Photo courtesy Richard Lee Bland
This year marks the anniversary of an unnecessary and transformative loss for Richmond. The city has now been bereft of its electric transit system for 61 years — as many as it existed — and had that not happened, this would be a profoundly different place.
A world-first technology that debuted here in 1888 was mismanaged and deregulated into flames and oblivion.
When a brilliant electrical engineer, Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934), came to Richmond, the city was amid ambitious citywide improvements. Sprague, a Connecticut Yankee and, briefly, an associate of Thomas Edison, hadn't yet gotten an electric car to run, but he'd set one on fire in Manhattan. He had no working models, but he possessed ideas and determination.
His contract with the city gave him merely 90 days to create a working electric transit system. He signed on anyway, because Richmond was accessible enough by rail for potential investors. And nothing compels innovation like a deadline.
Richmond agreed to pay Sprague $110,000, and he ended up putting in $75,000 of his own. He and his team, inventing as they worked, built four-wheeled cars connected to an overhead wire called a troller. Hence, the nickname "trolleys."
On May 4, 1888, Sprague assembled 22 cars on Church Hill in an exhibition for Henry M. Whitney, president of a Boston horse-pulled and cable-driven railway. Sprague hoped to prove the trolleys wouldn't crash Richmond's power grid. When the lights only dimmed, Richmond became the first city in the nation to adopt electric car transit.
Around the trolley stops neighborhoods arose — Westhampton and Barton Heights, Ginter Park and Westover Hills. Trolley lines ran to Ashland, Petersburg and Sandston. Huge viaducts and bridges for the trolleys crossed Shockoe Valley.
But while the trolleys conquered Richmond's hills and ravines, they did so imperfectly: Cars derailed, collided, and caught on fire. Fatal accidents occurred.
Still, the system worked. Carlton McKenny's invaluable Rails In Richmond notes that in 1916 streetcars passed the intersection of Seventh and Broad streets 1,197 times during eight hours — at least twice a minute.
But the system was also burdened by Richmond's endemic social problems. Fewer cars ran through African-American neighborhoods, and black passengers were forced to sit in the back.
In 1904, John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet weekly, led an anti-segregation boycott of the biggest trolley operator, Richmond Passenger & Power Company. The company, unrelenting about its Jim Crow policy and weakened by a labor strike, went into receivership. Most cars then became the property of Virginia Passenger & Power, which improved the system but also annoyed residents by ripping down trees on Chamberlayne Avenue, discontinuing lines and raising rates.
This debilitating private competition was unmanaged by city government. Instead, Richmond had ceded that responsibility to businessmen and land jobbers.
RP&P's successor, Virginia Electric & Power Company, controlled most Richmond lines until Congress passed the Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which divested utilities of transit holdings. The law, along with World War II restrictions on raw materials, inhibited electric transit expansion. Richmond's trolleys deteriorated. Shabby cars advertised obsolescence instead of potential, and one by one, lines were discontinued.
On Dec. 15, 1949 at 9:30 a.m. the trolleys were burned in a lot off Government Road.
In a 1972 report to the U.S. Senate, urban transit expert George M. Smerk asserted, "Electric street railways…were eliminated without regard to their relative merit as a mode of transport. Their displacement by oil-powered buses maximized the earnings of GM stockholders; but it deprived the riding public of a competing method of travel."
The loss has haunted Richmond's civic consciousness like the phantom pains of an amputated limb. Track is visible under cracked asphalt. Trolley barns still stand. Cars are displayed at the Virginia Historical Society and the Science Museum of Virginia.
The law forbidding transit operated by utilities was repealed in 2006.
If Dominion Power, partnered with the city and other companies, brought new, sleek electric cars to Richmond, they could become rolling promotions for Dominion, innovation, and regional brio.