Check out my new books, including:

Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Outer Banks


This Site   

Looking for the music?
You'll find different tunes accompanying selected articles on my site. 
Click on the notes.


Writing Tips
Book Writing Tips
Freelance Writing Tips
Movies for Motivation
Travel Writing Tips
Tech Tips

All contents of this site
  Bob Brooke Communications

A Look at the Nostalgic Trolley Era
by Bob Brooke

Trolley rolls into the depot at Kennebunkport Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport, Maine"Don’t Talk to the Motorman," said the sign at the front of every trolley. This plus the clang of the bell, the grind of traction motors and the clatter of wheels as they rolled over staggered rail joints and through the complicated switch and crossing work prevailing at many intersections endeared the trolley to several generations of riders.

The Early Years
Despite tremendous difficulties, a young Annapolis graduate named Frank Sprague built a 12-mile, 40-car line in Richmond, Virginia, which began service on February 2nd, 1888. Since both its size and survival were unprecedented, it quickly attracted the attention of horsecar officials all over the country. Soon, scores of similar lines appeared signaling the birth of the era of electric traction.

Sprague used and improved the now familiar trolley pole instead of the troller for power collection and designed a mounting for the motors that kept the gearing between them and the road wheels in constant mesh. He also showed that reversing the motors would slow the cars and bring them to a halt safely.

As the industry rapidly grew and matured, the trolley became part of the fabric of everyday life. On most lines, even in the smaller cities, there was a car along every few minutes. On busier routes and in the larger cities one always seemed to be in sight. During the morning and evening rush hours, headways (the interval of time between cars) were more likely to be measured in inches than in minutes, for every car capable of turning a wheel was pressed into service to cope with the peak loads.

Small towns built systems as short as a mile in length. And big cities like Boston built systems with hundreds of miles of track. Suburbs grew up all around larger cities because of reliable, all-weather trolley transportation. Trolleys were everywhere and took people everywhere they wanted to go.

At first, almost every electric line was owned by a different company. So passengers paid an additional fare each time they changed cars. Around the turn of the century, a wave of consolidation swept most cities with just one or two big streetcar companies owning 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. Ridership soared.

Trolley Riders
There was a noticeable air of bravado among the first trolley riders. Men would hand their pocket watches to their stay-behind womenfolk be cause the powerful electric currents flowing invisibly about a car might magnetize them. Some riders joked about how in 1888 New York State had decided to electrocute murderers. Riders believed it prudent to debark hastily if a thunderstorm sprang up. On some lines it was a regular practice to stop and pull-down trolley poles whenever thunder rumbled nearby.

On most small trolley lines, moreover, there was an endearing tradition of informality, very different from the bleak impersonality of big railroads. When a regular rider didn't make it to the stop on time in the morning, the motorman would dally while he or she came puffing up. The daytime conductor could be bribed into delivering a parcel to a house several blocks away by a gift of some oven-fresh popovers, or into dropping a letter in the slot at the depot. Most of the time the trolley's regularity was exact enough to time the events of domestic life. A wife knew by the screech of the wheels on the curve down the street at 5:45 PM that their husband was on his way home from work.

Trolleys and Recreation

Electric traction companies built their lines to handle the crowds of workers going to and from their jobs. But for most of the rest of the time, the cars ran almost empty. Streetcar companies began to dream up ways to get people to ride their cars on weekends and holidays. If a car line could easily be extended to a beach or a natural scenic attraction, a line would be laid out to the countryside and a picnic grove or amusement park built there, specifically to generate off-hours traffic.

So the companies actively advertised the pleasures of joy riding. And people took trolley rides just for fun.

Trolleys were a pleasant way by which to explore unknown parts of a city-they were leisurely and cheap and afforded a fine car-window view of the neighborhoods through which they passed. And when there was a specific destination-the circus, zoo, fair grounds, or lake-just the going there by trolley was part of the fun, a time of heightened anticipation and excitement.

At many parks the company saw to it that there was no other way to get in except by trolley.

