- 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
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.
Horses were subject to an almost endless variety of sicknesses. The vulnerability of the systems to animal ailments was demonstrated late in 1872, when an epidemic of a horse disease known as epizootic aphthae, or the “Great Epizootic,” swept through stables in the cities of the East. Thousands of horses died from the disease, and many more were disabled. In many places street railway service had to be seriously curtailed or discontinued altogether, and in some it was maintained only by hiring gangs of the unemployed to draw the cars through the streets. (Imagine the reaction, in 1973, of a modern labor or welfare organization to such a proposal!)
The devastating effect of the Great Epizootic served only to intensify a search that had already been going on for years to find a workable means of mechanical traction. Some of the earliest efforts had been directed toward the steam locomotive, but it proved noisy, dirty, expensive, and not particularly welcome in city streets. There were several efforts to develop “fireless engine” cars that employed the properties of compressed ammonia to power a reciprocating engine. One line developed a complicated fireless locomotive that operated on steam produced by the reaction of caustic soda with water. Others experimented with compressed air power, but all in vain.
Despite all the effort put forth, only one system of street railway mechanization achieved any degree of success in the years preceding the perfection of electric traction. This was the cable railway system devised during the early 1870’s by a San Franciscan named Andrew S. Hallidie. His cars were drawn through the streets by an endless wire rope powered by a steam engine at a central power plant. In hilly cities like San Francisco the cable cars effortlessly surmounted hills that were difficult, if not downright impossible, for horsecars. Gable railways averaged around nine or ten miles an hour, nearly double the speed of most horsecar lines. A mild boom in cable railway construction found both Chicago and San Francisco by the end of the 1880’s with cable systems of close to a hundred miles each. Altogether some two dozen American cities had installed cable railways based on Hallidie’s inventions. By 1894, the high-water mark, cable cars were hauling four hundred million passengers a year.
But the energy consumed just in moving the tremendous weight of the cable made the system relatively inefficient, and its mechanical complexities made it vulnerable to a wide variety of breakdowns. High costs —often well over $100,000 a mile—restricted cable railway construction to already well-developed urban areas, where a high volume of traffic was assured. For the more moderately travelled street railway lines, or for the needed extensions into suburban areas, the cable system failed to provide a satisfactory answer.
It might be said that the first step along the long road to successful electric transportation was taken in 1821, when English physicist Michael Faraday discovered that electricity could be made to produce mechanical motion. More often, however, credit for the first more or less direct approach to the problem is given to a young Brandon, Vermont, blacksmith and electromagnetic experimenter named Thomas Davenport, who exhibited a crude batterypowered motor as early as 1835 and only a year later used it to power a small circular railway.
A few years later a Scot named Robert Davidson successfully operated a battery-powered locomotive over the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway. An American, Professor Moses G. Farmer of Dover, New Hampshire, demonstrated a small battery locomotive in 1847, and in 1851 Professor Charles G. Page of the Smithsonian Institution constructed a similar machine that attained speeds as high as nineteen miles an hour on a test run to a Washington suburb. But all this experimentation served only to prove that the crude batteries then available constituted an extremely unreliable and uneconomical source of power. Little further progress was made toward the advancement of electric traction until the development of satisfactory electrical generators more than a decade later.
Professor Farmer, in 1867, was one of the first to operate an electric railway with generated power. The first to do so with any degree of success, however, was the German inventor Ernst Werner von Siemens, whose generator-powered electric train was a popular attraction at the 1879 Berlin Industrial Exhibition. Two years later Siemens opened the world’s first commercial electric railway, a short one-car line at Lichterfelde, near Berlin.
Meanwhile, similar experiments were being carried out in the United States. During 1880 and 1881 Stephen D. Field, a nephew of transatlantic cable promoter Cyrus Field, operated an experimental electric locomotive at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At almost the same time Thomas A. Edison began a series of electric railway experiments at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratories. Edison’s interests were combined with those of Field a few years later in a joint firm, which successfully operated a three-ton electric locomotive at the 1883 Chicago Railway Exhibition.
