“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”


Two days later the company attempted to begin revenue operation with six cars. In order to avoid trouble from the inferior track work, a man was stationed at each curve with a brush, a broom, and other appliances to keep the track clear. Operation continued sporadically throughout the day, but once again mechanical difficulties interfered.

A few cars continued to operate intermittently during the next few weeks, and by the end of January the company was ready to try regular operation once again, this time with about ten cars. Business was good, but now a new problem presented itself. Sprague’s new gearing developed a disconcerting tendency to lock, and car after car suddenly stopped dead in the street. The crew would get off, remove the offending gear, and limp on with only one motor if they could. Otherwise the disabled car was simply hauled off the track so that others could pass.

Sprague was convinced that the castings were faulty or the gears improperly cut, but one of his employees, an Irish mechanic named Pat O’Shaughnessy, who had what Sprague himself termed “a most happy mechanical judgement,” insisted it was simply due to want of adequate lubrication. More oil was applied, and the trouble was soon remedied.

Motor problems continued to trouble the line. The brushes that made electrical contact to the rotating armatures were one of the most persistent trouble sources, and motors were continually being grounded, shortcircuited, or burned out as a result. A wide variety of copper, bronze, and brass brushes were tried, but none seemed to work. So rapidly were the brushes worn down that the track soon looked like “a golden path,” as Sprague later described it.

At this point Sprague was using about nine dollars’ worth of brass daily just for brushes, and a car was unable to complete even half a trip without a stop for inspection and generally a change of brushes. Finally the problem was solved by the adoption of carbon brushes, a proposal of Charles Van Depoele.

Gradually the difficulties seemed to lessen, even if new ones continued to present themselves. Little by little the number of cars in service was increased from ten to twenty. By the first week in May the number of cars in service had reached thirty, and for the first time the company was able to provide service over its entire system. Soon afterward Sprague was able to operate forty cars at one time, ten more than he had contracted for. “It is almost needless to say that on that day we felt that we owned the street and the city as well,” recalled Sprague in later years.

But his finest moment at Richmond was yet to come. The West End Street Railway of Boston, then the world’s largest street railway system, with a stable of some eight thousand horses, was contemplating a change in motive power. The company had all but decided to adopt the cable system, but President Henry M. Whitney of the West End line, together with a party of directors, was persuaded to visit Sprague’s Richmond installation. Whitney was impressed with the Richmond line, but his general manager, Daniel F. Longstreet, remained a firm advocate of the cable railway. Longstreet was pessimistic about the ability of the electric system to start a large group of cars that had become badly bunched within a short stretch of track, something that occurred frequently on a big city street railway.

Sprague decided to resolve the question with a dramatic display of electric traction’s overload capacity. Late one night, after regular operation had ended, twenty-two cars were lined up platform to platform at the Church Hill car shed on a section of line designed for the operation of only four well-distributed cars at a time. The engineer at the power plant was instructed to load the feeder fuses, raise the voltage from the customary 450 to 500 volts, and to hold on “no matter what.”


Whitney and his party were roused from their hotel and taken to the car house to witness the test. At the wave of a lantern the cars started up, one after another, as soon as there was room. The line voltage dropped to barely 200 volts, and the car lights dimmed until they were barely visible, but the cars kept moving. Gradually the voltage began to rise, the lights brightened again, and soon all twenty-two cars were merrily trundling out of sight.

Whitney was convinced and promptly went before the Boston Board of Aldermen to obtain permission to electrify his system. Sprague motors were to be used on all cars.

The electric railway, at long last, had arrived. The horsecar was an anachronism, and the cable railway boom would sputter to a halt in only a few more years. Within two years of the opening of the Richmond system there were more than two hundred electric railway systems in the United States, well over half of them equipped by the Sprague firm and most of the remainder based on Sprague patents.