Streetcars in North America
Electric streetcars or trolley cars were once the chief mode of public transit in hundreds of North American cities and towns. Most of the original urban streetcar systems were either dismantled in the mid-20th century or converted to other modes of operation, such as light rail. Today, only Toronto still operates a streetcar network essentially unchanged in layout and mode of operation.
Older surviving lines and systems in Boston, Cleveland, Mexico City, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco were often infrastructure-heavy systems with tunnels, dedicated right of way, and long travel distances, or have largely rebuilt their streetcar systems as light rail systems. About 22 North American cities, starting with Edmonton, Calgary and San Diego, have installed new light rail systems, some of which run along historic streetcar corridors. A few recent cases feature mixed-traffic street-running operation like a streetcar. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Salt Lake City have built both modern light rail and modern streetcar systems, while Tucson and Atlanta have built new modern streetcar lines. A few other cities and towns have restored a small number of lines to run heritage streetcars either for public transit or for tourists; many are inspired by New Orleans' St. Charles Streetcar Line, generally viewed as the world's oldest continuously operating streetcar line.
Omnibuses and Horsecars
From the 1820s to the 1880s urban transit in North America began when horse-drawn omnibus lines started to operate along city streets. Examples included Gilbert Vanderwerken's 1826 omnibus service in Newark, New Jersey. Before long Omnibus companies sought to boost profitability of their wagons by increasing ridership along their lines. Horsecar lines simply ran wagons along rails set in a city street instead of on the unpaved street surface as the omnibus lines used. When a wagon was drawn upon rails the rolling resistance of the vehicle was lowered and the average speed was increased.
A horse or team that rode along rails could carry more fare paying passengers per day of operation than those that did not have rails. North America's first streetcar lines opened in 1832 from downtown New York City to Harlem by the New York and Harlem Railroad, in 1834 in New Orleans, and in 1849 in Toronto along the Williams Omnibus Bus Line.
These streetcars used horses and sometimes mules. Mules were thought to give more hours per day of useful transit service than horses and were especially popular in the south in cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Celaya, Guanajuato, Mexico. In many cities, streetcars drawn by a single animal were known as "bobtail streetcars" whether mule-drawn or horse-drawn. By the mid-1880s, there were 415 street railway companies in the USA operating over 6,000 miles (9,700 km) of track and carrying 188 million passengers per year using animal-drawn cars. In the nineteenth century Mexico had streetcars in around 1,000 towns and many were animal-powered. The 1907 Anuario Estadístico lists 35 animal-powered streetcar lines in Veracruz state, 80 in Guanajuato, and 300 lines in Yucatán.
Although most animal-drawn lines were shut down in the 19th century, a few lines lasted into the 20th century and later. Toronto's horse-drawn streetcar operations ended in 1891. New York City saw regular horsecar service last until 1917. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's Sarah Street line lasted until 1923. The last regular mule-drawn cars in the United States ran in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas until 1926 and were commemorated by a U.S. Postage Stamp issued in 1983. The last mule tram service in Mexico City ended in 1932, and a mule-powered line in Celaya, survived until May 1954.
In the 21st century horsecars are still used to take visitors along the 9-kilometre (5.6 mi) tour of the 3 cenotes from Chunkanán near Cuzamá Municipality in the state of Yucatán.
During the nineteenth century, particularly from the 1860s to the 1890s, many streetcar operators switched from animals to other types of motive power. Before the use of electricity the use of steam dummies, tram engines, or cable cars was tried in several North American cities. A notable transition took place in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. where horsecars were used on street railways from 1862 to the early 1890s. From about 1890 to 1893 cable drives provided motive power to Washington streetcars, and after 1893 electricity powered the cars. The advantages of eliminating animal drive power included dispensing with the need to feed the animals and clean up their waste. A North American city that did not eliminate its cable car lines was San Francisco and much of its San Francisco cable car system continues to operate to this day.
In this transition period some early streetcar lines in large cities opted to rebuild their railways above or below grade to help further speed transit. Such system would become known as rapid transit or later as heavy rail lines.
