The Cars That Built Our Cities
This is a complete transcript of the narration of TROLLEY: The Cars That Built Our Cities. If you are wondering whether the videotape covers a particular point of interest, try searching for it using your browser's Edit/Find (or Search) function; if it is mentioned in the narration, it is almost certainly shown in the tape.
The streetcar, in the few places where it still exists today, bears scant resemblance to the trolleys that ran almost everywhere at the turn of the century. They worked their way into America's hearts, but more than that, they provided a form of transportation that made modern urban growth possible. They truly were the cars that built our cities.
Walking was the only form of transportation for most ordinary working men and women until the 1830s. At about that time, horsedrawn transportation gradually ceased to be the exclusive priviledge of the rich, and became the shared ordeal of the middle class: the omnibus. Commuting by omnibus increased the distance a person could live from the workplace, and cities began to grow in size.
A steel wheel running on a steel rail makes much more efficient use of energy than a wooden wheel on a dirt road. On track laid in city streets, the same horses that pulled the omnibuses could carry more people... farther... faster. The horsecar boom of the 1850s gave yet another boost to the growth of cities.
But horses were a very expensive form of motive power. The steam engines used by the railroads were much cheaper to operate than feeding and caring for the equivalent in live horses, so horsecar operators were eager to adapt the new technology to provide transportation in the cities. Small locomotives pulling horsecars were an obvious solution, and became fairly popular in Europe. America had a higher density of urban horsedrawn traffic, which the locomotives disrupted, so the search continued for a way to use steam power without having the engines on the streets.
The 1870s saw two different solutions to the problem. One was the elevated railway. Small but otherwise conventional steam locomotives could pull trains of railroad-style cars high above city streets, free from the safety hazards and delays of running in traffic. Elevateds had high passenger capacity, but were expensive to build. This made them suitable only for larger cities like New York and Chicago, and the big cities got even bigger.
The other solution was the cable car. The idea itself was not new; miners had been using steam-powered cables to haul coal and ore for years. But since the cars were permanently attached to the ropes, the system was unsuited for start and stop operation in city streets. It was an invention of Andrew Hallidie, a San Francisco manufacturer, that made the urban cable car practical. He invented a grip that could be controlled by the driver on each car to grasp or release a continuously moving cable. The engine remained safely and quietly in the powerhouse, driving the endless cable which reached the tracks through tunnels under the streets.
The cable car was particularly suited to climbing San Francisco's steep hills. San Francisco was first, but 25 other North American cities also had cable car lines. They were much more expensive to build and operate than horsecars, but could haul far more passengers, so they were economical only on the most heavily travelled lines. Nowhere did they entirely displace horsecars.
New York City had a unique hybrid system operating over the Brooklyn Bridge. Trains of elevated cars were pulled between Brooklyn and Manhattan by cable, while at each end small steam engines pushed the trains into and out of the stations.
The search continued for a way to marry steam power to the street railway needs of the continuously growing cities. Many inventors thought that electricity would yield the best solution, and the names of Davenport, Siemens, van Depoele, and Daft are associated with early experiments. The most persistent problems involved getting the electricity to the cars, and transmitting the power of the electric motors to the wheels.
Frank J. Sprague, a former Naval officer and inventor, is credited with practical solutions to both problems. He used a spring-loaded pole on the roof of each car to contact an electric wire hung directly above the center of the track. And he devised a simple but clever method of mounting his motors so they were protected from vibration, and delivered their power smoothly to the wheels. His electric car installation in Richmond, Virginia in 1888 marks the real start of the electric car era.
The electric trolley spelled the end for the cable car. Most cable lines in the rest of the country had been electrified by 1906, when San Francisco's great earthquake wiped out its last remaining cable cars. Only those lines which crested hills too steep for electric cars were rebuilt with cable. By the time that rubber-tired buses made even these lines obsolete, the little cars had won the affection of the citizens, and they were preserved as a monument to Victorian engineering achievement.
