Thursday, December 17, 2015

Revolution on Wheels, Part Four - The Trolley (1)

Railroads had proven their social and economic worth to mid-nineteenth century America for moving passengers and freight between cities. Within a generation of their introduction the Transcontinental Railroad  both enabled and symbolized the power of the nation.

Postage stamp commemorating the 75th anniversary of
the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad
The  scale and nuisances that railroads imposed were not appropriate for urban streets. A Massachusetts Railway Commissioner summed up the dilemma in 1871. "A wide field for the inventive genius of the country still remains open, in the supply of some motor better than horse power for street cars, and, what is still more desirable and necessary, the improvement of combustion in the locomotives on the steam roads, so that they shall not annoy the passengers in the cars and the neighborhoods they pass through with clouds of stifling smoke and storms of cinders, as at present."1 The answer did not lie in simply reducing the scale of equipment.

George Shillibeer's first London omnibus (1829)
Railroads awakened the possibility of urban mass transportation. Traditional carriage and stagecoach services could provide only limited seating at relatively high prices.  Innovators began to "stretch" the stagecoach to hold up to forty-two people inside and on the roof of the horse-drawn omnibus (from the Latin 'for all', eventually shortened to 'bus'). They picked up and discharged passengers at any point along established routes without requiring reservations. They had the versatility of going anywhere, even in the worst weather, with no investment in a fixed track.2

Rail car in the West End, Boston3
On the other hand horses could haul coaches much more smoothly and speedily over rails. An initial trial of street railways in 1856 in Cambridge was followed by a long period of competition between horsecar and omnibus operations.

The West End Street Railway began consolidating the byzantine network of Boston area franchises in 1887. But a typical horse could work only four or five hours a day pulling a streetcar about a dozen miles and producing prodigious amounts of manure.

Horse-drawn rail car passing the Ellery and Babson houses
near the present-day Gloucester rotary, late 1880s
Photo courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum
Gloucester advocates had been promoting a horse railway system for over a decade when the Cape Ann Advertiser suggested in late 1877 that their perseverance would be rewarded. "The horse railroad project to Riverdale is not dead, it only sleepeth. It will be awakened 'in the sweet bye and bye.'"4 And indeed it was, when service started rolling through Riverdale in 1885.  Enthusiasm for an extension to  Annisquam still resounded in 18885 even as a new generation of street railways was making its mark elsewhere.

That same year the management of the West End Company was running out of options for a practical public transportation system in the congestion of Boston. "As a last resort, they journeyed to Richmond, Virginia to study yet another new technology, electrification, recently undertaken by the Union Passenger Railway Company.... it seemed almost impossible that a small copper overhead wire could propel cars set on rails at such great speeds....So impressed were the Boston visitors, that the decision was made to electrify all of the West End Street Railway routes."3
Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934)
"Father of Electric Traction"
In 1883 a business associate of Thomas Edison had persuaded Frank Sprague to resign his naval commission to join the Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He left the following year to found the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company.

Sprague's company  originated key improvements to many parts of the trolley concept that made street railways commercially viable. His motor was the first to maintain constant speed under varying load. It was endorsed by Edison as the only practical electric motor available.

In 1888 Sprague won the opportunity to install the first successful municipal street railway system, in Richmond Virginia. Almost immediately  110 electric railways incorporating Sprague's equipment had been begun or planned on several continents. In 1890, Edison, who manufactured most of Sprague's equipment, bought him out.6

"The Electrics, Main Street, Gloucester
Photo c. 1910 courtesy of Paul Harlin
The Gloucester Street Railway Company opened service in 1891 to give Cape Anners their first taste of modern transportation.

The trolley reaches Annisquam, 1891
Photo c. 1905 courtesy of Paul Harling
Within its first season of operation the Gloucester Street Railway had laid track through the city center, reaching out through Riverdale to Annisquam. Next week we will trace these and subsequent developments as regional extensions grew. 

1. "History of the Railways of Massachusetts," by Hon. Edward Appleton, Massachusetts Railway Commissioner, in Walling's Atlas of Massachusetts for 1871.
2. "Omnibus" Wikipedia
3. Website of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
4. Cape Ann Advertiser, December 1, 1877.
5. Gloucester Daily Times, May 25, 1888.
6. " Frank Julian Sprague," Wikipedia
7. "Tracking the Gloucester Trolley" by John Sample in Rail Classics, Vol 16 No 3, May 1987
8. Paul Harling's monograph on Cape Ann Trolleys, unpublished.


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