in Louisville. He has contributed to Broken Sidewalk several times in the past including our recent look at road conditions and the desirability of transit a century ago. This is his first guest article following up on transit related issues.]
How does one actually start with a topic like this? Could this have ever been a reality? Well, the answer is a resounding YES!
American history is very quickly forgotten, especially when all physical vestiges, remnant structures, scant photographic images and text references, along with a plethora of other scattered, isolated bits and pieces of information are widely strewn about everywhere. This makes the quest for clarity like glancing at a gigantic tabletop puzzle in a pile. The picture is obviously there somewhere but unavailable until put together. Scattered materials make a nearly impossible task for casual readers, as well as for history buffs and even experts. A straightforward source simply does not exist.
When starting my search for incontrovertible proof that our El trains existed, I had no idea how widely scattered the information bits would be. Over time, the pieces eventually coalesced revealing a fascinating picture of our advanced and modern trains of 116 years ago.
Millions of Louisvillians commuted on these trains, thought of them as an inherent lifestyle and a birthright, enjoying all the benefits of this big-city transit. It was an every-day commonplace experience enjoyed and heavily utilized by everyone. One we would like to have in place today but sadly this level of service will likely never return.
The physical elevated structure was a twin-tracked line stretching 4.11 miles from 1st St. in Louisville, to Vincennes St. in New Albany.
On the return leg from New Albany, after crossing the Ohio River, over a mile of the line in West Louisville was on elevated wooden trestle. After 23rd Street, the line followed the edge of the Portland Canal to about 14th Street. From there it re-elevated on steel uprights for its final 1.5-mile stretch along the Ohio riverfront of downtown Louisville. Passenger boarding platforms were 100 ft. to 200 ft. in length. The wharf area was interspersed with three purpose-built elevated commuter stations that averaged 15 to 20 feet above ground with steep stairways located at 7th Street, 4th Street and 1st Streets.
Mention of Louisville’s El stations is very important in the legal definition sense. Merely running a passenger train atop an elevated structure does not classify it as an El system. Trains must travel between multiple El stations to constitute a true system like New York or Chicago. Those extensive lines are incomparable, yet the Louisville system although small, was in every sense a bona fide and genuine El.
A westbound train departs 4th Street Station after having just arrived after a one-minute trek from First and Water Street station, now the middle of the Witherspoon parking garage. The scene pictured below is at Fourth and River Road, just below the Galt House hotel’s turn around loop, next station is 7th Street aka Central Station.
These commuter trains atop the elevated were organized and operated as a mass transit, intercity commuter rail system. With trains atop heavy rail, 15-minute headways, total grade separation, and intersection free elevated routing, it was clearly a “Rapid Metro system.” The K&I Bridge Companies elevated line electrified two years ahead of the famous Chicago “L” trains, and set record breaking other firsts in the nation and world of electric rapid transit. See Citations below the next train photo.
In every possible sense including legally defining terminology, these were not mere trolleys atop a trestle. These were multi-unit train sets, with purposeful rail line design, boarding commuters at multiple elevated stations on twin-track standard 4ft-8.5in. gauge heavy rail.
The downtown section presented a true big-city urban streetscape; darkened streets between the steel uprights were busy with street traffic, while the rapid transit and other trains scurried simultaneously along overhead. It was an urban area, with a dark and gritty feel especially where an upper and lower Second St. prevailed.
How about a fast train coupled with a rowboat ride, simply to make it to the work on time? Occasionally the Ohio River would prove unruly, with commuter passengers arriving to temporary rowboat service at their stations. The trains still ran on regular 15-minute schedules, but getting to and from the stations sometimes proved slightly out of the norm, but K&I commuter service was never closed due to high water.
The electric arc lights mentioned above were very powerful Victorian era equivalent of the tall cluster lights now lining our major freeway interchanges. These vastly improved passenger safety and security for steamboat wares stored overnight on the wharf. The basket [device] far up the pole was similar to a cherry picker, to enable changing of the carbon arc rods. This lighting system was scattered all along the entire riverfront. The K&I Bridge Company’s earlier steam version commuter trains ran from 5:45 am until 2:30 am, nearly 24/7 and these powerful lighting systems were an absolute necessity along the wharf.
The elevated transit trains sole function was transporting commuting workers, shoppers and residents between the New Albany and Portland areas and downtown Louisville. At one time, the company also operated a secondary branch commuter line from Parkland with express non-stop trains to First Street station. The electric trains ran every 15 minutes from 6:45 am to Midnight.
This rapid rail system achieved a number of records. They were first commuter trains in the country to convert from steam to electric power and also the first electric trains in the world to run on the same 4″–8.5″ standard gauge rail lines used by main line locomotives hauling heavy freight and passenger trains.
Bridge company literature also pointed out that West End and Portland residents enjoyed fast train transit times to First St. station of only 10 minutes, on the intersection free, elevated line. This compared to an average of 30-minute transit times on Louisville’s trolleys, which annoyingly had to contend with over 30 blocks of traffic and intersections, and potential stops at every street corner.
While the fast trains made their documented fast transit times from Louisville’s First St. to Daisy Depot in New Albany, they were also busy boarding and discharging passengers at four mid-line required stops among the 10 line stations. This along with operating 59 daily trains is impressive no matter how one views it.
Even with our modern freeways and fast cars, one cannot duplicate these “point-to-point” travel times today. I challenge anyone to try, just don’t blame me for the traffic tickets.
The Bridge Co. sold the rapid transit line in November of 1907. The new operator re-gauged all train equipment to enable operations on Louisville city streetcar lines. That operation commenced in March 1908 ending the era of elevated rapid commuter trains in Louisville.
Copyright @ 2009 R. David Schooling – Clarksville, IN 47129