History of Streetcars

Imagine a vast network of streetcar lines connecting America’s cities, with trolley cars whisking passengers between neighboring towns at speeds of seventy or eighty miles an hour. A prospect for the distant future? No, a fairly accurate description of American interurban travel around the turn of this century. Yes, that’s right, we said trolley cars!

Today, most people would think of the streetcar as a creature of the big city. True, most American cities have operated trolley systems at one time or another. But before the country was laced with freeways and interstate highways, streetcar travel was the best means of transportation to and from the city, as well as within its boundaries. Trolley lines took salesmen to small towns to peddle their wares, and trolleys brought farmers and housewives into town to shop or deliver goods, and trolleys carried city dwellers to nearby beaches and resorts.

Interurban streetcar lines operated with heavy, individually powered cars, quite unlike the lighter, locomotive-drawn railroad cars. Trolleys ran more frequently than mainline trains, and they usually served areas inaccessible by railroad. It was common, too, for a streetcar company to construct an amusement park in an otherwise inaccessible suburban area along its trolley line in order to increase weekend and night travel on the line.

The first interurban streetcar line in this country connected the cities of Granville and Newark, Ohio, beginning in 1889, and the first high-speed interurban trolleys ran between Cleveland and Akron in 1895. Within a few decades, many of America’s cities, large and small, were linked by streetcar lines, especially in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. No burgeoning town was considered major league until it was connected by streetcar line with at least one neighboring city.

Early in this century, it was possible to ride by trolley from New York all the way to Boston for less than four dollars! Of course, there were frequent changes of line.

The longest continuous streetcar route, again with frequent changes of line, ran from Freeport, Illinois to Utica, New York, a distance of over 1,000 miles!

One Colorado line climbed over a 10,000-foot peak to reach the mining boomtown of Cripple Creek.

With even the fastest modern trains rarely exceeding sixty miles per hour, it now seems hard to believe that the normal operating speed of the interurban streetcar lines was eighty miles per hour.

Incredible as it seems, cars of the Crandic Line between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in Iowa once claimed tops speeds of 110 miles per hour!

Within the city, streetcars were the first motor-driven means of public transportation. Streetcars provided the first dependable intra city travel in the days before the bus, auto, and subway. Dependable, yes; fast, often not. The first streetcar in this country, in fact, was powered by only a few horsepower, provided by, yes, a few horses!

This horse-drawn conveyance was constructed by John Stephenson in Philadelphia, and placed in service in New York City in 1832 by the New York and Harlem Railway. Called the John Mason after a prominent banker who had organized the railroad company, the car seated thirty passengers in three unconnected compartments. It ran between Prince Street and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, with a later extension to uptown Manhattan. The fare was a then rather steep twelve-and-a-half cents. No, we don’t know what the conductor did for change of a penny if you didn’t want a round- trip ticket.

The earliest electric trolleys were powered by storage batteries, which proved expensive and inefficient. The first electrified streetcar tracks, too, often short-circuited in the rain.

One of the world’s first electric lines was constructed in London in 1860 by the American G.F. Train, that’s right, Train, with two more tramlines following shortly after in that city. But it was the invention of the electric generator that led to the application of transmitted power to streetcar lines and fostered the proliferation of tramlines throughout Europe and the United States.

There are three kinds of electric streetcars. One is drawn by cable, another powered by an electrified third rail; and the third is powered by overhead transmission lines, with the car connected to the power lines by a collapsible apparatus called the trolley. Strictly speaking, then, only a streetcar powered by overhead lines can be called a “trolley.”

There are two varieties of trolley system, one utilizing two overhead wires, the European preference, and the second using one wire and one electrified track to complete the electric circuit. The later type is the overwhelming favorite of American lines.

Berlin got its first electric tramway in 1881, Budapest in 1897, and Paris in 1901. A gas-powered streetcar was placed in operation in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872, while the first commercially owned electric streetcars in this country plied their course in Baltimore in 1885. The first “soundless, shockless” tracks were laid in New Orleans in 1930.

The famed San Francisco cable cars were the world’s first cable-drawn cars. The Bay City’s cable car was invented by Andrew Hallidie, and introduced in 1873 on Sacramento and Clay Streets.

Cable cars are drawn by an endless cable that runs in a slot between the rails. Cable cars are best suited for steeply inclined streets, thus, their early popularity in San Francisco and Seattle. But a cable car can run only at a constant speed, and a cable jam can stop every car on the line.

By the turn of the century, most cable car lines had been replaced by electric trackage, although Seattle retained its system until the 1930’s.

The San Francisco cable car lines still operating today are maintained chiefly as tourist attractions, with most lines long-since replaced by buses or trolleybus systems.

Streetcar lines in general began to rapidly disappear in the 1930’s, in the face of competition from cars and buses. An intermediate step in the trolley-to-bus transition was the trackless trolley, a bus like vehicle that ran without tracks but was powered by electricity from overhead lines, like the trolley. The first trackless trolley began service in 1910 in Los Angeles. Despite its present automobile mania, LA once boasted one of the nation’s finest streetcar systems. Brooklyn, New York maintained trackless trolleys as late as the 1950’s.

London did away with its last trolley in the 50’s; Paris had ripped up its streetcar tracks about twenty years earlier. Today, the streetcar is virtually extinct in America, but the trolley is still widely used in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

But trolley-lovers, take heart. You can still catch a glimpse of the ancient streetcar in various museums throughout the country. The museum in East Hartford, Connecticut contains ninety-two trolleys, ranging from some 1880 relics to a New York model from the 1930’s. In that museum, trolley buffs can ride an open-sided car, complete with bell, over a two-mile route.

Streetcars were inexpensive to construct and clean. Although dependable, they were not without disadvantages. Among these was the danger posed to idle strollers by a speeding trolley. The Brooklyn Dodgers of baseball fame were not so-named because of their agility on the playing field. Initially, the team was called the “Trolley Dodgers,” in tribute to the maze of trolley lines crisscrossing Brooklyn at the height of the streetcar era.