"Nothing New Under the Sun"

Lake Shore Electric Railway and the Bonner Rail-Wagon leave behind a legacy.

(Lake Shore Electric Railway photo / Krambles-Peterson Archives)

New: 1 January 2024
Any history of TOFC / COFC intermodal's impact on the railroad industry warrants a chapter on the Lake Shore Electric Railway and the interurban's innovative approaches, at the time, to expand a previously low-profile freight business. Founded in 1901, the electric traction company operated trackage between Toledo and Cleveland, and later north towards Detroit. At start-up, the railway's standard passenger equipment was augmented by a small number (four or five) old, freight motors. A few of the freight units were rebuilt as were some surplus passenger motors and repurposed for freight service -- small packages, mail, baggage and milk shipments.

The next step came in 1919 with five home-built freight-trailers designed specifically to haul automobiles, but that was only the beginning. At its peak (1926), the railway line operated more than 60 wood freight trailers, including some purchased commercially. All of the freight trailers were built to facilitate interchange with Michigan-based and other midwest interurban lines. These successes gave LSE managers the confidence to adopt another innovation - the Bonner railwagon.

Although the electric traction company began experimenting with rail-wagons in 1920, the story actually began three decades earlier in Toledo, Ohio by the Bonner Company. The Ohio-based company which had been widely known as manufacturer of freight wagons, was commissioned by an United Kingdom electric railway to build three experimental rail-wagons. Six additional wagons were later ordered, but were not built due to the British rail line's inability to garner funding. The concept was predicated on a common European practice "to move standard gauge railroad cars on narrow gauge rail lines." Bonner demonstrated the new rail-wagons in 1898 on two Toledo rail lines, and twice on Michigan rail lines the following year.

The Bonner concept remained dormant until the LSE began its experiments in 1930. In day-to-day operation, the test involved a set of three 18-foot-long highway semi-trailers mounted on a single flat (spline) car; there were actually two sets used in over-night service between Toledo and Cleveland. (More details are provided in photo captions.) Although the experiment ended in 1932 without commercial success, decades later it was re-incarnated by the Trailer Train Company.

As for the Lake Shore Electric, it ceased operations in 1938 - a victim of the Depression.

Photo Gallery

The Loading Process
The conductor of an out-bound LSE train in this early 1930s photo appears to be overseeing the loading of the first of three 18-foot Bonner rail-wagons. The 55-foot custom-build flat car was developed by the Kuhlman Company in 1929 as a proto-type. (LSER photo / Krambles-Peterson Archives)
Bonner Railwagons
Bonners were standard trailers with an extremely wide axle; the tires of the wagons extended beyond the sides of the trailer. Three of these would be lined up on a special ramp and a flatcar (similar to today's spline intermodal car) with inboard bearings would be backed under the trailers. The flatcar would raise the wheels of the trailers off the ground and settle onto the flatcar. (LSER photo / Krambles-Peterson Archives)
Lake Shore Electric
A Lake Shore freight motor departs an Ohio terminal with one set of Bonner railwagons and a lone box car. The interurban company bought its first railwagon in 1929 and five additional units the following year. The rail-wagons were operated in three-unit sets as seen in this image. (LSER photo / Krambles-Peterson Archives)
Elway Transit
Bonner rail-wagons were also used and marketed by Elway Transit. "Elway" was short for Electric Railway Freight, an Ohio-based consortium of interurban rail lines, including LSE; Cincinnati Lawrenceburg and Aurora; Cincinnati & Lake Erie, and Northern Ohio Traction & Light among others. (LSER photo / Krambles-Peterson Archives)
Elway Transit Advertisement
Elway actively promoted LSE's rail-wagon service. (Internet photo, source unknown)

Reference sources and contributors:

  • Lake Shore Electric Railway Story by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr. and Robert S. Korach
  • Scientific American, vol 82.2 (1900)
  • Art Peterson
  • Norm Carlson
  • Bill Van Doren

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