Streetcars meant a smooth ride at last Advances: If horse-drawn cars on rails were an improvement, electric motor-powered streetcars were a marvel, and Baltimore was the testing ground for this new way to travel.

Way Back When

August 15, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On July 26, 1859, at 8 a.m., Baltimore entered the rapid transit age. At the foot of Broadway in Fells Point, a crowd gathered to watch the first horse-drawn streetcar pulled by eight stout gray horses go squealing over the rails toward downtown Baltimore.

To a public that had long been used to bone-jarring journeys in horse-drawn omnibuses that bounced and rattled over cobblestoned streets, the horse car traveling over smooth rails was a marked and vast improvement in public transportation.

And for the next 26 years, until Leo Daft, founder of the Daft Electric Co. in Greenville, N.J., began experimenting with the idea of adapting electric motors to power streetcars, horses continued to plod through the streets towing their horse-cars.

The Baltimore & Hampden, which had begun operation in 1876, needed mules to pull its cars. Its operating territory, a line that ran from Charles Street and Huntingdon Avenue (now 25th Street) to Roland Avenue and 36th Street in Hampden, was too hilly for horses.

T.C. Robbins, general manager of the Baltimore & Hampden, became acquainted with Daft when he observed an experimental electric railway with a third rail, or underground conduit for power between the tracks, operating at New York's Coney Island.

According to the late Michael R. Farrell, a Baltimore streetcar historian and author of "Who Made All Our Streetcars Go?" Robbins' Baltimore & Hampden, with tight curves and grades that rose 350 feet to the mile, was a natural for Daft's new system.

Farrell claimed that several of the road's directors were wary of Daft's system, being told by one skeptic: "The man who undertakes to operate this section by electricity in the present state of the art is either a knave or a fool."

By March 1885, two dynamos for the generation of electricity were installed in the car barn at Oak Street and Huntingdon Avenue (Howard and 25th streets today).

Voltage created by the dynamos traveled through the third rail to motors in smaller motorcars that towed the larger passenger coaches.

The new system was ready for operation. On August 10, 1885, despite warm temperatures and the threat of showers, a crowd of 500 gathered to witness the new contraption in operation.

"The electric motor on the Hampden Railroad made about 20 trips yesterday afternoon from the Huntingdon Avenue stables to Mount Vernon, a distance of 1 1/2 miles. The speed was 12 miles an hour," reported The Sun.

"The motor drew after it one of the large Catonsville cars loaded with people. Mr. Daft was at the helm during the trips and supervised everything. Both he and Mr. Robbins, the superintendent, were delighted with the success. No accident occurred during the trial trips," the newspaper report concluded.

By the next year, the line was carrying some 29,000 passengers a month.

According to historian Farrell, despite the potential danger of the high-powered third rail, there were no electrocution deaths from people coming in contact with it.

"Of course, the electricity could provide quite a jolt, and did prove fatal to some livestock," he wrote. "To offset this danger to animals, the company placed wooden scantlings (timbers) around the live rail, somewhat in the manner of modern third-rail practice."

Just three years later, though, the Daft system was rendered obsolete. In 1889, Frank Sprague developed the overhead trolley electrification system that is still commonly used to power streetcars.

"Many years later, Frank Sprague, who was by then recognized as the father of the streetcar, cited [the Daft system] as a case 'in which those who are strong in the faith were willing to take great risks.' In the same speech, Sprague also said, 'I believe this was the first regularly operated electric road in the country,' " wrote Farrell.

The Hampden line was consolidated into the United Railways and Electric Co. in 1899. At its peak during the 1920s, United Railways operated 35 routes with more than 400 miles of track and 1,300 streetcars.

Today, at the corner of Howard and 25th streets, visitors can read a plaque that commemorates the event:

"THE FIRST ELECTRIC RAILWAY IN AMERICA. Built for regular passenger service. Started operation from this point August 10, 1885."

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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