Half a century ago, dressed for Sunday church services, Wesley Paulson traveled from the Maryland suburbs into Northwest Washington aboard a swaying, squealing, rail-riding vehicle called a trolley.
It ran along an overhead wire, gliding smoothly like a rider on a zip line, from a roundabout at 16th Street Heights south toward Columbia Heights, where Paulson and his family hopped off and walked one block to Central Presbyterian Church.
The trolley, like the church, is gone. Its tracks have been pulled out of the road. Its wire has come down. Almost all that’s left are the memories of people such as Paulson — and, at a museum hidden in the woods of Colesville, Maryland, scraps of history and a few of the old trolleys themselves.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Eric Madison, a board member and volunteer at the National Capital Trolley Museum, said on a recent weekend. The museum, where Paulson is also a board member, has tried to keep the memory of Washington’s trolleys alive ever since they were discontinued on January 28, 1962.
On that day this year, the museum will host D.C. Transit Day, when kids can ride Streetcar 1101, which rolled along the now-vanished 14th Street tracks beginning in 1937. The vintage streetcar (“streetcar” is a more general name for a trolley, which usually refers to a streetcar running on an overhead wire rather than on a wire buried in the street) will run on tracks behind the museum, traveling on a 10-minute loop through the woods.
The Trolley Museum has a collection of more than a dozen streetcars from Washington and around the world. It keeps them in “the barn,” a large, unheated room next to the museum’s main exhibition area on trolley history. It’s called a barn, Madison says, because the first streetcars were pulled by horses that were kept in the same barn as the trolleys themselves.
Horse-pulled streetcars were popular after the Civil War, when they carried Washingtonians along steel rails set on unpaved streets for about a nickel a ride. Steam-powered cable cars replaced horses in the 1880s, and by the turn of the 20th century, riders traveled the city on an electric streetcar system that was soon mirrored by today’s Metrobus routes.
“When you see a number on a bus route,” Madison says, pointing to a map to show the 50/54 routes on 14th Street and the 90/92 routes on Florida Avenue, “it was probably once a streetcar route.”
During rush hour in the 1920s, when streetcars were at their peak, the average wait time for a car was about 90 seconds. But the system had its problems. Streetcars sometimes got stuck in ice and snow, and buses proved cheaper to operate and maintain.
Ridership also declined as more people moved to the suburbs.
“After World War II, streetcars were being converted to buses or abandoned, though cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans all kept some of their lines,” Madison says.
In Washington, streetcars have made a mild resurgence. Madison works at the D.C. Department of Transportation, where he helped the city start a new, $200 million streetcar line on H Street Northeast. Its trolley cars don’t come quite as often as those of the 1920s, but for now you can ride free, by wire and rail.
What: Ride a 1937 Washington streetcar on D.C. Transit Day
Where: National Capital Trolley Museum, 1313 Bonifant Rd., Colesville, Maryland
When: January 28, noon to 5 p.m. You can ride a more modern trolley at the museum during its normal winter hours on Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.
How old: All ages
How much: $7, $5 for ages 2 to 17 and 65 and older.
For more information: A parent can call 301-384-6088 or visit dctrolley.org.
You can learn more about streetcars at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, which features more than 250 transit vehicles (trolleymuseum.org), at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum (baltimorestreetcar.org) or at the San Francisco Railway Museum (streetcar.org).