In 1883 Leo Daft built Ampère, an experimental 2 ton electric locomotive in Newark, New Jersey that was intended to pull passengers through the city's streets. Daft's locomotive used one rail to supply and the other rail to return current to the generator. One of the wheels on each axle was insulated from the axle with vulcanized fiber.
The World Cotton Centennial was held in New Orleans, Louisiana from December 16, 1884 to June 2, 1885. It featured displays with a great deal of electric light illumination, an observation tower with electric elevators, and several prototype designs of electric streetcars. On April 15, 1886 Montgomery, Alabama established its electric streetcar system nicknamed the Lightning Route. Another early electrified streetcar system in the United States was established in Scranton, Pennsylvania by November 30, 1886; it was the first system to be run exclusively on electric power, giving Scranton the nickname "The Electric City". In 1887 an electric streetcar line opened between Omaha and South Omaha, Nebraska. The Omaha Motor Railway Company began operation in 1888.
Along the east coast a large-scale electric street railway system known as the Richmond Union Passenger Railway was built by Frank J. Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, and was operating by February 2, 1888. The Richmond system had a large impact upon the burgeoning electric trolley industry. Sprague's use of a trolley pole for D.C. current pick up from a single line (with ground return via the street rails) set the pattern that was to be adopted in many other cities. The North American English use of the term "trolley" instead of "tram" for a street railway vehicle derives from the work that Sprague did in Richmond and quickly spread elsewhere.
By 1889 110 electric railways incorporating Sprague's equipment had been started or were planned on several continents, and by 1895 almost 900 electric street railways and nearly 11,000 miles (18,000 km) of track had been built in the United States.
The rapid growth of streetcar systems led to the widespread ability of people to live outside of a city and commute into it for work on a daily basis. Several of the communities that grew as a result of this new mobility were known as streetcar suburbs. Another outgrowth of the popularity of urban streetcar systems was the rise of interurban lines, which were basically streetcars that operated between cities and served remote, even rural, areas. In some areas interurban lines competed with regular passenger service on mainline railroads and in others they simply complemented the mainline roads by serving towns not on the mainlines.
The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway that started in 1896 in northern Maryland was built to provide transit service to resorts and the streetcar company built and operated two amusement parks to entice more people to ride their streetcars. The Lake Shore Electric Railway interurban in northern Ohio carried passengers to Cedar Point and several other Ohio amusement parks. The Lake Compounce amusement park, which started in 1846, had by 1895 established trolley service to its rural Connecticut location. Although outside trolley service to Lake Compounce stopped in the 1930s, the park resurrected its trolley past with the opening of the "Lakeside Trolley" ride in 1997 which is still operating today as a short heritage line. In the days before widespread radio listening was popular and in towns or neighborhoods too small to support a viable amusement park streetcar lines might help to fund an appearance of a touring musical act at the local bandstand to boost weekend afternoon ridership.
Many of Mexico's streetcars were fitted with gasoline motors in the 1920s and some were pulled by steam locomotives. Only 15 Mexican streetcar systems were electrified in the 1920s.
Between 1895 and 1929, almost every major city in the United States suffered at least one streetcar strike. Sometimes lasting only a few days, more often these strikes were "marked by almost continuous and often spectacular violent conflict," at times amounting to prolonged riots and civil insurrection.
Streetcar strikes rank among the deadliest armed conflicts in American labor union history. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor called the St. Louis Streetcar Strike of 1900 "the fiercest struggle ever waged by the organized toilers" up to that point, with a total casualty count of 14 dead and about 200 wounded. The San Francisco Streetcar Strike of 1907 saw 30 killed and about 1,000 injured. Many of the casualties were passengers and innocent bystanders.
The 1929 New Orleans streetcar strike was one of the last of its kind. The rise of private automobile ownership took the edge off its impact, as an article in the Chicago Tribune observed as early as 1915.
The Great Depression of the 1930s led to the closure of many streetcar lines in North America. The onset of World War II held off the closure of some streetcar lines as civilians used them to commute to war related factory jobs during a time when rubber tires and gasoline were rationed. After the war automobile use continued to rise and was assisted in the 1940s and 1950s by the passage of the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1948 and growth of provincial highways in Canada as well as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the United States. Declining ridership and traffic jam crowding of city streets by streetcars were often cited as reasons to shut down remaining lines. By the 1960s most North American streetcar lines were closed, with only the exceptions noted above and discussed below remaining in service. During the same time all streetcar systems in Central America were scrapped as well. The survival of the lines that made it past the 1960s was aided by the introduction of the successful PCC streetcar (Presidents' Conference Committee car) in the 1940s and 1950s in all these cities except New Orleans.