The cables today are powered by electric motors rather than steam engines, but the rest of the system remains much as it was a century ago. It is still an operation requiring an immense amount of skilled hand labor, from tending the cable and the pulleys, to turning the cars on turntables at the ends of the line. Operating the levers that start and stop the cars still requires strong sure hands. Cars continue to round curves at the same speed as the cable, a breathtaking nine miles per hour. And the grades up and down Nob Hill and Russian Hill still inspire the same awe among riders that they did over 100 years ago.
If the electric car proved quickly that it could handle busy lines as well as the cable, it took very little longer to prove that it could also handle less busy lines more economically than horses. By the turn of the century, there were almost no horsecars left. A remarkable exception was the mulecar line at Celaya, Mexico. It was the last animal-powered railway in North America. It offered eloquent testimony to how few places could not afford the modest investment in a trolley line. It was finally abandoned in 1956. [1953 film]
Electric streetcars filled a gap in performance between horsecars, and rapid transit lines like the elevated, and did so more economically than cable cars. They made it possible for villages to grow into cities. Between 1890 and the start of World War I, America's cities and its network of electric railways both expanded at an astonishing rate. Small towns built systems as short as a mile or two in length, while big cities like Boston laid hundreds of miles of track. Suburbs grew up all around larger cities because of the availability of reliable all-weather trolley transportation. Trolleys were everywhere, and took you everywhere you wanted to go.
At first, almost every electric line built was owned and operated by a different company, so passengers paid an additional fare each time they changed cars. Around the turn of the century, a wave of consolidations left most cities with just one or two big streetcar companies operating all the routes. These companies soon discovered that by issuing free transfers between lines, more than enough additional riders would take the cars to make up for the fares lost, and ridership soared.
Since trolley lines were built primarily to handle the rush hour crowds of workers going to and from their jobs, streetcar owners began to dream up ways to get people to ride the cars that would otherwise be idle on evenings and weekends. If a carline couldn't easily be extended to a beach or natural scenic attraction, a line would be laid out into the countryside and a picnic grove or amusement park built there, specifically to generate off-hour traffic. The pleasures of joyriding were actively promoted. Open cars encouraged summer jaunts in the days before air-conditioning.
In parts of the country, trolley touring became popular, and lines were built just to service a particular natural wonder. One of the more famous trips was a ride over the bridge and through the gorge below Niagara Falls. Advertisements made much of the fact that no highway ran through the gorge.
Another famous trip was promoted by the far-flung Pacific Electric interurban empire around Los Angeles. An incline took passengers 1300 feet up to Echo Mountain, and from there a narrow gauge trolley wound its way farther upward. From the end of the line, two hours' ride from Los Angeles, the more energetic tourists could climb another 1100 feet to the summit of Mt. Lowe itself.
Every new invention has its dangers, and as the trolley began to spread, accidents became a real problem. Dozens of safety education films were made to alert the public to the dangers. This film shows the Eclipse Life Guard Fender being demonstrated by its inventor.
Trolley companies also sought to expand beyond just carrying passengers. Cities often had special cars to carry the mails.
Another form of special car used by Northern trolley companies was the snow sweeper. Most cities required the trolley operators to perform some or all of the street maintenance along their routes as a condition of using the public thoroughfares.
Electricity soon showed its superiority over steam for powering elevated cars, thanks to another invention by the same Frank J. Sprague who electrified the streetcars of Richmond. His development allowed one driver, or motorman, to control all the motors in a train from the front of the first car. Within a few years, New York and Chicago had electrified all their elevated railways using Sprague's multiple-unit control system. Using electric power, the trains were cleaner, faster, and much more economical to operate.
Electric traction made the next stage of technological development possible:
the subway. Underground, the smoke and cinders from steam locomotives were not simply a nuisance, but a danger. Boston opened the first subway in North America in 1897, not for rapid transit trains, but to free its fast new electric streetcars from the congestion of downtown streets.