As electric traction drew closer to success during the early 1880’s several important new inventors entered the field. After a series of encouraging experiments, British-born inventor Leo Daft was engaged in 1885 to carry out the first commercial railway electrification in the United States, a twomile installation on a Baltimore horsecar line. The Daft electrification, which employed small fourwheeled locomotives pulling trains made up of former horsecars, worked reasonably well but lacked reliability, and a few years later the line reverted to animal power.
In 1884 John C. Henry, a former telegraph operator, built an experimental electric line at Kansas City that, if otherwise unsuccessful, was notable for the first use in the United States of current collection from a system of overhead wires. Until then all of the early inventors had fed the power through either a third rail or the running rails.
A different approach to current collection was taken by Edward M. Bentley and Walter H. Knight, who electrified a Cleveland horsecar line in 1884 with a system drawing power from underground conductors placed in a conduit beneath the street. It failed financially, but an improved version of the underground conduit system was later adopted for street railway systems in Manhattan and the District of Columbia.
Foremost among the inventors who developed the electric railway to the edge of practicality during the mid-1880’s was an immigrant Belgian cabinetmaker named Charles J. Van Depoele, who constructed his first experimental electric railway at Chicago in 1882. A onemile exhibition line on the grounds of the Toronto Industrial Exposition in 1884 was a modest success, and a year later Van Depoele was back with a bigger and better one, whose most notable feature was the first use of the underrunning trolley pole, ultimately the almost universal method of current collection on American street railways. The device consisted of a contact wheel mounted on the end of a pivoted pole, which was held against the overhead power wire by means of spring tension.
Following a hugely successful second year at the Toronto exposition, Van Depoele was swamped with contracts for new installations. By far the most important of these was the electrification of the Capital City Street Railway at Montgomery, Alabama. By the time the system was in full operation in 1886, it covered no less than fifteen miles of track, giving Montgomery the first completely electrified street railway system in the world. Although small and plagued by mechanical and electrical difficulties, Van Depoele’s Montgomery installation was at least successful enough to keep running.
At this point electric traction was finally beginning to show real promise, and the stage was set for Frank Sprague. He brought to electric railway development a considerably more scientific approach than that of the majority of the inventors and experimenters then active in the field. Born in 1857 at Milford, Connecticut, in 1874 Sprague entered the United States Naval Academy, where he developed an intense interest in electricity. Following graduation in 1878, while on a Far Eastern cruise aboard the flagship U.S.S. Richmond he produced nearly sixty inventions covering a wide range of subjects. On the U.S.S. Minnesota the ambitious young ensign developed a scheme for installing incandescent light aboard the ship, utilizing an Edison dynamo and a disconnected boiler pump.
In the spring of 1881 the Minnesota was ordered to Newport, Rhode Island, where Sprague built a novel type of dynamo, which was tested for Professor Moses Farmer, the already mentioned electric railway pioneer, then a government electrician at the Newport Torpedo Station. Later Sprague was ordered to the 1882 British Electrical Exhibition, held at the Crystal Palace in London, where he was made secretary of the jury testing dynamos and gas engines. Although he overstayed his leave by some months, Sprague regained the good graces of the Navy Department by submitting a voluminous report on the test results.
During his stay in London Sprague often rode the steam-operated underground, opened in 1863. Here for the first time he began to think seriously of the application of electricity to railway operation, conceiving the idea of an overhead power system using a type of underrunning trolley. Charles Van Depoele was developing his similar ideas at about the same time, and the two were later to become involved in a patent controversy over the matter.
In 1883 Sprague resigned from the Navy and went to work as an assistant to Thomas A. Edison, and a year later he left to form his own company and develop his electric railway ideas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The decline of the trolley was already well begun when Sprague, still hard at work on new electrical inventions, died in 1934 at the age of seventy-seven. Even so, the old gentleman probably had no idea that the familiar electric cars would have all but vanished from the streets of the North American city in only a few more decades.
But even if Frank Sprague’s trolley itself was to disappear, the 1970’s would find an overcrowded urban America taking renewed interest in electric transportation in the form of modern rapid-transit systems that, however sophisticated, still employed many of the same fundamental principles Sprague’s genius had developed more than seventy years before.