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Ira L. Swett

ELECTRIC TRACTION RULED SUPREME IN THE Southland when Ira L. Swett was born in 1913 in Los Angeles. The Pacific Electric Railway, the largest interurban railway in the world, was at its zenith, dispatching more than 1,000 trains a day. Equally as impressive was the operation of the narrow-gauged Los Angeles Railway, the yellow streetcar system owned by the Huntington interests. And out in Glendale were the red and white cars of the Glendale & Montrose. One of Swett’s cherished memories was seeing Henry Huntington’s famous private car, the Alabama, rolling through downtown Los Angeles on PE rails. This traction world fascinated Swett and by 1940, (when he was only 27 years old), he was acknowledged by his peers as being the foremost authority on electric railways in Los Angeles.

   Some of Swett’s earliest works both in Interurbans News-Letter and in Interurbans Specials, and in Wheel Clicks, published by Railroad Boosters, carry the byline "Cpl. Ira Swett." He wrote those articles while a member of the United States Army during World War II, and his military career was one reason he entered the publishing field.

   Swett was lucky in being stationed close to home during much of the war. Most railfans, however, were assigned to bases far removed from the electric railways they had known as civilians. Swett’s early News-Letters were intended to tell fans overseas about traction happenings in the United States. Soon he had dozens of readers whom also were correspondents, reporting on electric railway activities in the areas where they were assigned.

   Swett’s wartime duty at the University of Washington at Seattle led to his Specials on Puget Sound Electric and Pacific Northwest Traction. Seattle’s trolley buses were brand new upon Swett’s arrival and, years later, when it appeared the city would scrap the system, he published his first non-electric railway book, Seattle Trolley Coaches, in 1971.

   Following World War II, Swett championed modern electric railway technology and offered free copies of Interurbans to readers who would use the magazine to promote installation of PCC streetcars in their communities. But electric traction was declining in the United States and Canada and, after printing news of dozens of systems being abandoned, Swett terminated Interurbans as a periodic magazine in December 1948. He then concentrated on the histories he issued as 'Specials.'

   Swett wrote about 50 books, with many of his topics being in some way related to the Pacific Electric Railway. Nearly all of his publications used typewritten text and they have an amateur look today. But Swett had little choice; photo typesetting was unheard of during most of Swetts publishing days and hot metal typesetting was far too expensive. Swett’s market was limited; if he sold more than 1,500 copies of most of his works he was astonished. So, rather than putting out books that were attractive to the eye but too expensive for many rail history students, Swett published volumes packed with information at a price practically anyone could afford.

   And Swett’s standards were high, both for himself and the authors he published. At first, Swett published only his own works and, reflecting his never-satisfied curiosity, they were filled with details. One rarely had to ask a question after reading a Special by Swett. That level of detail set a high standard in the electric railway publishing field that most publishers adhere to today.

   Readers of Swett’s prose often were caught up in the drama of electric railroading, because Swett wrote enthusiastically and colorfully about his topics. Here are his opening words in the Introduction in Special 26:

The more you think about it, the more the interurban world lost when Sacramento Northern abandoned passenger service. Think it over: One ride — 183 miles long, world’s longest interurban — brought you more diverse operation than you could buy anywhere else in the U.S. — probably in the world.

   A caption under a photograph on Page 76 of Special 16 gave the view of an approaching PE interurban car a certain presence. Swett wrote:

Where else in western America can you wait in a safety zone and see a behemoth such as this approach?

   The March 1946 issue of Interurbans carried the news of the approaching abandonment of the Salt Lake & Utah and Swett wrote gently:

As the time neared for the last car to pull out, old-timers recalled their interesting experiences of the third of a century the Salt Lake & Utah has been operating. Only in their memories will traditions and experiences of the Orem Line’s golden years remain. All these, the days when snow stopped the trains, when accidents marred the cars’ records, when vaudeville actors hired special trains, and much more occupied their thoughts during the final hours of the SL&U.

   Swett’s fine writing was no accident. He lived at a time when the written word was an essential of a good education. Also, Ira was not as good a still photographer as some of his contemporaries and this probably was a factor in his books being less dramatic pictorially than they might have been had he been more skilled with a camera, or interested in the medium.

   As the years went on, Swett branched out and made some of his color slides and movies available. He formed Interurban Films, which was separated from the book publishing after Swett died in 1975, but returned to Interurban Press in 1985.

   An accomplished theater and studio organist, Swett made his living as a musician on early-day radio shows and several of his concerts were recorded. During most of his working career he was a publicist and administrator at the Salvation Army in Los Angeles. His traction books were mostly a hobby and he typically used the revenues from one volume to finance another.

   Like many persons who deal with history, Swett knew he was saving something for the future. Swett never married and had no offspring to inherit Interurbans. However, he was intent on continuing the mechanism he so successfully devised to preserve history and made arrangements for Mac Sebree to continue the business, which Sebree and Jim Walker reorganized as Interurban Press. The Glendale-based firm continued publishing Specials until the company was sold outright to Pentrex, a video publisher.
-Harre W. Demoro

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