New York constructed the first North American high capacity rapid transit line conceived from the very beginning as a subway. In 1904, the Interborough Rapid Transit company began operating its trains through city-owned tunnels from City Hall to 96th Street. The line introduced many innovations, like this four-track route with continuous express service on the inside tracks and locals on the outside. It was the first transit line to use all-steel cars.
Incidentally, this and several of the other very early film sequences were shot by Billy Bitzer, the cameraman who went on to photograph many of D. W. Griffith's greatest films.
At 125th Street, an extension of the new Interborough subway emerged briefly aboveground to cross Manhattan Valley. The valley floor was too close to the underground water table for low-cost tunnelling.
In many cities, the steam railroads provided a local commuter service over their tracks. Electric trains were found to have advantages in this application because long peak-hour trains could accelerate more quickly than steam-hauled trains. These are the cars the Illinois Central purchased in 1926 when it electrified its commuter lines south of Chicago.
Most of the commuter lines around New York are electrified. These trains on the Penn Central Railroad are powered by an electric third rail.
Some railroads, such as the Lackawana in Northern New Jersey, preferred to use more economical high voltage distribution carried by overhead wires. These are some of the original coaches, now retired.
All the commuter lines in Philadelphia are electrically powered. The two networks originally operated separately by the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads are now joined together by a tunnel under the heart of downtown.
Mainline railroads can also benefit from electrification in some situations. Electric locomotives perform better than steam locomotives over severe grades and through tunnels, so several mountain railroads erected high voltage overhead wire in the early decades of this century.
The heavy passenger traffic on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston is also an ideal setting for electric trains. Most of this route is electrified, and there are plans to extend the wires over the entire corridor. Much of the trackage serves both local commuter and high-speed intercity trains.
The shortest chapter in the history of electric railways concerns the interurban trolley. In many areas these lines were simply country trolley routes, extended to reach a nearby town. But in other areas, particularly the midwest, they were scaled-down, electrically powered competitors of the steam railroads. They usually used the tracks of the local streetcar companies to reach the centers of the towns and cities on their routes, but had their own private rights of way in the countryside. In Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Southern Michigan, a vast network of lines developed from the early 1890s through the first decade of the century. In Ohio, no town of more than 10,000 population was without an interurban connection to its neighbors. Compared to the steam railroads, the service provided by the interurbans was sometimes less rapid, but it was relatively frequent, and unlike the steam railroads, which stopped only in major towns and cities, an interurban would let a farmer and his family off at their door.
In contrast to city streetcar systems, many interurbans developed a substantial freight business. Some carried packages in the baggage compartments of passenger cars, or in freight-only cars called box motors. The most successful used electric locomotives to haul ordinary railroad freight cars, exchanged with the steam railroads.
Up until World War I, the trolley lines grew and grew, always busier and busier. It seemed that the growth, and the trolleys, would never stop.
Some believe that a great conspiracy between the automobile manufacturers, oil companies, and tire makers killed the trolley car. In fact, several companies and their officers were convicted of such a conspiracy in a court of law.
But this is what really killed the trolley: not conspiracy, but mass production. This killed the trolley: the cheap motor car, and the allure of freedom on the open highway. The automobile was new, affordable, and convenient. As their economic circumstances bettered, people opted for private rather than public transportation, and trolley ridership began to decline.
The story of how the streetcar and interurban companies fought back begins with the cars themselves. Early trolleys were small four-wheelers not much different from a horsecar. Open cars were popular in summer, not only for the breezes, but because they could unload quickly at a common destination like an amusement park. In California, combination open and closed cars were so widely used that the design became known as the California car. Cars of this type still run on the cable car lines in San Francisco.
During the growth years, the concentration was on developing greater capacity. Cars got bigger, sometimes much bigger, although double-deckers never became very popular in North America. Operating trains of cars was more common, and was standard for a time in several cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Articulated cars, hinged in the middle so they could get around corners, were another way to increase capacity.
