Early commuters rode interurban
by local historian Harry A. Soltysiak, first published in The Marketplace, May 1989.
Behind schedule on its 5:30 a.m. run from Kansas City, the Excelsior Springs interurban rolled east from Stockdale Station on July 14, 1920. To gain time, motorman Ben Johnson throttled some added current to his four, 100 horse power electric motors, and the two elongated passenger cars clattered along at about 60 miles per hour. Meanwhile, a short distance down the line a local stockman, believing the train had already passed, proceeded to cross his cows over the track. Johnson, emerging from a railroad cut, saw the cattle too late as he careened around the bend. The train plowed into the herd with squealing brakes. Derailing from the impact, the front car bumped along on the ties for 40 feet, slaughtering 13 animals. Then, its energy spent, the car leaned sideways and broke off an electric pole, and remained precariously propped on the stump above a deep culvert. Fortunately, only 15 passsengers had been on board, and no one was injured. Maintaining a tight hourly schedule -- with 27 stops between Kansas City and Excelsior Springs -- sometimes had its drawbacks.
Interest in Excelsior Springs electric rail line became enthusiastic around the turn of the century. Years of popular discontent with high and arbitrary railroad rates made the prospect of cheap interurban transportation attractive to townspeople and farmers alike. In May 1905 the Excelsior Springs Daily Journal reported 89 members of the community's booster club had been "entertained in a royal manner" at the Kansas City Club. A guest speaker was Missouri Senator T.J. Wornall, who "struck the right line in his talk when he devoted a few minutes to telling of the possibilities of an electric line from Kansas City to Excelsior Springs via Liberty."
A major obstacle, however, was the need to construct a new bridge over the Missouri River. On January 28, 1911, as work on the $2,000,000 Armour-Swift-Burlington, or A.S.B. Bridge, neared completion, the Kansas City Post published the builder's speculations:
"Elaborate plans are prepared for opening the Clay County side, which will suddenly become a 'North Kansas City'. These plans incude a street railway system. That traffic (alone) will not keep up the cost of carrying the big bridge. We want other lines to use it. The most immediate line we can see is a line to Excelsior Springs."
Retiring from active banking in 1908 to devote his full attention toward promoting the interurban, St. Joseph financier Charles F. Enright is largely responsible for the Kansas City, Clay County and St. Joseph (K.C., C.C. and St. J) Railway Company. Enright solicited financial support from Eastern capitalists, secured franchises and the necessary right-of-ways for the road. The system consisted of a 51 mile division linking Kansas City to St. Joseph, and a 28 mile line to the spas of Excelsior Springs. The original Kansas City terminal was located at Thirteenth and Walnut streets, but was moved in 1920 to the Railway Exchange building at Seventh and Walnut.
On January 12, 1912, after more than a year of construction, the "Excelsior Springs Route" carried its first passengers. The Liberty Advance described in glowing detail the center entrance cars manufactured for the line by the Cincinatti Car Company:
"In all dimensions it is larger than the other interurban cars running out of Kansas City ... It is painted maroon with green trimmings and the interior is elaborately fitted up, the seats in the main compartment being in green plush and those in the smoking end in green leather ... the seating capacity is sixty-four."
Two trains left simultaneously from Kansas City and Excelsior Springs, converging on Liberty, where one pulled into a siding to let the other through. At the Excelsior Springs station (currently V.F.W. Post 741), the conductor would reverse the trolley, and the westbound run was made backwards. The cars ran hourly from dawn until midnight. Riding the full length of the route cost 75-cents, and daily patrons could purchase commuter tickets by the book.
The interurban's heyday lasted from 1913 until 1923; during those years net earnings rose annually from $198,000 to $455,877. But profits were offset by much litigation. On October, 24, 1917, the Missouri Supreme Court forced the K.C., C.C. and St. J. to pay $250,000 in damages to the Interstate Railway Company for ursurping its Kansas City to St. Joseph right-of-way. And occasional mishaps were inherent to the system's close schedule. The K.C., C.C., and St. J. Railway's safety committee published their statistics for the year 1915 on greeting cards, and distributed them to customers after New Year's 1916. "Although the electric line carried over a million passengers during the year," read the analysis, "only nine were injured;" a remarkable figure, considering 13 separate collisions with livestock had occurred as well as 23 automobile and other accidents. While the line had averaged a collision every 10 days, the card closed with a surprising attribute, giving "trainmen and friends along the line credit for this good showing."
"That thing moved along pretty good," recalls Mr. George Buel, who in 1925 commuted on the interurban from Liberty to his grocery store job in North Kansas City. "I was always amazed at the speed they made."
Mr. Lowell Jordan, ticket salesman at the Liberty station for six year, began working for the K.C., C.C., and St. J. during his freshman year at William Jewell College in 1927. "We didn't have many accidents," contends Jordan. "Sometimes the cable would jump off at 60 miles an hour, and the conductor would have to reach up with the rope and pull it down." During the summer he occasionally filled in as the relief agent at the Excelsior Springs station when Gene Wariner took his vacation. Most people who experienced travel on the interurban, like Mrs. Martha Gilmer Roberts, are amused by their memories of the bygone era. When she was about 10 years old, Mrs. Roberts and her younger sister, Cynthia, rode the electric line to Excelsior Springs to visit their grandparents. "It was such a fun time," she recalls. "It was a great way to go." Over-spending their allowance on the many distractions of "the Springs," Relief Agent Jordan obligingly paid the difference of their return fare to Liberty.
With 374,700 passengers passing in and out, 1920 was the busiest year at the Excelsior Springs station. Much of the heavy traffic resulted from Highway 10 (Route H), and a rainy spring and summer that compounded the problem. Ironically, Highway 10, when completed, rapidly brought about the interurban's decline. On March 11, 1933, the Excelsior Springs Daily Standard reported: "When the interurban whistles into the station here tonight at 7:35, it will be the dying gasp of a nearly 30-mile stretch of railroad that has been killed off by motor cars, buses and a parallelling concrete highway."
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