- Historic Sites
“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”
So Richmond proudly described its electric trolleys, the first truly successful system in the world
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
The method of mounting electric motors had been the source of endless trouble to the early electric railway pioneers. Edison, Field, Daft, Van Depoele, and others had all placed the motors inside the car or on the platform and connected them to the axles by means of belts, chains, or other flexible couplings rather than by some means of positive gearing. Sprague developed a method of mounting that permitted the motor to be directly geared to the axle. In his arrangement, sometimes called a wheelbarrow mounting, one side of the motor was hung from the truck frame on a spring mounting, while the other was supported directly by the axle. Bearings in the latter side permitted the motor to rotate slightly about the axle, thus maintaining perfect alignment between it and the gearing on the motor shaft, no matter how bumpy the track or great the motion of the axle.
In December, 1885, in a paper presented to the Society of Arts in Boston, Sprague outlined a detailed plan for electrifying the elevated lines of the Manhattan Railway, and he devoted most of the next year to a series of experiments on a section of its track. Among the witnesses to one of the early tests were Jay Gould and members of the Field family, the principal owners of the elevated. Attempting an impressive demonstration of the experimental car’s capabilities, Sprague opened the controller too abruptly, causing a fuse to blow out with a violent flash. Gould, who was standing next to it, was so startled by the report that he had to be restrained from jumping off the car. After this unnerving experience the financier abandoned all interest in electric traction.
Sprague now turned his attention to electric operation of street railways. For a time he seems to have favored storage batteries, and some of his first efforts, carried out beginning in the spring of 1887, were with battery-powered streetcars. As the New York Sun commented after one such experiment, “They tried an electric car on Fourth Avenue yesterday. It created an amount of surprise and consternation from Thirty-Second Street to 117 tth Street that was something like that caused by the first steamboat on the Hudson. Small boys yelled ‘dynamite’ and ‘rats’ and made similar appreciative remarks until they were hoarse. Newly appointed policemen debated arresting it, but went no further. The car horses which were met on the other track kicked without exception, as was natural, over an invention which threatened to relegate them to a sausage factory.”
Even as the battery-car experiments were being carried out, with inconclusive results, the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company was successful in obtaining contracts for the electrification of street railways with an overhead power system in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Richmond, Virginia. The St. Joseph installation was to be a modest one, but the Richmond contract called for what was by far the most ambitious street railway electrification ever undertaken. Backed by speculative New York investors, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway Company had obtained a franchise early in 1887 for construction of an entirely new system of street railways in competition with an already existing horsecar system. Conveniently, the franchise allowed operation by horses or mule power “or such other motive power as may be hereafter allowed by the Council.” A few months later the promoters quietly obtained permission to use electric power at about the same time they concluded their contract with Sprague.
It was a contract that, as Sprague himself observed later, “a prudent business man would not ordinarily assume.” It obligated the Sprague firm to equip a 375-horsepower power plant; to install a complete overhead power system on twelve miles of track, much of which had not yet been definitely located and none of which was built; and to provide the motors and electrical appurtenances for forty cars, each of which was to be powered by two motors. As Sprague was fond of pointing out later, this was almost as many motors 3F were in use on all the cars throughout the rest of the world. The installation had to be capable of operating thirty cars at one time on a system where grades as steep as 8 per cent would be encountered. All of this had to be completed within a period of ninety days. Sprague was to receive a total payment of $110,000 provided the installation was satisfactory to the railway company.
From the viewpoint of actual experience the Sprague firm, which had little more to its credit than the New York elevated experiments and a few battery-car trials, must have seemed ill prepared indeed for a task of such magnitude. But Frank Sprague had an abiding faith in the Tightness of his ideas and an almost reckless confidence in the ability of his firm. Before the contract was completed, his company had lost fully $75,000 on the job but in its technical success had gained a reputation that was to prove almost priceless.