With larger cars came a trend to station the conductor at a fixed location, rather than roaming through the car collecting fares like a railroad conductor. In Chicago, he was usually at the rear; in Cleveland and Detroit, at the center.
With increasing competition from the automobile, the focus shifted to more efficient operations in order to counter declining ridership. Smaller, lighter cars reduced power consumption, but more importantly, they could be run by one operator, instead of the usual crew of motorman and conductor. Little Birney cars like these were built by the thousands between 1916 and the early 20s, and postponed the closure of many small city systems.
This staged race with an airplane was a way for the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad to introduce its new high-speed lightweight cars known as Red Devils. Interurbans in particular began to emphasize speed in order to compete with both steam railroads and the automobile. Dr. Thomas Conway, president of the line, ordered these cars in 1929, and they were delivered in 1930. They made extensive use of aluminum to reduce weight.
Only a year later, Conway ordered 10 cars of even more rakish design, which were quickly nicknamed "Bullets," for the suburban Philadelphia & Western. The bodies were built almost entirely of aluminum. They ran in regular service over this line for nearly 60 years; the last one was retired in 1990.
Interurbans were not the only ones to try publicity stunts to boost ridership. This Dallas city trolley offered breakfasts cooked to order on an electric stove.
In Atlantic City, the streetcar system borrowed an idea from the newest and fastest form of transportation, and introduced airline-style hostesses.
But the simple fact was that neither gimmicks nor the newer lightweight cars could compete in comfort and performance with the automobile. While various experiments in automotive-styled streetcars were tried, what was needed was a radically new approach, based on revolutionary design concepts. Headed by the energetic Dr. Conway, the Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee undertook a remarkable industry-wide cooperative research program which redefined the trolley car. Prototype vehicles were run in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and the final design, known universally as the PCC car, after the Presidents' Conference Committee, was introduced in Brooklyn in 1936.
In 1941, it was St. Louis's turn to introduce the streamliners. It would be hard to imagine crowds like these turning out to welcome the latest model of diesel bus.
The PCC was smooth, quiet, fast, comfortable, and stylish. It rejuvenated the trolley industry, at least for a time. Over 4,000 PCCs eventually ran in 29 North American cities. This is Chicago.
One of the goals of the design committee was to build a car that was suitable for use in any city, to take advantage of the cost savings possible with mass production. Because of this standardization, there eventually developed a busy trade in used PCCs. Some of these Kansas City cars ran in as many as 3 cities before retirement.
Pittsburgh had the largest US fleet of PCCs after Chicago. It also had the largest trolley network when massive abandonments took place in the mid-1960s. No other cities were in the market for used cars by that time, so hundreds were scrapped, but a few have been rebuilt and still operate.
Washington, DC operated an unusual system: within the city limits no overhead wires were allowed, so the trolleys picked up their electric current through a slot between the rails, much like a cable car. The cars had trolley poles for use in the suburbs.
The world's largest streetcar builder, the J. G. Brill Company, refused to license PCC technology. The decision to compete with the PCC netted only one large order: 25 Brilliners for Atlantic City delivered in 1940. An order for 10 of the double-ended version, for the Philadelphia Suburban's Red Arrow Lines, were the last railcars Brill ever built.
The patented PCC technology was also used for the first truly modern rapid transit cars. These three-section articulated cars, nicknamed Bluebirds, were delivered to New York in 1940. Following World War II, PCC rapid transit cars appeared on other rapid transit systems. Chicago had the largest fleet, most of which incorporated parts salvaged from its PCC streetcars.
But for all the hard work and optimism, the entire public transit industry was losing its battle with the automobile. Scenes like these would become increasingly common as routes were abandoned. This was the Fineview line, in Pittsburgh, its last day of service witnessed mostly by trolley fans.
Abandonments had a strange affinity for gloomy weather. One of the finest interurbans of them all, the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee, ran its last passenger service in the blizzard of January 1, 1963.
