Monday, June 20, 2011

Mass Transit in Washington, 1862-Style

Streetcars appear to be making a comeback in Washington, D.C.with lines being planned for the H street corridor in Northeast and Anacostia.  With all the local debate about whether overhead wires should be used in the city's core, we might want to consider an alternative motive power:  horses. While many Washingtonians know that DC's once vibrant street car system last clanged its bells in 1962, few are aware of DC's first streetcar a century earlier.

New York City first used horse-drawn streetcars on rails sometime in the 1830s, but the idea was slow to take hold in Washington.  Washington residents not wishing to walk through the city's muddy roads had to rely on "omnibuses," an inconvenient, dangerous and dusty 19th century version of a microbus. This may have been fine when Pennsylvania Avenue was, as one newspaperman  put it, "more a cornfield than the great thoroughfare of and Principal Avenue of a Metropolis."  However, as a burgeoning wartime capital, improved transportation options were needed. Sound familiar?

On May 17, 1862 Congress granted a charter to the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company to operate Washington's first horse-drawn streetcar.  Rails were laid down Pennsylvania Avenue and service  from the State Department to the Capitol commenced in July with nine streetcars.  By October 1862, the streetcar ran from M and Wisconsin in Georgetown to the Navy Yard.  The fare  was less than five cents.The route traveled along M Street in Georgetown, then east along Pennsylvania Avenue past the Capitol, and then headed south on 8th Street, SE to the Navy Yard.

A pair of streetcar tracks are clearly visible running down Pennsylvania Avenue in this photograph taken during the May 1865 Grand Army Review. (Library of Congress )

Horse-drawn streetcars visible running along Pennsylvania Avenue in this postwar photograph (ca 1880) taken from a similar Treasury Department vantage point as the previous Grand Review photograph.  Not a broken escalator in sight. (Library of Congress)
In 1864, the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company was able to report a healthy nine percent profit and estimated that its horse cars had carried 7.5 million passengers that year. (In FY 2010, the Washington Metrorail provided over 217 million passenger trips).  That same year, a second streetcar company, the Metropolitan Railroad Company, began operations. 

Washington's first streetcars were a segregated affair.  African-Americans were only permitted on the front and rear platforms of regular streetcars.  Congress sought to address this practice when it issued the Metropolitan Railroad Company's charter by stating that "there shall be no regulation excluding any person from any car on account of color."

A circa 1867 photograph of a Washington & Georgetown RR horse-drawn streetcar in front of the U.S. Capitol. (Washington Historical Society)
After the war, the streetcars, which were electrified by the end of the 19th Century, helped create Washington's first suburbs (Cleveland Park, Colombia Heights, etc.), delivering residents from their homes to work and back.  This  system served Washington residents through 1962.  But, as they say, "what is old is new again."  Now if only, we could get a horse-drawn streetcar line out to Dulles Airport.  We could build it quicker, cheaper and it might even be faster than driving on I-66 in rush-hour.
Photo from the late 1860s of horse-drawn street cars in front of the Department of Navy Building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (Library of Congress)

1880 map showing horse-drawn streetcar lines in Washington.  The original Washington & Georgetown line is the red shaded line in the center running in a southeasterly direction from Georgetown to the Navy Yard.   By July 1863, the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company was operating 18 miles of track.The company later became part of the Capital Traction company. (Library of Congress)

 If you are interested in learning more about local streetcar history, the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, MD (near Silver Spring) is dedicated to preserving the history of Washington's streetcars.


  1. Now I know what was meant by "ride the cars" in DC from my ancestor's 1863 diary. They went all over the City It is a dream to be able to see a photographic reconstruction and be able to tour their paths.

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