"The magnitude and intensity of the revolution that began in Richmond is almost without parallel in the history of technological change,” declares the present-day Web site for the International Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, speaking about Richmond’s electric streetcar system, inaugurated in May 1888 by engineer Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934).
Sprague, a Connecticut Yankee, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and colleague of Thomas Edison, overcame typhoid fever, outright hostile competitors, and incompetent or uncomprehending contractors.
Richmond business leaders, hearing about Sprague’s experiments in transit in New York City, invited him here.
Sprague’s May 1887 contract with the city gave him 90 days to create a working electric transit system for which no reliable model existed. Richmond agreed to pay $110,000 “if satisfactory,” and if not, Sprague would be penalized. He eventually put in $75,000 of his own money to satisfy the contract’s terms. Basically inventing the technology as they went along, Sprague’s team built four-wheeled cars connected to an overhead wire called a troller, making the cars “trolleys.”
Within two years of Richmond’s success, 110 electric railroads worldwide were operating or under construction using Sprague’s equipment.
Regular service started on May 8, 1888, with car No. 23 running along 17th Street, operated by R.L. Gordon. Inaugural passenger A.J. Crew handed his nickel to conductor A.S. Tyler. The trolley system of May 1888 had 12 miles of track and 23 cars, though eventually the track extended to 82 miles, much of it running to new suburbs.
In 1890, Edison’s General Electric Co. purchased and absorbed Sprague’s business. Sprague then turned his attention to elevators, building 584 of them for the world’s tallest buildings, before selling to the Otis Elevator Co.
During the early 1900s, streetcars were tremendously popular. Elaborate amusement centers were built by Richmond’s transit firms and land sales companies at the end of highly traveled lines. Notable pleasure gardens were at Forest Hill Park and Lakeside.
Richmond’s system was affected by cultural trends. A 1903 strike by motormen caused the calling out of the state militia, resulting in gunfire, rioting and two deaths. Firebrand African-American Richmond Planet newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr. led a 1904 boycott of the cars due to racial segregation enforced by armed motormen. Weakened by the strike and unwilling to relent on its Jim Crow policy, the streetcar company went into receivership.
Richmond’s streetcars became the property of New Yorker Frank Jay Gould and his cousin William Northrop, who had other transit interests here. Gould’s firm improved the system but annoyed residents by ripping down trees on Chamberlayne Avenue, discontinuing lines and asking for rate increases.
Virginia Electric and Power Company ultimately controlled the entire Richmond system, although in 1944 the federal Securities and Exchange Commission divested the utility of its transit holdings. The system was sold to Chicago and Nashville interests. By then, buses and automobiles were making electric streetcars less relevant.
By 1949, more than 100 electric transit systems were replaced with General Motors buses in 45 cities. That April, a Chicago federal jury convicted GM of criminally conspiring to replace electric streetcars with buses. The ruling came too late for Richmond, though.
Political provincialism coupled with GM’s machinations meant that Richmond’s last trolley run was made by No. 408 along the Hull Street/Highland Park line on Nov. 25, 1949, with a moribund parade gathering crowds. Then on Dec. 15, 1949 at 9:30 a.m., No. 408 was burned, joining nearly all the others in a strange, Wagnerian pyre.
Since that inglorious demise, there have been efforts to revive Richmond’s streetcars. This achievement eluded even powerful preservationist Elisabeth Scott Bocock, who held a 1960s trolley conference on a hot summer’s day in her airless West Franklin Street carriage garage attended by the governor, state legislators and transportation experts. It generated conversation and little else.
Her enthusiasm lives on. The Historic Richmond Foundation commissioned a study due this summer about a “light-rail” electric circulator.