After the last run came the scrapyard, where the cars were stripped of anything burnable before the metal was recycled.
Not every car faced the cutting torch. There was a considerable trade in secondhand interurban cars, particularly the newer ones. These former Red Devils from Ohio served out their last years running between Allentown and Philadelphia on the Lehigh Valley Transit's Liberty Bell Route, part of which they shared with the famous Bullet cars. Others ran for several years on the Cedar Rapids & Iowa City, where they were known as CRANDIC Comets.
Back in 1941, the North Shore Line had received two articulated interurbans called Electroliners, the fastest and finest interurbans ever built. They were just over 20 years old, still young for a railcar, when the North Shore called it quits in 1963. The cars were bought for use on the Philadelphia & Western, and like the Red Devils before them, continued a tradition of remarkable cars sharing rails with the remarkable Bullets. They ran as Libertyliners for over 10 years, and then cheated the torch once again. This car was retired to the Illinois Railroad Museum at Union, where it now operates fully restored to its original condition.
The museum at Union is not the only one where operating examples of our electric railroad heritage can be found. The first such preservation effort began in 1939 at Kennebunkport, Maine. The Seashore Electric Railway has over 100 cars in its collection. Rides are available to the general public on a seasonal schedule.
The Baltimore Transit Company preserved single examples of many car types when the rest of a series was scrapped. These cars were turned over to the Maryland Historical Society, and they eventually became the basis of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. This collection is unique because all its cars once ran in regular service in the same city.
When World War II shortages of gasoline and rubber temporarily saved many trolleys facing the scrapyard, loyal fans began another kind of preservation effort, documenting on motion picture film this Indian summer of the trolley.
This interurban, the Laurel Line, connected Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It carried its last passenger in 1952.
The last local car on Wilkes-Barre Railways ran in 1950.
This car, Biddeford & Saco number 31, started the trolley preservation movement; it was the first trolley museum's first car.
West Penn Railways operated interurbans in Southwestern Pennsylvania until 1952.
All these Ottawa Electric Railways cars were built in Ottawa. They ran until 1959.
Baltimore ran a fleet of ancient wood-bodied Brills until well into the 1950s. The Ft. Howard shuttle, shown here, was closed in 1952.
Montreal Tramways was the largest streetcar operator in Canada. The last car ran in 1959.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania was the last small-city streetcar system in the US, and the smallest to buy new PCC cars. But to no avail; Johnstown Traction ran its last trolley in 1960.
After the war, while America's attention focussed once again on automotive transportation, Europe began rebuilding. Restoring streetcar service was one of the highest priorities in many cities. This was Cologne, Germany, 1948.
Most European streetcar systems had to make do with some pre-war rolling stock for many years after the war. Lisbon, largely untouched by the war, and by time, is still using American-made and American-pattern equipment built before the First World War. As trolley lines at home were closed, this colorful system began to attract the attention of American enthusiasts.
Germany, too, had its share of proponents. With over four dozen streetcar systems, it continued to exhibit an unequalled variety of rolling stock and operations during the entire post-war period, and indeed up to the present. Of particular note is the trend toward exclusive rights of way for the railcars, to avoid the traffic congestion that is increasing in Europe nearly as fast as in North America.
Another European system with a strong attraction for Americans was the Belgian Vicinal at Charleroi. Until quite recently, it featured country trolley operations reminiscent of some of Pennsylvania's interurban lines. Only the sections that were upgraded with new equipment, track, and stations remain in service.
In nearby Brussels, the streetcar lines also feature extensive private rights of way. Downtown, many lines have been placed in subways. The trolley subways themselves are being gradually upgraded to full rapid transit standards with new rolling stock. Incremental improvement of both right of way and rolling stock is characteristic of European public transit planning.
While the general public in North America took little note of these developments, our recent concerns for the environment, dependence on foreign oil, and growing highway congestion are changing the picture, and today some of the world's most exciting rail transit developments are occurring right here at home.
