July 29, 1862: After just two months of construction, D.C.’s first streetcar line opened, featuring horse-drawn cars that traveled on rails laid into Pennsylvania Avenue. The first car, which was packed “almost to suffocation,” screeched to a halt after just a few blocks, due to improperly installed rails, according to the Evening Star newspaper.
Nov. 3, 1872: The entire streetcar system shut down for more than a week when nearly all of its horses came down with the flu. “Most of them recovered and were able to go back to the hard life of pulling streetcars,” DeFerrari says.
Sept. 29, 1897: An updated streetcar system with cable-pulled cars came to an abrupt end when a massive fire burned down its coal-fueled power station. Soon after, most D.C. streetcars converted to electric power.
Early 1900s: A law prohibiting above-ground wires in downtown D.C. necessitated the hiring of “pitmen,” who hunkered beneath the street and attached electrical plows to the underside of cars as they transitioned from suburban systems with above-ground wires. At least three men with this perilous job were electrocuted. One, who poked his head out of the hole at just the wrong moment, met a particularly unpleasant end.
Jan. 24, 1918: After observing crowded streetcars moving at a crawl in downtown D.C., a transit consultant wrote that “rush hour” was a misnomer. “The cars do anything but rush. A better name would be the ‘crush hour,’ ” he said.
Oct. 13, 1919: A speeding streetcar on Georgia Avenue collided with an Army truck, injuring 17 and killing four. “This was when the operators of streetcars were required to meet their schedules, or their pay would be docked, so it frequently happened that they would speed to make up for lost time somewhere else,” DeFerrari says.
March 1921: The Washington Rapid Transit Company began running the city’s first modern buses on 16th Street NW. Their pneumatic tires made for a much more comfortable ride than streetcars’ hard metal wheels. The buses’ spacious and comfortable passenger compartments, and their ability to go around obstacles and pick up passengers from the curb, also convinced many people that they were a major improvement on the streetcar.
Jan. 28, 1948: In a typical rush-hour screw-up, streetcars on the Mount Pleasant line were stopped for more than an hour when an automobile chain got stuck in the slot that provided power to the cars.
Feb. 15, 1958: A storm dumped 14 inches of snow on D.C., paralyzing streetcars around the city and disrupting service for almost a week. Buses resumed service quickly after the storm. “The slots in the road got to be the Achilles’ heel of the street cars,” DeFerrari says. “They were always getting clogged up with snow, and they made the system unreliable and expensive to maintain.”
Jan. 28, 1962: A vintage 1918 streetcar clattered around the city’s remaining tracks to mark the last day of streetcar service in D.C. “There were fans of streetcars to the very end, but most people were like, ‘good riddance,’ ” DeFerrari says.