Convergence: That theme has dominated the history of the former Greater Richmond Transit Corp. headquarters on West Cary Street, where the RVA Street Art Festival runs Sept. 11 to 15.
Beyond the more recent bus-depot function, several of the old buildings in the 6-acre complex served Richmond's electric streetcars, a long-ago innovation that this year marks the 125th anniversary of its inception here.
A lame-duck city administration in 1887 commissioned Frank Julian Sprague of Connecticut to devise and implement a new system of transportation — in 90 days.
The innovation that Sprague and his team hit upon was recycling the kinetic energy generated by the brakes back to the wire where the "troller" was attached, hence the name "trolley."
Sprague grabbed the opportunity to get away from New York City scrutiny, though close enough to bring investors by train if the thing worked. When it did in early 1888, Henry Whitney, horse car magnate of Boston, witnessed the train of cars roll down Church Hill. Within two years, more than 100 cities worldwide bought Sprague's system. Variations of it are used to this day. Richmond's cars were operated by a series of private companies that ultimately consolidated. (The city never managed the trolleys as a system.) Virginia Passenger and Power ran the cars until the 1935 New Deal divestiture legislation.
Richmond's trolleys then rolled into inhospitable portfolios held by investors who knew little about Richmond and cared nothing for transit.
After the Depression's financial strains, World War II's austerity and deferred maintenance, Richmond's tattered cars rattled noisily along the tracks. They jammed streets crowded by big round-fendered cars driven by suddenly affluent Richmonders.
By 1949, more than 100 transit systems in 45 cities were scrapped for General Motors buses running on Firestone tires using Standard Oil fuel.
On Dec. 15, 1949, at 9:30 a.m., most of the cars were torched in a strange Wagnerian pyre.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The author and filmmaker Patrick Gregory is currently working on a documentary about the history of Richmond's streetcars.