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The Electric Trolley Era Begins In 1887

In the late 1800ís electric motor technology was perfected. The street railway industry immediately seized upon this new source of power, as a way to solve the many problems associated with operating horse cars.

The first successful electric street railway installation in the United States, was in Richmond, Virginia in 1887. It wasn't long, after the initial success in Richmond, that almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power. The electric trolleys became so popular with the riding public, that the street railway industry, experienced explosive growth in ridership, almost overnight.

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A busy day on Salina Street in Syracuse, N.Y., around 1910, shows how popular the trolley was in the early 1900's (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell).

New trolley lines were built, and extended beyond the city limits. This sparked a major housing boom in the suburbs. The trolley allowed people, for the first time, to live outside the city, and commute to their jobs in the city.

So, the electric trolley is credited with moving the people who built our modern cities, and developing and populating the suburbs, as we know them today. Back then, everyone rode the trolleys. It was THE way to travel.

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Early street scene in Toledo, Ohio with trolleys arriving downtown, with commuters.  Some of these commuters, are probably from the suburban areas, created by the convenience of electric street railway transportation. Note the horse drawn wagon. (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell).

By the time of World War I, the street railway industry was the fifth largest industry in the United States, employing well over 100,000 people nationwide.

Do you know how the trolley got its name? The shoe or wheel at the very end of the trolley pole, the part that actually touches, and runs along the underside of the overhead wire, is called the trolley. So, the trolley is attached to the trolley pole, which is attached to the trolley car, and thatís how the trolley car got itís name.

Although the early electric trolleys were small, and not very powerful, they were still a lot faster than the horse cars they replaced.

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The early electric trolleys were very small, about the size of a typical horsecar, and had one truck or set of wheels.  They were not very powerful, but were faster than a horse drawn omnibus or horsecar. This car appears to be in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, near "Echo Bridge". The Newton & Boston Street Railway, eventually became part of the sprawling Middlesex & Boston Street Railway Company. (Photo from the collection of Rick Russell).

However, the great popularity of the electric trolleys with the riding public, soon created the need for larger and more powerful trolleys, so that the trolley companies could keep up with the huge demand for service.

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In some cities, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, trolley companies experimented with different ways to handle the huge demand for trolley service.   One such way, was large, double deck trolleys like this one.  Note the sign on the front dash of the trolley "This Car to Schenley and Highland Park" (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell).

During the warm weather months, many trolley companies operated open trolleys, which were very popular with the riding public. The open cars became known as "Breezers" to the people who rode them. They were open on all four sides, to provide a cooling breeze on a warm summer day. It was the trolley companyís way of providing "air conditioned" service.

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Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway Company open cars, load and unload passengers at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.  (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell)

Many trolley companies, built and operated amusement parks along their lines, as a way of generating extra revenue, during the warm weather months.  Before automobiles became available to the general public, many people would ride the trolleys, out to the company owned amusement park, to relax and enjoy their free time.

So, the trolley companies not only made money, from the fares people paid to ride the trolleys to the amusement park, but they also made money, charging admission to the park, and selling tickets for the various rides in the park.

There are still a number of amusement parks left in North America, that were originally built and operated by trolley companies.   Coney Island, in New York is probably one of the most famous.  In New England, there are still several amusement parks that operate to this day (2002), that were originally owned by trolley lines.

Canobie Lake Park, in southern New Hampshire, was owned and operated by the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway, which was based just over the state border, in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  Whalom Park (just recently closed & sold) in Lunenburg, Massachusetts was owned and operated by the nearby Fitchburg & Leominster Street Railway, and Riverside Park (Now called Six Flags New England) in Agawam, Massachusetts was owned by the nearby Springfield Street Railway.

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A Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway open car, awaits passengers on the trolley loop, at the company owned Canobie Lake Park, in Salem, New Hampshire, around 1910.  The car is signed for "LAWRENCE" which is just over the state line in Massachusetts. (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell)

If there is an amusement park somewhere near where you live, that has been around for a long time, there is a very good chance that it was originally built and operated by a local trolley line.

And of course, the Hampton Beach Casino, in New Hampshire, is still a popular place for people to go, during the summer months.   Only now, they get there by automobile, instead of trolley, and the traffic is intolerable on week-ends in the summer time.

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A Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway Company open car, waits for passengers bound for Haverhill, Massachusetts, at the Hampton Beach Casino, New Hampshire.  Note the early autos parked in front of the Casino, a sign that the Mass. Northeastern, is probably already facing the early effects of this competition.  (Postcard from the collection of Rick Russell)

As competition from automobiles and buses increased, many trolley companies were forced to take drastic cost cutting measures. Many trolley lines did away with the conductorís job, and converted their trolleys for one man operation. And, almost all trolley companies, did away with the open cars. It had become too expensive to maintain two complete sets of cars. An open set for the summer months, and a closed set for the rest of the year.

The companies that built trolley cars, came up with a solution to this problem. It was called the convertible trolley. It had large, rectangular wooden panels, with a window in each one, that could be attached to or removed from the side of the car depending on the season.  However, there was one major problem with this design. The convertible cars had to be brought to the carbarn to have their side panels taken off or put back on. This was a labor intensive and time consuming project, and impossible to do, if the weather suddenly took a turn.

Another solution to the problem was the semi-convertible car. This type of car had side windows that were split into top and bottom sections. On warm days, the top section could be slid up into pockets between the ceiling and roof of the car. The bottom section could be lowered into a pocket in the side of the car. If the weather suddenly changed, the semi-convertible cars could be changed from open to closed configuration, or vice versa, within a few minutes, by the motorman or conductor.

Click on "INTERURBAN AVE." to Continue your ride through the history of the trolley era.




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Page Last Updated: May 04, 2002