- Twilight Rails: The Final Era of Railroad Building in the Midwest
The network of rail lines that spread throughout the United States by the end of the nineteenth century proved to be one of the engineering marvels in American history. Contrasted with the excitement that nineteenth-century railroads generated when the industry was still relatively young, rail lines constructed in the first few decades of the twentieth century—twilight rails—traditionally were seen by historians as business failures and lacking in the positive community impact that the older lines had during the heyday of railroad construction. One of the premier historians of railroad history, H. Roger Grant, refutes the long-held interpretation of the twentieth-century lines in Twilight Rails: The Final Era of Railroad Building in the Midwest. Grant believes that the twilight rails were very important to the communities where entrepreneurs intended to build new lines. News of a new rail line generated publicity and much excitement—not to mention local investors—in communities scheduled to receive the benefit of the iron horse. While a number of these lines proved to be ephemeral or were only partially completed, they nonetheless were far more successful than was previously believed.
To support his thesis, Grant presents case studies of twilight rails in eight states in the American heartland: Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana. In almost every case, these states had numerous railroads by the early twentieth century, yet there were still unmet needs in terms of the ability to move people and freight efficiently over land. As Grant notes, “Even if a community had access to what was popularly dubbed the ‘steam car civilization,’ common wisdom held that the more rails the better” (p. 1).
The twilight rails serviced burgeoning industrial communities in the region, particularly in the Great Lakes states. The new lines also included [End Page 635] interurbans, providing passenger service between urban areas throughout the region. In the early twentieth century, the automobile was barely a blip on the horizon and the interstate highway system not even a glimmer in the eyes of the most prescient advocate of good roads. Thus, in Grant’s view, the early twentieth century was still ripe for continued railroad construction. Proponents of new lines were certainly not tilting at windmills or engaging in wild speculation. There was a great need to extend both passenger and freight service to move people and goods more efficiently.
The story of the twilight rails is a complex and often convoluted one. In some cases, interesting personalities emerged, such as with Indiana’s St. Joseph Valley Railway and its colorful proponent, Herbert “Herb” Bucklen. He was the embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth, rising from son of a small drugstore owner in Elkhart, Indiana, to successful owner of a patent medicine business, to real estate mogul, to railroad baron. Taking note of Elkhart’s complaints regarding the local railroads, especially their costly rates, Bucklen built the successful Elkhart and Western, a few miles of track connecting Elkhart to the Chicago main line of the Chicago and Grand Trunk Railway at Mishawaka.
Although Bucklen eventually sold the line, he kept his hand in the railroad industry. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he became interested in interurbans, planning to “expand the interurban network in what was a prime area, northern Indiana” (p. 201). His goal was to provide a direct interurban link between the Ohio line and Chicago. Bucklen was truly ambitious, putting his faith in electric technology. While the line, the St. Joseph Valley, did not live up to his dreams, it showed that Bucklen “sensed the potential of internal combustion motive power, being a true pioneer in the replacement technologies for steam” (p. 224).
Twilight Rails is full of stories like Herbert Bucklen’s and the many railroads that proliferated in the Midwest in the twentieth century. Most of them, such as the Akron, Canton and Youngstown in Ohio, did not build all of the track originally intended; what...