“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”


Filling what a 1902 census report called “an imperative social need,” the electric cars had arrived on the scene at a time when the urban population was growing more rapidly than ever before. Not only was the total United States population increasing by anywhere from ten to fifteen million every decade, but more and more of it was moving to the cities. By the start of World War I fully half of the American population would be living in urban areas. By roughly doubling the radius of practical street railway commuting, the faster electric cars permitted a decentralization of the urban population into the new metropolitan suburbs and changed the whole character of the American city.

For nearly three decades after Sprague’s achievement the electric street railways constituted one of the great growth industries of the period. By the time the industry reached the peak of its physical expansion around 1917, street railways represented an investment in excess of four billion dollars, and they were carrying close to eleven billion passengers a year. Altogether there were more than a thousand separate companies operating in the United States, and their aggregate properties included well over sixty thousand streetcars and no less than 26,000 miles of track.

Providing far more than just utilitarian home-to-work transportation, trolley cars were employed for almost every kind of pleasure travel. Whether for a family picnic, a church or social group excursion, or just for the sheer pleasure of trolley riding, the cars afforded an enormously popular outing. Huge fleets of open-air cars provided respite from hot summer weather, and the resorts and amusement parks that were operated by almost every major street railway system lured additional millions of riders aboard the cars every year. Most large cities had some kind of specially conducted trolley sightseeing service, and many lines maintained luxuriously outfitted party cars that were available for charter around town or into the nearby countryside. A ride on the cars was a cheap and popular way to court a young lady, and as one nostalgic writer commented years later, “marriages based on streetcar courtships seemed to stick.”

It was even claimed that trolley riding was beneficial to peace of mind and health. As one writer noted, “Trolley cars travel fast enough to produce a feeling of mental exhilaration, which is absent from, or scarcely felt by, passengers in horse cars.” Around 1900 a Louisville, Kentucky, physician announced that streetcar riding was the best possible cure for insomnia. Advocating a two-hour ride before bedtime, preferably on the front seat of an open car, the doctor claimed that “an hour’s streetcar riding scarcely ever fails to bring on a feeling of drowsiness.” Trolley funeral cars were widely employed, and special white-painted cars, staffed by clerks of the Railway Mail Service, speeded urban mail service in many cities. Montreal operated special steel-sheathed trolley prison cars that shuttled between the Champ de Mars courthouse and the city’s Bordeaux prison. Edmonton, Alberta, converted a trolley car into a mobile public library, and Duluth, Minnesota, had one outfitted as a fire engine. More workaday trolleys swept and sprinkled city streets, hauled coal and ashes, and even hauled garbage.

Although they were to remain a significant force in urban transportation for nearly three more decades, the street railways began an inexorable decline soon after World War I. Even though they were usually directly displaced by the motorbus, the streetcars were to a large extent the victim of the automobile, which wrought changes in the pattern of urban life even greater than the trolley itself had a few decades before.

Made newly mobile by their automobiles, Americans were no longer tied to trolley lines and trolley schedules. More and more the family car began to take the place of the streetcar for family errands and outings and even the daily ride to and from work. Urban population began a further decentralization into the new automobile suburbs, where often the family car constituted the only available transportation. Trolley systems in the smaller cities proved most vulnerable to the bus, and by the beginning of World War ii few but the largest American cities still operated streetcars.

There were some notable efforts to save them. As early as World War I there was a vigorous industry effort to improve service and to develop more economical and attractive equipment. In 1929 an industry research group launched a five-year, milliondollar design program that produced the radically advanced PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) streamlined streetcar that was soon racing through North American city streets by the thousands. If it failed to save the industry, the PCC car at least prolonged the life of the big city street railways by more than a decade and, indeed, continues to operate on almost all of the less than a dozen North American street railway systems that still survive.

Soon after his triumph at Richmond Frank Sprague sold his electric railway business to the newly formed Edison General Electric Company and went on to apply his considerable talents to other electrical achievements. Notable among them were the high-speed electric elevators that first made the skyscraper practical and the multiple-unit system of electric train control that was almost universally adopted for elevated railroad, subway, and suburban steamrailroad electrification.