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Interurban Commuting
This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on February 8, 1997
Cartoonist was a regular
by Roz Young
            Milton Caniff, who for more than 50 years drew syndicated comic strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, went back and forth to Ohio State University from Dayton on the interurban every week for five years during the late 1920s. He came home to visit his parents and to date Bunny, his high-school sweetheart.
            Milton did most of his interurban riding at night. The traction he took to Columbus had the baggage car at the front. On one side of this car was a long bench, the only place to sit down. All the tools and supplies were inside the baggage compartment.
            Communication was not good in those days. There was none between cars, not even between the depots and the car itself. Every car carried flares to put on the tracks in case of trouble. The conductors had to depend on all sorts of signal devices, such as a looped wire hung alongside the track.
            After Milton spent Saturday and Sunday night courting Bunny, Milton's mother would shake him out of bed on Monday morning in time to drive him to the interurban station to catch the 5 a.m. traction in order to make his 8 o'clock class at OSU.
            When he tried to curl up and sleep in the ordinary seats, the conductor suggested that he could sleep on the long tool chest attached to the wall of the baggage compartment. It was not quite as warm there, but lying on the bench with a stack of books for a pillow and an overcoat for cover was Pullman travel at its finest. The car was heated by coal stoves which the conductor had to tend. The one in the passenger compartment was toward the rear of the car, which was also the smoking section.
            The motorman stayed pretty much to himself in his small, cramped cubbyhole. He sat there ever alert because of the speed.
            The car had a straight-out whistle, which was air operated and could be sustained. Sometimes the motorman tied the whistle valve down and roared through the countryside for long stretches. At certain places he tooted for his cousin Minnie or maybe his own house.
            Milton also recalled places where the horn would sound, not a short toot-toot, but a long, sustained urh, urh, urh.
            Naturally the motorman didn't toot the horn for every cowpath that crossed the road into some farmer's yard beyond the track. But the motormen did a good job of it. They knew where the traffic was generally heavy and would start to blow that horn in plenty of time.
            At night you could see the light coming; in the daytime, not so. Most of the accidents were in the daytime.
            If the interurban hit you, you'd had it. It was big and strong and the flanged wheels looked larger than railroad wheels. They were laid out in a similar fashion - four wheels and four wheels, which would turn as the head of the car moved on the curves. There were very few acute curves and they banked much more than the railway lines, so that those interurbans could hit a curve at a much higher speed than railroads. That was the reason they were so much more operable in the back country.
            Among the things that lingered in Milton's memory was arriving at the end of the line when the conductor walked through the car and reversed the seats. They had been facing the front, and since there was no turn around, the conductor changed the direction of the seats and the motorman went to the other end of the car. Suddenly that was the front of the car.
            In the cities, the interurban ran on the city car tracks, but much more slowly. The streetcar tracks were buried in most cases. In the country outside the city limits, the irons stood high and strong and there was simply nothing around to interfere with the speed.
            One distinctive feature of the interurbans was that they carried their own snow plows. In a light snow, the tracks remained open and ran more frequent schedules than the railroad trains. On blustery mornings, the railroads had to haul out the big snow removal trucks with the wide-bodied engines, but the traction with its snow plow cleared the tracks for itself. The rest of the day it kept its own road bed open simply by using it.
            One of the things Milton recalled about the electric cars was that you'd be going along, sometimes at high speed, 70 or 80 miles an hour. The car crossed another electric line, and both of them were dead at that point. So you'd be reading or doing whatever, and suddenly the power would go off, but the momentum of the car would carry it across the gap. Then, almost instantly, the lights would come on again. When everything went off at high speed - the power for the car, the headlights - that brief second seemed like an eternity.
            The interurban line from Dayton to Xenia was a short run after it passed Belmont - it was country in those days. The cars were more like the yellow street cars of the Xenia Avenue line. There were other fellows like Milton whose girls lived in Belmont but they lived in Riverdale, or vice versa. Sometimes late at night the motorman saw them trudging along, obviously going to miss the car. They'd stop the car if there weren't too many people aboard and pick the boys up.
            `They got to know us well,' said Milton. `Sometimes when the weather was really lousy, it was a great boon to have that car stop along the way. It was marvelous for those of us who had love in our hearts.'
            At the end of those five years going back and forth on the traction, Milton married Bunny and the two went off to Columbus, where Milton had a job on the Columbus Dispatch , beginning a long and successful newspaper career.