On a typical Saturday, trolleys would glide along past the outskirts of town, finally swinging in under the arched entrance to Electric Park, as many of the first amusement parks were called. There the riders debarked to saunter along the flower-lined walks where tame peacocks strutted on the grass and the exciting Ferris wheel or giant aerial swings could be glimpsed beyond the trees. From the moment a person stepped off the trolley he'd hear the merry-go-round calliope, or the Sousaphone and drums from the bandstand, or the click and roar of the roller coaster and the screams from its ecstatically terrified riders.

Hours later, when day was done and the trolley carried its load back to the city, there was still a feeling of pleasantly fatigued gaiety within the car. Despite the sunburn and blisters, the frankfurters and taffy lying leaden in the belly, the querulous baby with sand in its creases, the collective mood would be voiced by the group in the back of the car that experimented in harmonies for "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." This was a Saturday way of life that passed on with the trolley.

Open-Car Trolleys
From the earliest days on, open cars were the summertime favorites of the trolley-riding public. In many communities the open-car trolley party--a car chartered for an afternoon or evening jaunt, with group singing on the way home–became popular. Sometimes two or three cars, festooned with garlands of light bulbs and perhaps a hired band tootling away in the head car, would be hired for big trolley parties.

In sweltering weather traction companies would notice evening traffic increases on open-car routes, reflecting the numbers of people who rode the cars at random in the evening, just to cool off. In a day without movies, air conditioning, or electronic amusements, riding nowhere in particular on a hot evening was a happy custom. Up front the motorman pulled down the green curtain that shielded his window from reflections. If a thunderstorm blew up, the conductor unfurled the flapping canvas side curtains and, when a passenger reached his stop, he briefly raised the section near his bench while those within crowded together to avoid a splashing.

But though the riding public loved open cars, the companies didn't. It was a considerable expense, for one thing, to buy and maintain extra rolling stock that could be used only a few months of the year. From the company standpoint, open cars had the additional drawback of a slightly higher accident rate, with accompanying damage suits. People tended to board or leave open cars in motion; and while it was no trick to swing onto or down from a car that had slowed to 7 or 8 miles an hour, a missed handhold or slippery footing could land a person flat on his or her back.

Unfortunately for management, the public liked the open car; and the little guy who paid the fare that built and maintained many a traction president's ornate mansion could not be completely ignored. Consequently, the open trolley car was around for a long time.

Parlor-car Trolleys
n addition to the usual roster of open and closed passenger cars, the typical street railway owned a variety of specialized cars. Originally intended for use by company officials on inspection trips, parlor trolleys appeared quite widely in the 1890s.

Parlor-car trolleys were generally luxurious, with gleaming brass fittings, richly curtained windows, wall-to-wall carpeting, decorated ceilings, polished mahogany paneling, and colored glass in the clerestory. The directors of the Connecticut Traction Company could avail themselves in their car of a lavatory that was shielded from common gaze by stained glass windows of almost paralyzing elegance.

Even though originally built to enhance self esteem of officials, these deluxe trolleys soon found additional service on charter trips. Many a citizen would willingly plunk down $20 or $30 on spare-no-expense occasions such as weddings or anniversaries so that he or she could glide elegantly through the streets in publicly displayed privacy. Fraternal affairs, bachelor dinners, and special sightseeing tours for visiting dignitaries were other parlor-car occasions.

Often, too, they were chartered for funerals. Trolley car funerals were common. Many companies in the larger cities had cars especially built for the purpose. Frequently named instead of numbered, these cars provided a special casket compartment up front with plate glass windows and a large glass door that allowed the coffin to be viewed from the street; a nickel-plated rail against which flowers could be banked; 8 black leather seats in the casket compartment for first-degree mourners, and 24 seats in the rear for lesser grievers. All this for just $20-26.

Electric traction, as the industry was known, reached its physical peak during World War 1. Following that period there was a gradual decline in the numbers of route miles of track and cars operated. At first the decline was barely perceptible-here and there a small company tore up its rails and pulled down its overhead wires; but mostly these were small, marginal operations that never should have been built in the first place. Actually, trolley patronage continued to grow for another six years, until 1923, when 14 billion riders paid to ride the streetcars of the U.S.

This article first appeared in History Magazine.

< Back to History Articles                                                                                             Go to next History article >

All articles and photographs on this site are available for purchase by print and online publications.  
For more information contact
Bob Brooke.

Site design and development by BBC Web Services