Rail promoter was anything but legitimate

The idea of illegitimate birth is old-fashioned.

But when the Springfield, (South) Charleston, Washington (CH) and Chillicothe Railway was conceived in 1904, that wasn’t so.

And in “The Little Traction Line to Nowhere,” Douglas B. Kirkpatrick’s self-published book about the train service that never grew beyond the dozen miles between Springfield and South Charleston, the parallels are hard to ignore.

From the promoter who seduced and abandoned local investors to the financial obligation he shirked over 18 years, the author makes it clear that Frank Patterson’s venture was nothing if not ill-conceived.

Kirkpatrick, who grew up in Yellow Springs and previously wrote about the Springfield & Xenia traction line, said the little traction line to nowhere had “every negative factor” a so-called interurban line could have.

For starters, it was not really an interurban.

“When first built it served no city. It started in a small town (which Springfield was) … and ended in a small town. It served no industry. It passed by no amusement park,” which interurban operators sometimes developed to give passengers a reason to ride the trains.

Moreover, “it was not financed by any deep-pocket investors.”

What it had in spades was the kind of self-serving, unscrupulous promoter such lines seemed to attract.

Patterson, described by the papers as “a small but engaging gentleman,” arrived in Springfield early in 1904 and announced he would build an electric railway to Washington CH.

“In just a few weeks,” Kirkpatrick writes, “a sizable entourage of investors” had stepped forward, some giving credit where credit wasn’t due.

“A lumberman and sheriff in Chillicothe, George Baker, agreed to sell him 120,000 railroad ties on credit and the General Electric Company delivered wire and electrical machinery on a COD basis. When all this material arrived he found it ‘inconvenient’ to pay cash at the moment.”

As tracks extended toward South Charleston, the press painted a pretty picture: “Since the various small towns within a radius of 20 miles of Springfield have been connected by electric roads, all of the people come to this city to do their shopping and many … in the evening to attend attractions at the Grand Opera House … and elsewhere.”

As 1904 drew to an end, Patterson played to the crowd like a pro, saying, “I have promised the people of South Charleston that they should have a ride to Springfield by trolley line before Christmas, and I am going to keep my word.”

It may be the only time he actually kept his word — and even then, it was on the cheap.

Kirkpatrick found that the average cost of building a traction line was $60,000 a mile and that in 85 days of building, Patterson had spent a fourth of that per mile.

“Less than two months later,” the author adds, “the Springfield, Charleston, Washington and Chillicothe Railway’s electric power was shut off … due to lack of payment.”

In March of 1905, South Charleston banker Stacy B. Rankin stepped forward to be the bankrupt company’s receiver.

“Rankin was not only able to establish some semblance of financial order to the railway,” Kirkpatrick writes, “but also became a major influence in years to come.”

Patterson did not. By the 19th of the same month, Springfielders read that the “former general manager of the Springfield-Chillicothe Electric Line did not reach Springfield yesterday as expected.”

It soon became clear Patterson hadn’t really expected to arrive but had expected from the start to disappoint everyone from the people in Washington CH and Chillicothe awaiting the line’s arrival to railway employees.

“Just look at my clothes,” one of the line’s workers told a reporter. “If I had any money you would not see me wearing such apparel.”

That December, a group calling it the Washington Traction Co. took over the line. The major movers were George W. Baker, whose railroad ties lay on the ground between Springfield and South Charleston, and Springfield businessman Theodore Troupe.

As Kirkpatrick incredulously writes: The purchase was made with an IOU.

The line’s story continues like a hapless Buster Keaton silent movie. An incident in which a cow escapes injury is followed by a horrific accident that kills two women at Possum Road and Clifton Pike and in which contributing factors are “thousands of grasshoppers (that) had been crushed on the tracks.”

Then comes the media’s unblinking coverage of fatalities in a July 25, 1914, crash caused by an intoxicated chauffeur who drove onto the tracks five miles from South Charleston.

Fifty-year-old Alta B. Gray had “her skull … crushed, both arms broken and her body mutilated,” the South Charleston Sentinel reports. Sadie Williams, 75, “had her neck broken, both arms broken and her shoulders cut and bruised.”

While “there is no doubt that she met instant death,” the paper says, “Mrs. Gray breathed for a few minutes following the crash.”

Kirkpatrick, who likens the line’s history to “watching a car crash in slow motion,” does note a few of its brighter days. In 1911, more than 115,000 rides on the line produce a net revenue of $10,725, and in 1915, gross revenue of $26,000 produced an all time high net of $11,000.

But five years later, the line was driven out of business by a new king of the road.

“There are too many Fords,” said Springfield attorney W.W. Keifer. “Practically every person in South Charleston owns a machine.”

Kirkpatrick found memories of the line alive in South Charleston: The story of Mabel and Byron Eichelbergers’ wedding day and night in Springfield and their traction trip the next day to visit in-laws on Selma Pike; the tale about big wigs coming out to celebrate the line’s extension, only to have the ceremonial car run off the tracks; the stories of rides to Springfield to the fair and a church picnic.

The newspapers described the end of the line for the railway’s promoter.

“Frank Patterson … is in district jail at Washington, D.C., on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses … when he furnished the home of his pretty stenographer with handsome furniture and gave her valuable jewels for which he failed to settle.

“This time … Henry Castleberg, a leading jeweler … has attached $1,400 worth of furniture installed for Mr. Patterson in the woman’s home to secure the payment of diamonds and other valuable jewels” Patterson had bought.

It was just another case of his non-support.

For information on obtaining Kirkpatrick’s book, email him at kirkpat@charter.net.

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