City buses were seen as more economical and flexible: a bus could carry a number of people similar to that in a streetcar without tracks and associated infrastructure. The Many transit operators removed some streetcar tracks but kept the electric infrastructure so as to run electrified trackless trolley buses. Many such systems lasted only as long as the first generation of equipment, but several survive to the present, including Greater Boston, Dayton, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.
The abandonment of city streetcar systems in the mid-twentieth century led to accusations of conspiracy which held that a union of automobile, oil, and tire manufacturers shut down the streetcar systems in order to further the use of buses and automobiles. The struggling depression-era streetcar companies were bought up by this union of companies who, over the following decades, dismantled many of the North American streetcar systems.
While it is true that General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and some other companies funded holding companies that purchased about 30 more of the hundreds of transit systems across North America, their real goal was to sell their products — buses, tires, and fuel — to those transit systems as they converted from streetcars to buses. During the time the holding companies owned an interest in American transit systems, more than 300 cities converted to buses. The holding companies only owned an interest in the transit systems of less than fifty of those cities. GM and other companies were subsequently convicted in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products via a complex network of linked holding companies including National City Lines and Pacific City Lines. They were also indicted, but acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these companies. The former verdict was upheld on appeal in 1951.
The systems described in the paragraphs above and below are genuine streetcars or tramways, with smaller vehicles and mixed-traffic street running (i.e. no separation from other vehicles), such as those in New Orleans and San Francisco. However, a greater number of North American cities have built light rail systems in recent decades, some of which operate partially in the right-of-way of city streets, but which mostly operate in exclusive rights-of-way. A few North American 'light rail' systems date to the "first" streetcar era, such as Boston's Green Line, Cleveland's Blue and Green Lines, Mexico City's Xochimilco Light Rail, and the light rail system in Newark, New Jersey, and so can be considered "holdovers" or "legacies" from that era.
The term light rail was devised in 1972 by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA; the precursor to the U.S. Federal Transit Administration) to describe new streetcar transformations which were taking place in Europe and being planned in North America. Some notable distinctions between light rail systems and their streetcar predecessors were that: 1) light rail lines may run at least partially along exclusive rights of way instead of only along or in streets (i.e. without street running), 2) a light rail line is more likely to run multiple unit trains instead of single cars, and, 3) a light rail line may use high level platforms instead of in street level stops. These design differences mean that light rail systems tend to have higher passenger capacities and higher speeds than their streetcar predecessors.
The pioneering "modern" North American light rail system, Edmonton Light Rail Transit, was started in Edmonton in 1974 and became operational on April 22, 1978 – it used mostly European technology, did not use street running, and operated in tunnels in the downtown area (which accounted for much of the high expense of building that system). It was soon followed by light rail systems in San Diego and Calgary in 1981 that used similar vehicles but which avoided the expense of tunnels by using surface alignments and, on a few sections, even partial street running, in reserved lanes (restricted to transit vehicles only). The development of light rail systems in North America then proliferated widely after 1985, mostly in the United States, but also in Canada and Mexico. Including streetcars, light rail systems are operating successfully in over 30 U.S. cities, and are in planning or construction stages in several more.
Heritage and Modern Streetcars
New public transit streetcar services also returned, at least in the United States, around the same time as the emergence of the new light rail transit.
Prior to 2001, the new streetcar systems that opened in North America for public transit were so-called heritage streetcar systems, alternatively known as "vintage trolley" or "historic trolley" lines. While Detroit and Seattle were the first cities to open heritage lines in 1976 and 1982, their heritage lines ultimately closed in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The first heritage system to be successful was Dallas' M-line which opened in 1989. Memphis opened what ultimately became a larger heritage streetcar system in 1993, while San Francisco restored one of its defunct streetcar lines (F Market & Wharves) using heritage streetcar operations in 1995. These heritage systems were followed in the 2000s by new heritage streetcar lines in Kenosha, Tampa, and Little Rock, and the restoration of a defunct streetcar line using heritage streetcars in Philadelphia (SEPTA Route 15) in 2005. Other cities in both the United States and Canada opened new heritage streetcar lines that operated only on weekends or seasonally, primarily as tourist services, and so didn't provide true "public transit" service.
