If a city was to grow and prosper it had to have a means of mass transportation. A good means of mass transportation even today is important to a cities growth but back in the 1800’s before the automobile it was even more critical. The “horsecar” pictured below left is how people got around the big city before the advent of powered streetcars. This draft horse mode of transportation is still with us today when you refer to your automobiles “horsepower”. Horsepower was coined in the 1800’s when the steam engine’s power was compared to the power provided from a comparable number of draft horses. Then in the 1900’s the piston engine’s power was compared similarly.
The very first urban mass transit vehicle was the omnibus. It was similar the the horsecar shown at left except it wasn’t on iron tracks. It was like a big carriage. In a way the omnibus was very similar to it’s cousin the stagecoach. The omnibus, pictured below right, picked up and discharged passengers along a scheduled route just like intra-city stagecoaches had done prior. Most even followed the old intra-urban stage routes. The main difference was that the omnibus could carry many more people than a stagecoach.
Placing horsecars on tracks was a big leap forward because the resistance between iron tracks and iron wheels was very low. Low resistance meant that the horse or horses could pull much more weight. In fact, the nations first railroad considered to be the Baltimore and Ohio was originally propelled by horses. This was before the steam locomotive. The first known North American rail horsecar was put into operation in New York City in 1832. The second in New Orleans in 1835.
There were some limitations and drawbacks to horsecars. One obvious problem was that the horses left excrement on the street although this was nothing really new since all cities and towns big and small had this to contend with since the earliest times. Another drawback however was that in a hilly area the horse could pull a car up a steep hill but because of gravity couldn’t safely lead it down. In this case, seen in the picture at left, the horse was put aboard the coach just like a passenger (we assume the horse rode free) and rode the car down the hill by the luxury of gravity. An interesting side note is that when these horses aged and were eventually sold to farmers, they would only know to pull a plow on level land or uphill but wouldn’t know how to pull it downhill.
Technology was advancing rapidly in the last half of the 1800’s and the first electric tram (streetcar) was put into service in Berlin in 1881. A second one was put into service in 1883 in Brighton, England. You might ask why steam power was not embraced before electricity. The reality was that steam powered locomotives were not only very noisy, but they spewed smoke and soot everywhere they ran which wasn’t conducive for the close confines of a city. Steam power was also costly to operate because of the constant need of fuel and water and the required infrastructure.
There were several immediate advantages of electric power over horse power. One was that it was obviously cleaner. Also, horses had to be fed and stabled and they had to be replaced and rested at set intervals. Electric power eliminated these burdens and enabled more weight to be pulled and it solved the problem of the horsecars on hills. Electric power was provided by overhead lines. The electric streetcar at right drew it’s power from a extension pole on the roof of the car. This type of electric streetcar survives today in cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans.
In the U.S., the first electric streetcar system was built in 1888 by Frank J. Sprague in Richmond, VA. Sprague had invented the overhead power wire system using a spring loaded trolley pole with a wheel attachment. Sprague had been connected with Edison’s Menlo Park, NJ laboratory and also had patents for elevator mechanisms. Richmond was chosen as a test site by Sprague because of it’s many steep grades. The Richmond test went very well and within one year the electric streetcar replaced many of the horsecars. The electric streetcar allowed cities to expand their lines dramatically such as is shown in the map to the right of the Los Angeles electric rail system.
Another advantage of the electric system was that streetcar rail lines could be expanded much further making them an inter-urban system. This enabled suburbs to spring up in places such as Los Angeles. The picture on the left shows an old inter-urban station with the Los Angeles Red Car. The picture below it is another example of an inter-urban streetcar. An inter-urban line was simply an extension of a streetcar line to a neighboring community. At the turn of the century it usually connected a large urban area with a smaller adjacent town. The electric railway filled a city’s transportation needs before the automobile. Even after the automobile first came on the scene, many workers simply couldn’t afford to buy one. The road infrastructure was also poor. The need for low cost mass transportation remained in place.
Inter-urban lines flourished in the Midwest, especially in states like Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Here you had several large urban areas like Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland with nearby smaller but still good sized communities. The map below left illustrates some of the inter-urban lines running out from the Detroit area. Incorporated in 1900 by a group of Cleveland investors, the Detroit Urban Railway extended from Detroit to points all over southeastern Michigan and continued to expand into the early 1920’s.
Beginning in late 1922, the Detroit Urban Railway started to divest itself of routes such as with the lines inside the city of Detroit which were then turned over to the city. By 1928, after having sold most of it’s lines, the company was taken over and renamed the Eastern Michigan Railway. As the population continued to grow, what was once considered a line to a distant community ended up being a route to one of Detroit’s suburbs.
In the case of Cleveland, the Cleveland City Railway Co. had 901 electric cars and 236 miles of track. To give you an idea of it’s popularity, ridership grew from 228 million in 1910 to 450 million in 1920. As with many other urban systems, ridership started to decrease during the Great Depression years and after that more people were owning automobiles. A busy Ohio inter-urban was the Lakeshore Electric Railway which ran between Cleveland and Toledo through Sandusky and Fremont. At it’s peak, the Lakeshore ran several multi-unit trains along this route.
Now in the 21st century we not only rely on electric powered mass transit to connect parts of growing metropolitan areas, but we’re still in an expansion stage. Modern day traffic gridlock and environmental issues are two big reasons why clean electric powered mass transit remains popular. As suburbs continue to grow in many metropolitan areas, plans for route expansion have already been put in motion.
Passenger comfort has also come a long way. The picture to the right shows the interior of a Bay Area Rapid Transit car in the San Francisco area. Things have changed considerably since the days of the horse drawn omnibus. The BART system is electric powered using a three rail system of delivering electricity. This is how most of the modern electric rail systems now operate. The three rail system where one of the rails is electrified is not only less costly to build than new overhead wire lines but they also don’t create an eyesore.
The picture to the left shows how the shoe of the electric train makes contact with an electrified third rail. Because the system has proved efficient and environmentally friendly, urban electric transit systems are virtually everywhere throughout the world. High speed rail systems in places like Japan and the European continent can reach speeds of over 200 miles an hour making them competitive with certain airline routes.
The picture below left shows the high speed Eurostar which connects London to Paris and Brussels via the English Channel Tunnel. Compare these high speed trains to the early transit pictures at the top of this page and you can appreciate just how much technology has advanced over a relatively short time.
There are several exhibits around the country where you can see vintage electric railway cars. At several you’ll have the opportunity to take a ride and experience what to our ancestors was their primary means of going shopping and getting to their jobs. This was the time before the freeways and before car ownership was widespread.
The Orange Empire Railway Museum is a fun stop for the family located in Perris, CA, just a short ride south of Riverside on Interstate-215. All the information to plan your trip is on their web site below.
Another good museum is in Yakima, WA. The web site for the Yakima Valley Trolleys Museum is:
Located in the Bay Areas Solano County California, just 12 miles east of Interstate-80 on Hwy 12 is the Western Railroad Museum.
Here’s a good site explaining horsepower rating methods.