“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”


For the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, in 1888 the city’s new trolley system was a source of inordinate pride. “All are modelled on the Broadway style and are gems of symmetry and convenience,” proudly wrote a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch of the little four-wheeled electric cars that were clanging cheerfully through downtown streets on their route between Church Hill and New Reservoir Park. “Brilliantly lighted” by incandescent lamps, heated by Dr. Burton’s patent electric heaters, and moving “almost noiselessly” through the streets at speeds as high as fifteen miles an hour, the new trolleys provided the once-ruined Confederate capital with the very last word in municipal transportation.

Indeed, Richmond had much to be proud of in its new trolley system, which boasted no fewer than forty cars and fully twelve miles of track and within scarcely three months of its opening was carrying as many as twelve thousand passengers daily. It was, at the time, the largest electric street railway in the world. More important, it was the first trolley system anywhere to operate with a sufficient decree of reliability and economy to represent a truly practical means of urban transportation. Its success was to set in motion a great electric railway construction boom that within a very few years would create a great if ephemeral new industry and would profoundly affect the development of the American citv.

The immediate author of electric traction’s triumph at Richmond was a remarkable young Naval Academy graduate and electrical inventor named Frank Julian Sprague. Il Sprague could by no means have been called the inventor of the trolley car, he, more than any other, deserved the greatest share of the credit for the development of successful electric transportation. Others before Sprague had built trolley cars that worked, and other cities before Richmond had installed electric streetcar systems. Building on their efforts, Frank Sprague supplied the sound scientific and technical grounding, and a stubborn tenacity, that finally transformed what had until then been little more than an interesting curiosity of doubtful reliability and questionable economy into an eminently workable transportation system.

The need for a better means of urban transportation had been growing steadily throughout most of the nineteenth century. In the postRevolutionary period barely one American in twenty lived in the cities, and the largest, Philadelphia, had a population of less than 55,000. But a trend toward urbanization was in motion that has continued without pause ever since, and getting around in cities became increasingly difficult. America’s earliest public municipal transportation had been installed in New York in 1827, when a man named Abraham Brower began operating a regular horse-drawn omnibus service up and down Broadway at a fixed fare of one shilling. Similar services were established soon afterward in Boston and Philadelphia. At almost the same time, however, the greater efficiency of the then new railway suggested itself as a means of providing a superior urban transportation service; and late in 1832 America’s first street railway, the New York & Harlem Railroad, began operating a horsecar service on rails laid along the Bowery from Prince Street to Fourteenth Street. At a festive City Hall dinner celebrating the opening, New York’s Mayor Browne declared, in what might be termed something of an overstatement, “This event will go down in the history of our country as the greatest achievement of man.”

For the next few decades street railway services were confined to only the several largest cities. New Orleans installed a horsecar line in 1835. Additional routes were being constructed in New York by the early 1850’s, Brooklyn got its first line in 1853, and by 1859 lines were operating in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago as well. By 1881 it was reported that there were 415 street railway companies in the United States, operating some three thousand miles of track with a combined ownership of eighteen thousand cars and more than 100,000 horses and mules.


But for all their success the animal railways had some serious shortcomings. Most lines managed an average speed of no more than five or six miles an hour, which greatly limited the size of the urban areas that they could serve effectively. And horses were an extremely expensive form of motive power. The systems had a tremendous investment tied up in horses and stables. Most companies needed anywhere from five to ten horses for each car they operated. In the late 1880’s, for example, there were fifteen thousand horses engaged in street railway service in New York City alone. A good horse of this variety cost around $125, and few could be used for more than three to five years of the punishing and often cruel service.