Truly modern streetcar systems arose in the United States, starting in 2001, in Portland, Oregon. This was followed by new streetcar lines in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Atlanta. These systems were completely new in every way, operating on new track built specifically for them, and operating with "modern" streetcar vehicles rather than the "heritage" vehicles used in places like Dallas, Memphis and San Francisco.
Transportation vs. Development
In 2015, the Mineta Transportation Institute released a peer-reviewed research report which used key informant interviews to examine the experiences on modern-era streetcars operating in Little Rock, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, and Tampa. The research revealed that in these cities, the primary purpose of the streetcar was to serve as a development tool (in all cities examined), a second objective was to serve as a tourism-promoting amenity (in Little Rock and Tampa), and transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts with the notable exception of Portland, and to a lesser degree, Seattle.
Not all streetcars systems were removed after World War II. The San Francisco cable car system and New Orleans' streetcars are the most famous examples of the survival of a "legacy" streetcar system in the United States to the present day. In addition to New Orleans streetcars, Toronto's conventional electric streetcar system also avoided abandonment, as did portions of the streetcar systems in San Francisco, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, as well as Mexico City. The Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston systems ran into subways downtown, while the Pittsburgh and San Francisco systems had tunnels under large hills that had no acceptable road alternatives for bus replacements. The St. Charles Avenue line in New Orleans runs down the park-like "neutral ground" in the center of St. Charles Avenue, while the surviving Xochimilco line in Mexico City and the interurban lines in Cleveland had similar rights-of-way and so are treated as "light rail" lines in modern contexts rather than as "streetcar" lines. The only system without these alternatives to street-running to survive was Toronto's.
Unlike a heritage system, a streetcar museum may offer little or no transport service. If there are working streetcars in a museum's collection, any service provided may be seasonal, not follow a schedule, offer limited stops, service only remote areas, or otherwise differ from a regularly scheduled heritage line. Some North American streetcar museums (with official website links) include:
Arizona Street Railway Museum in Phoenix, Arizona aka Phoenix Trolley Museum
Baltimore Streetcar Museum in Baltimore, Maryland
Canadian Railway Museum between Delson and Saint-Constant, Quebec
Chattanooga Choo Choo complex in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor, Connecticut
East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy, Wisconsin
Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania
Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton, Alberta - operating streetcars and live steam locomotive
Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois
Halton County Radial Railway in Rockwood, Ontario
Hesston Steam Museum in Hesston, Indiana
Historic Pensacola's Museum of Commerce in Pensacola, Florida
History Park at Kelley Park in San Jose, California
Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois - collection now includes general railroad equipment as well as streetcars
Issaquah Valley Trolley in Issaquah, Washington
Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts
Midwest Electric Railway in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
Minnesota Streetcar Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota - operates heritage lines such as the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line
Museo de Transportes Eléctricos del D.F. in Mexico City
Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri
National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, Maryland
New York Museum of Transportation in Rush, New York
Northern Ohio Railway Museum in Chippewa Lake, Ohio
North Texas Historic Transportation in Fort Worth, Texas
Old Pueblo Trolley in Tucson, Arizona
Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California - collection now includes general railroad equipment and streetcars
Oregon Electric Railway Museum in Brooks, Oregon
Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pennsylvania
Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania
Roundhouse Railroad Museum in Savannah, Georgia
San Francisco Cable Car Museum in San Francisco, California
San Francisco Railway Museum in San Francisco, California
Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine
Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts
Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut
Trolley Museum of New York in Kingston, New York
Western Railway Museum in Suisun, California
Yakima Electric Railway Museum in Yakima, Washington
San Francisco Municipal Railway Cable Car No. 4.
CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=355046
A Raymond Loewy-designed PCC Streetcar in Cleveland, ca. 1950.
Voogd075 from nl [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
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