“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”


Things seemed to go wrong from the beginning. Hardly was the ink dry on the contract when Sprague was stricken with typhoid fever, which removed him from active participation in the work for over two months. During Sprague’s long convalescence two energetic but inexperienced young assistants, both of whom had resigned from military service to join him in the promising electrical field, were left in charge of the work. Lieutenant Oscar T. Crosby, a West Pointer, ran things at the firm’s New York factory, where the electrical equipment was being manufactured. The installation work at Richmond, where track construction had started late in May, was in the charge of Ensign S. Dana Greene, like Sprague an Annapolis man.

Returning to Richmond in early autumn to resume general charge of the work, Sprague found an appalling situation. The track financed by the promoters was, as Sprague himself described it, “execrable.” Obviously none too strong financially, the line’s promoters had built with an eye to economy rather than permanence. The rails were a flat twentyseven-pound tram style of antiquated pattern, poorly jointed, unevenly laid and insecurely tied, and installed on an unpaved foundation of red clay. Curves were laid with a radius of as little as twenty-seven feet and were provided with only one guardrail, which permitted the track to spread easily. Instead of the maximum 8 per cent grade Sprague had bargained for, the track was laid on hills as steep as 10 per cent. The longest grade was fully a mile long with a slope varying from 4 to i o per cent.

As an article in the Richmond Times some years later put it, the combination of grades and curves was considered “insuperable,” and “the average expert electrician of that day laughed in his sleeve as the work progressed.” Fearful that the two seyenand-a-half horsepower motors he was installing in each car were inadequate for the task now demanded of them, even if a self-propelled car could maintain adhesion at all on such unprecedented grades, Sprague himself began to lose confidence and set to work designing an electric motor-driven cable system to be installed in pits sunk beneath the track to haul the cars up the steepest hills.

But perhaps a car could climb the hills unaided after all, suggested Sprague’s financial partner, Edward H. Johnson, at a conference called to consider the new crisis. There was only one way to find out, and late one evening in November Sprague, Greene, and a picked crew took a car out of the Church Hill car shed at Twenty-ninth and P streets to put it to the test. With Sprague himself at the controls the car made its way up one hill and then another, easily swung through a sharp curve on a 6 per cent grade, and finally climbed steadily to the top of the long Franklin Street hill, where it came to rest amid an enthusiastic after-theatre crowd.

It was a sort of Pyrrhic victory. Sprague knew the motors had been severely overheated, and a peculiar bucking movement when he attempted to restart the car told him that a motor had been disabled with a short-circuited armature, a difficulty that was to become all too familiar to Sprague before the Richmond project was completed. Announcing loudly that there was some slight trouble with the circuits, Sprague sent Greene for some instruments so that it could be located, turned out the car lights, and lay down on a seat to wait until the crowd dispersed. Finally Greene returned with the “instruments” —a team of four sturdy mules—and the car was ignominiously dragged back to the shed from which its journey had begun a few hours earlier.

Having proved that it was at least possible to climb hills of i o per cent or more, Sprague rushed back to his New York plant to try to come up with a solution to the remaining mechanical problem of getting a car up such severe grades without burning up its motors. Sprague’s answer was an intermediate gear, which permitted a double rather than a single reduction between motor and axle. Tools and jigs were hastily made, new gears cast, and the cars altered.

During the next few months the cars ventured out on the line more and more frequently, but difficulties continued to plague the installation. The motors were modified again and again as the severe strains of operation over the rough track revealed one weakness after another. Switches in the overhead work were giving trouble. No less than forty designs for an underrunning trolley were tried before one of Sprague’s draftsmen, Eugene Pommer, came up with one that worked reasonably well.

The street railway company’s promoters pressed Sprague relentlessly to begin regular operation, but when the end of the ninety-day limit came, Sprague still wasn’t satisfied with his installation and had to agree to a reduced payment of $90,000, with half of it tobe in the form of the company’s bonds, in order to obtain a time extension. By January 7, 1888, the company was able to operate nine cars, and several thousand delighted Richmonders were allowed to ride them free of charge. According to a report of the event in the Richmond Whig , no difficulties of any consequence were encountered except that presented by small boys who placed rocks on the curves. At one point three cars were brought to a halt for this reason.