The Spirit of Brooklyn Rides the Trolley

The Streetcar: A Brief History

Public transportation in New York began in 1827 with the omnibus. A lot like the stage coaches we’re familiar with from western movies, they ran up and down Broadway years before most of what we consider the Old West was even part of the nation. Limited in capacity and not very comfortable, they bounced along the rough cobblestone streets, jarring the bones of all who could pay the fare. (In the big city of that time, only primary thoroughfares were paved; side streets were still unimproved, bogging everything down in the mud when it rained.) Although cabs had existed for awhile, they were reserved for those of means, while most couldn’t even afford the omnibus.

The first streetcars

As the population of the city mushroomed, the needs to move the masses became ever greater. The first major development in this area was the first light rail system: the horsecar. Yes, the horsecar; a simple, small, boxy car pulled by horses over metal rails imbedded into the street. Riding over rails cut friction, enabling the horsecar to carry a heavier load with a lot less effort than the coach, therefore increasing capacity and speed, which was still, at best, no faster than a brisk walk.

The first system of this type in the United States began operations in New York City in 1832, two years before Brooklyn, across the river, was incorporated as a city itself. Soon, horsecars, or streetcars, as they became known, crisscrossed the city, while in Brooklyn, that rapidly expanding city began its own network in 1854.

Although a revolution in urban transit, horsecars did have their drawbacks. In addition to their lack of speed, they created their own form of pollution, putting many men to work cleaning the streets. Still, for riders, they provided ease in transit and shelter from the elements. The spread of streetcar lines allowed the city to grow along their corridors and connect its various sections, bringing together neighborhoods, commercial districts and resources, as well as connecting with other means of transit, such as railroads and ferries.

New technology: greater speed

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, new technologies became available. Shortly after the Civil War, the cable car was introduced in many American cities, replacing many of the horsecar lines. These operated by attaching the car to a constantly running cable underground. To stop, the operator would detach from the cable and apply the brake. Cable cars were larger and faster than horsecars and provided an intermediate step in the development of the streetcar.

Cable cars too however, had major drawbacks. Expensive to operate and maintain, the cable propelled them at a constant speed and therefore, could be quite deadly rounding sharp curves. In fact, the turn on Manhattan’s Broadway around Union Square Park was known as Dead Man’s Curve. Thus, as a major form of transit in most cities, they were short lived, soon to be replaced by a new, far more efficient technology.

The trolley arrives

By the late 1880’s, the electric generator had advanced to the point where its use as a power source for streetcars became possible. In 1888 Richmond, Virginia became the first city to electrify a streetcar line followed, in 1890, by the City of Brooklyn with the Coney Island Avenue Line. Subsequently, the horsecar and cable lines were replaced by this innovative, highly effective energy source; the last cable car ending its run on Brooklyn’s Montague Street in 1909 and the last horsecar line on Bleeker Street in Manhattan in 1917. (In 1898, of course, Brooklyn had joined with New York and the other boroughs to create the City of Greater New York.)

The new electric streetcar spread rapidly throughout American cities, ruling the urban landscape during most of the first half of the twentieth century. These trolleys, as they became known after the original electric pick-up device, called a trawler, created new neighborhoods and attractions wherever their tracks stretched. Beginning in the 1920’s however, the trolley companies, all privately owned, began to face a number of problems.

Problems for the trolley companies

This was a time when automobiles were rapidly taking over the streets of American cities and local governments were becoming more hostile toward the trolley operators. Track repairs were often hindered by demands on the companies to also repair adjoining streets while municipalities made additional demands on their revenues. In New York, the nickel fare was mandated despite inflationary trends, making once profitable ventures into losing propositions. (Of course, shortly after the city took over transit operations, the fare was doubled!)

Perhaps the greatest factor in the demise of urban and suburban light rail was the action taken by National City Lines to purposefully undermine city transit operations in favor of the automobile and diesel bus. Jointly owned by General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires, operating under the cover of small bus companies, they systematically bought up privately owned streetcar companies, replacing them with buses. In addition, they lobbied local governments to eliminate their trolley lines. Ultimately found guilty in federal court of criminal conspiracy to destroy American streetcar systems, the damage had been done. It was now the 1950’s and most of the trolleys were gone.

Too late to save the day

Ironically, in the 1930’s Presidents’ Conference Committee was formed to solve the problems of urban transit in regard to light rail. The result was the PCC car, still used in many localities today. This car accelerates and brakes with automobile traffic and provides an extremely smooth, comfortable ride. It holds about twice as many passengers as the average city bus and uses clean, non-polluting electricity while costing less than 20% of what it costs to run a fume spewing diesel bus. But alas, people then were unaware of the hazards of those noxious fumes and energy and labor was relatively cheap.

Unfortunately, the progress in streetcar development was too late. National City Lines had done its dirty deed and here, in New York, Robert Moses was busy promoting the growth of the suburbs and the gospel of the automobile. On October 31, 1956, the last trolley lines in Brooklyn, home of the fabled “Trolley Dodger”, ended their run.

1930′s BMT Surface Transit

Solid lines are trolleys!