It all started with a wave of new rapid transit lines. The first to open was PATCO, in 1969, running between downtown Philadelphia and the suburbs of nearby southern New Jersey. This line has been highly successful, in part because of its realistic approach to co-existence with the automobile: large park-and-ride lots. It pioneered the use of fully automatic train operation and fare collection, which has become standard on the 5 other new rapid rail systems that have opened since.
This one is typical: Baltimore. The downtown portion is in subway. The single line reaches far out into the suburbs, first on aerial structure, then largely on the surface. All the newly-built rapid transit lines share this suburban orientation. The route parallels an existing railroad, then runs in a highway median, both common locations for new rail transit lines.
This was the construction of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, one of the biggest public works projects undertaken in the 1960s. Construction on this scale is neither affordable nor appropriate in every city.
In those cities where trolley cars could still operate free of traffic congestion, they continued to provide an important service. Here in Boston, the original trolley subway has been extended over the years, and an entirely new route was added to the network in 1959 when a former commuter railroad line was electrified. New articulated cars have replaced the aging PCCs, and the whole concept has acquired a new name: Light Rail Transit.
San Francisco's streetcars were some of the first to be municipally owned and operated. Since they already enjoyed rapid access to the Western suburbs through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, the decision was made to upgrade the lines by placing them in an upper level of the new BART subway. The system is continuing to expand today.
In Philadelphia's Western suburbs, the former Red Arrow lines have recently seen new cars, and new track and overhead wires. But the overall design of the system fits very well with the neighborhoods it serves, and it continues to attract and hold riders nearly a century after electrified service began.
In the mid-1960s, most of Pittsburgh's trolley lines were converted to bus operation. The few that were left had extensive private rights of way, and continued to provide faster rush-hour access to downtown than the parallel highways. After years of debate over various alternatives to the trolleys, the decision was made to upgrade the lines to light rail standards.
The continued success of these transit systems, coupled with a growing awareness of European developments, have convinced political and business leaders in North America's smaller cities to give light rail a try.
One of the most successful operations began in San Diego in 1981. Using an off-the-shelf German articulated car design, and sharing tracks for most of its length with an existing freight railroad, the San Diego Trolley was built in record time. And Senator Jim Mills, the guiding light behind the project, is proud to say "We built a cheap railroad." But it works, and works well by that most important standard: the ability to attract riders.
Calgary, in Western Canada, built and opened its first line almost simultaneously with San Diego's. Its cars are almost identical; the major difference is the absence of steps, since all Calgary's stations have floor level platforms for faster loading. Many aspects of the system's design have been dictated by Calgary's severe winters. Three lines are operating today, and more are being planned.
Buffalo built a light rail line that runs on the surface downtown, and in subway under the suburban portion of its route. Of all the newly built systems, it most resembles conventional rapid transit. It uses large, non-articulated cars, and a mixture of high platforms in the subway, with street-level boarding on the surface.
Portland, Oregon uses some former interurban right of way for a portion of its new light rail line. Burnside Street was widened to make room for a new median, and tracks were laid beside a freeway at the same time the freeway was being reconstructed, incidentally at much greater cost per mile than the light rail construction. The two light rail tracks can carry more passengers per hour than the freeway.
In downtown Sacramento, the light rail trains run in the streets and in transit/pedestrian malls, but the largely single-track system is otherwise almost entirely protected from interfering traffic. The lines are gradually being double-tracked to increase capacity, and like many other new light rail systems, they are experiencing a car shortage because of high ridership.
San Jose's light rail system is the first to offer a vintage trolley service over a portion of its line, using restored cars which once ran in the area, as well as some vinatge imports. A similar service is being planned in Portland.
In cities all over North America, there is a growing realization that we cannot rely exclusively on highway transportation. Once again the trolley, in the form of light rail transit, is becoming the car that builds our cities.