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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Center Market The New Market System Farm to Market City Streetscapes Fares, Please! Growth of the Capital's Suburbs
4: A  Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900

Fares, Please!

Washington, one of many American cities that built
new electric streetcar systems, began converting from
horse and cable cars in 1888. Trolley lines created the modern suburb and the commuter and enabled people to live farther from their jobs in the commercial center of the city. In Washington, the streetcars were privately owned and run. Real estate developers built many lines to promote new neighborhoods. Washington’s streetcar companies consolidated into two systems in 1902.

Eckington & Soldiers’ Home streetcar line
Eckington & Soldiers’ Home streetcar line

Washington’s first electric streetcar line was the Eckington & Soldiers’ Home Railway, chartered in 1888. In this photograph documenting its first day, people are gathered on New York Avenue, near the end of the line at Mount Vernon Square.

Sheetmusic, 1912, “The Trolley Car Swing Song”
Sheetmusic, 1912, “The Trolley Car Swing Song”

Streetcars were heavily used, and passengers often found them crowded and uncomfortable. This sheet music-one of the many songs about streetcars that entered the popular culture of the time-shows the cramped conditions aboard a trolley.

"And when the car goes round a curve
You begin to swerve,
Grab for a strap, fall in some woman's lap,
Clang, clang, watch your step.
That's the trolley car swing!"

Passengers waiting for streetcars
Passengers waiting for streetcars

Passengers wait to board streetcars at 11th and F Streets, N.W., Washington, ca. 1915

Capital Traction Company motorman and conductor
Capital Traction Company motorman and conductor

In Washington, two men operated a streetcar. In 1900, the nation's streetcar men worked an average of twelve and a half hours a day.

“Jim Crow”

Public transit was a battlefield in race relations, especially in southern cities where “Jim Crow” laws restricted African Americans’ access to public transportation. In 1896, Homer Plessy sued to overturn a law that barred him from riding in a “whites only” railroad car. The Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s “separate but equal” accommodations, and other southern cities passed laws segregating transportation systems. While the District did not pass a streetcar Jim Crow law, unwritten social customs segregated blacks and whites on the streetcars and in other public places.

Electric streetcar, 1898
Electric streetcar, 1898

This Capital Traction Company streetcar ran along 7th Street from the wharves at the Potomac River to Boundary Street (now known as Florida Avenue), which at the time was the edge of the City of Washington. Washington banned overhead wires, so streetcars used an underground electrical conduit within the city and an aboveground wire outside city limits.

What Happened Next?

What Happened to Streetcars?

In the early 1900s, streetcars and electric interurban systems helped fill the nation's transportation needs. By 1917, there were 45,000 miles of transit track in the country, and millions of streetcar riders. But over the next few decades, the limitations of streetcar systems, government and corporate policies and actions, consumer choice, and the development of alternatives—especially the bus and the car—helped make trolleys obsolete.

Buses began replacing trolleys in the 1910s. Many commuters considered buses a modern, comfortable, even luxurious replacement for rickety, uncomfortable trolleys. Buses made business sense for transit companies; they were more flexible and cheaper to run than streetcars. In a few cities, auto and auto-supply companies, including General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Standard Oil of California, bought an interest in transit companies and encouraged the conversion from streetcar to bus. But many cities made the choice to switch without this influence, and by 1937, 50 percent of the U.S. cities that had public transit were served by buses alone.

Most importantly, Americans chose another alternative—the automobile. The car became the commuter option of choice for those who could afford it, and more people could do so. In Washington, D.C., the last streetcar ran in 1962. In 2000, a public-transit authority ran an expansive bus service and operated a subway system. But as in most cities, the majority of D.C.-area residents preferred to drive alone in their cars from their homes to their workplaces.

Capital Transit Company bus and streetcar,Washington, D.C., 1947
Capital Transit Company bus and streetcar,
Washington, D.C., 1947
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