As it were

Streetcar history could repeat itself

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For most of the last 30 years or so, American historians have been strongly influenced by the notion that the streetcar changed the way Americans lived about 100 years ago.

The general theory goes something like this: Until the late nineteenth century, most American cities were "walking cities." People walked to work; they walked to school; they walked to the market: they walked to church; they walked to visit friends.

If someone was a person of means and an appointment was some distance away, one went to the stable, had a servant hitch the horse to the carriage and drive to the meeting. And then one had to return home, unhitch the horse, rub down and feed the horse, and clean off the carriage. All of this meant that most people walked most of their time to most of their commitments.

And then the streetcar came along and changed everything. Now one could board a streetcar and for a small sum -- a penny or two -- be transported to another part of town. And that was probably true -- as far it goes.

Let's look at Columbus as an example.

In 1863, the first streetcar appeared on the streets of Columbus. The horse-drawn, one-car conveyance transported travelers along High Street from the Railroad Station (at Nationwide Boulevard) to the Courthouse at Mound Street. Since the Civil War was underway and there were a lot of new people in town besides the usual 18,000 residents, the new streetcar was a success.

After the war, the success of the streetcar was not all that certain. The High Street line remained viable as a number of new streetcar lines came into being and competed with the original High Street line. This was not as easy as one might think. Unlike cab or omnibus lines, the streetcar lines required metal tracks. That having been said, a number of people saw money in this new form of transportation and formed syndicates to finance the new lines. Over the years after 1863, Columbus saw the development of several different streetcar lines serving various neighborhoods around the city.

Generally they were not very successful.

The reasons why were not hard to find. The early streetcars were open carriages. They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. They were horse drawn and were rather slow. And the horses left occasional deposits not all that refreshing to smell as the car moved over them.

Then things changed - rather rapidly.

In 1888, an experimental electric streetcar operated from High Street to the Ohio State Fairgrounds as part of the Columbus Centennial celebration. It was temporary but was quite popular.

In short order, other streetcar companies in Columbus began to experiment as well. For example, the Glenwood and Greenlawn Street Railway Company operated from High Street to the institutions on the Hilltop.

Over the years of the 1890s, several local streetcar companies were absorbed into a new and larger streetcar company The Columbus Consolidated Street Railway Company soon became the Columbus Street Railway Company. By 1893, the local electric streetcar company and the local electric company were merged into the Columbus Railway and Light Company.

In a major move, the local company purchased the Central Market Street Railway and its options to buy lines in Westerville and points east. By 1904, the company had become the Columbus Railway Power and Light Company.

Over the next several years, the new company went through a number of important events. In the years after the 1913 flood, the streetcar became the primary way to get from place to place in Columbus.

And it was in those years that the streetcar became an important economic engine for Columbus. The streetcar became the way people moved from one place to another. It was fast and easy and cheap. And it was the way most of the "new middle-class people" preferred to get from place to place.

The streetcar system served Columbus well for many years. But in the years after World War II, it soon became obsolete. With the development of national, state and local paved "good roads", a new model of urban transportation favored cars, buses and trucks as the primary means of getting around. The last streetcar run in Columbus was on Sept. 5, 1948.

With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s it soon was often assumed that the electrified streetcar had no place in this new world of transportation. Or at least so it seemed.

It was only in the first years of the new millennium that we began to realize that the electrified streetcar might make a return to our modern world. Streetcars made sense once and they very well might be with us again in the not all that distant future.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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