Streetcars for Washington: Yes or no?
For some, the argument goes like this: Washington once had streetcars. People were happy. The streetcars were taken away. People were sad. Now streetcars are coming back. People should be happy again.
Answer Man is happy — or he thinks he is. His parents both rode streetcars when they were growing up in Washington. Answer Man himself has enjoyed riding streetcars in Europe. What’s not to like about streetcars?
Well, it’s complicated. Bigger brains than Answer Man’s are pondering that very question. Arlington County decided not to go forward with its streetcars. It’s possible that the District’s H Street NE streetcar line may be killed off without taking a single paying customer for a ride.
All of this has made Answer Man curious about the District’s streetcar history, specifically what our forebears thought of streetcars. Well, they thought about them pretty much the way we think about our Metro system today: taking them for granted when they worked, irritated at them when they didn’t, outraged at them when they proved to be dangerous.
A very quick history of the District’s streetcars goes something like this: In 1862 the Washington and Georgetown Railroad began streetcar service between Georgetown and the Navy Yard. Horses pulled vehicles whose wheels ran on tracks set into the road. By 1875, four other companies had entered the business, each plying a different route.
The car companies dabbled with various technologies — electric batteries, underground moving cables — before adopting a conduit system that used electric current running through an underground wire. Over time, the streetcar lines expanded, tendril-like, into the suburbs, prompting the development of such neighborhoods as Tenleytown and Glen Echo.
Then as now, Congress intervened in the city’s affairs. Lawmakers demanded that the streetcars not use overhead wires downtown, fearing that would mar views. They also oversaw the consolidation of the various streetcar companies, an abundance that occasionally made changing lines a challenge. By 1933, there was a single company: Capital Transit. It became D.C. Transit in 1956 and ceased streetcar operations in 1962.
Consulting Washington Post stories from before 1900, Answer Man saw that when editors were in a boosterish mood, there were stories about how Washington’s streetcar system was the best in the world. But there were as many articles criticizing it for its shortcomings. And there was no denying the dangers of moving big, fast machines through city streets. Common headlines included “Fell from a street car,” “Hurt by a street car,” “Crushed under a street car” and “Horse hit by street car.”
Answer Man experienced a weird deja vu when he saw this headline from 1899: “Street car enveloped in smoke.” The car was struggling to ascend a hill near Fifth and D streets NW when “the whole coach was suddenly illuminated by the incandescence of metal and fuses. . . . The car was enveloped in flames, and white smoke curled around the sides and rear.”
District streetcar passengers in the 19th century complained about conductors who seemed more interested in keeping to a schedule than in letting patrons board. In “peremptory and imperious tones,” The Post wrote, drivers would shout at customers to Move along and Get aboard.
Noted The Post: “It need hardly be said that such harangues from the conductor are offensive, and are duly resented by the victims.”
Worse were the “hogs,” those riders who took up more than one seat, or who took an outside seat and refused to budge when someone wanted to get to the empty inside seat. In 1898, a Post editorial decried the hogs, noting that many visitors to Washington were commenting upon “the rude and unmannerly behavior they encounter in the street cars and asking why it is that a community claiming such a high place in the scale of refinement and civilization presents in public so revolting an example of discourtesy and boorishness.”
The editorial writer decided that “we cannot answer these queries save by assuming that our population is essentially impolite and that its boasted good breeding is a humbug. It is impossible to enter a Washington street car . . . without being shocked by the prevalent rudeness of its inmates.”
Ouch. The more things change, huh?
Next week: The end of the line.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.