The first streetcars in Washington D.C. were drawn by horses and carried people short distances on flat terrain; but the introduction of cleaner and faster electric streetcars, capable of climbing steeper inclines, opened up the hilly suburbs north of the old city and in Anacostia. Several of the District's streetcar lines were extended into Maryland, and two Virginia lines crossed into the District. For a brief time, the city experimented with cable cars, but by the beginning of the 20th century, the streetcar system was fully electrified. A bit later, the extensive mergers dubbed the "Great Streetcar Consolidation" gathered most local transit firms into two major companies. In 1933, all streetcars were brought under one company, Capital Transit. The streetcars began to scale back with the rising popularity of the automobile and pressure to switch to buses. After a strike in 1955, the company changed ownership and became DC Transit, with explicit instructions to switch to buses. The system was dismantled in the early 1960s and the last streetcar ran on January 28, 1962.
Today. streetcars, car barns, trackage, stations and right-of way of the system still exists in various states of usage.
The next attempt at public transit arrived in the spring of 1830, when Gilbert Vanderwerken's Omnibuses, horse-drawn wagons, began running from Georgetown to the Navy Yard. The company maintained stables on M Street NW. These lines were later extended down 11th Street SE to the waterfront and up 7th Street NW to L Street NW. Vanderwerken's success attracted competitors, who added new lines, but by 1854, all omnibuses had come under the control of two companies, "The Union Line" and "The Citizen's Line." In 1860, these two merged under the control of Vanderwerken and continued to operate until they were run out of business by the next new technology: streetcars.
The company ran the first streetcar in Washington D.C. from the Capitol to the State Department starting on July 29, 1862. It expanded to full operations from the Navy Yard to Georgetown on October 2, 1862. Another line opened on November 15, 1862. It was built along 7th Street NW from N Street NW to the Potomac River and expanded to the Arsenal (now Fort McNair) in 1875. A third line ran down 14th Street NW from Boundary Street NW (now Florida Avenue) to the Treasury Building. In 1863 the 7th Street line was extended north to Boundary Street NW.
By 1888, it had built additional lines down 4th Street NW/SW to P Street SW, and on East Capitol Street to 9th Street.
This was followed almost immediately by the Herdic Phaeton Company. The electric streetcar, however, was too much for the company to compete with and when its principal stockholder died in 1896, it ceased operations.
After the Herdic Company went under, the Metropolitan Coach Company began running horse-drawn coaches in conjunction with the Metropolitan Railroad, carrying passengers from 16th and T Streets NW to 22nd and G Streets NW. It began operations on May 1, 1897 with a car barn at 1914 E Street NW. In 1904, it became its own corporation.
Horsecars, though an improvement over horse drawn wagons, were slow, dirty and inefficient. Horses needed to be housed and fed, created large amounts of waste, had difficulty climbing hills and were difficult to dispose of. Almost as soon as they were instituted, companies began looking for alternatives. For example, the Washington and Georgetown experimented with a steam motor car in the 1870s and 1880's which was run on Pennsylvania Avenue NW near the Capitol several times, but was never placed in permanent use.
In 1883, Frank Sprague an 1878 Naval Academy graduate, resigned from the Navy to work for Thomas Edison. He wound up in Richmond, Virginia where, on February 2, 1888 he put into service the first electric-powered streetcar system. After 1888, many cities, including Washington, turned to electric-powered streetcars. To get electricity to the streetcars from the powerhouse where it was generated, an overhead wire was installed over city streets. A streetcar would touch this electric wire with a long pole (a "trolley" pole) on its roof. Back at the powerhouse, big steam engines would turn huge generators to produce the electricity needed to operate the streetcars. A new name was soon developed for streetcars powered by electricity in this manner; they were called trolley cars.
By 1888, Washington was expanding north of Boundary Street NW into the hills of Washington Heights and Petworth. Boundary Street was becoming such a misnomer that in 1890 it was renamed Florida Avenue. Climbing the hills to the new parts of the city was difficult for horses, but electric streetcars could do it easily. In the year following the successful demonstration of the Richmond streetcar, four electric streetcar companies were incorporated in Washington D.C. The Eckington and Soldiers' Home Railway was the first to charter, on June 19, 1888, and started operation on October 17. Its tracks started at 7th Street and New York Avenue NW, east of Mount Vernon Square, and traveled 2.5 miles to the Eckington Car Barn at 4th and T Streets NE via Boundary Street NE, Eckington Place NE, R Street NE, 3rd Street NE and T Street NE. Another line ran up 4th Street NE to Michigan Avenue NE. A one-week pass cost $1.25. In 1889, the line was extended along T Street NE, 2nd Street NE and V Street NE to Glenwood Cemetery, but the extension proved unprofitable and was closed in 1894. At the same time, an extension was built along Michigan Avenue NE to the B&O railroad tracks. In 1895, the company removed its overhead trolley lines in accordance with its charter and attempted to replace them with batteries. These proved too costly and the company replaced them with horses in the central city. In 1896, Congress directed the Eckington and Soldier's Home to try compressed air motors and to substitute underground electric power for all its horse and overhead trolley lines in the city. The compressed-air motors were a failure and in 1899 the company switched to the standard underground electric power conduit.
Using electricity from the power plant built to power its cable operation, the Columbia won permission in 1898 to build a line east along Benning Road NE, splitting on the east side of the Anacostia. One branch ran to Kenilworth, and the other connected at Seat Pleasant with the terminus of the steam-powered Chesapeake Beach Railroad.
The Washington and Arlington Railway Company was the first Virginia company given permission to operate in Washington. It was incorporated on February 28, 1892 with the right to run a streetcar from the train station at 6th Street NW and B Street NW to Virginia across a new Three Sisters Bridge. It was also allotted space in the Georgetown Car Barn. The company was never able to construct the new bridge, and so never operated in Washington.
The Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Electric Railway Company started construction in Virginia in 1892. On August 23, 1894 it was given permission to enter the District of Columbia using a ferry. It completed its tracks in 1896 and began serving a waiting station at 14th Street NW and B Street NW. From the waiting station it used the Belt Line's track on 14th Street to reach the Long Bridge, a combined road and rail crossing of the Potomac River, never opting to use the ferry system. The Jefferson Davis Highway was later relocated from the rail alignment to a new through-truss crossing, immediately west of the Long Bridge. This original highway span was removed in the early 1970s.
In 1902 its station was moved to 12th Street NW and D Street NW (near the site of the present Federal Triangle Metro station) to make room for the District Building. On October 17, 1910 the Washington and Arlington, by then the Washington, Arlington and Falls Church Railroad Company, and the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon merged to form the Washington - Virginia Railway Company. The company had difficulty competing and in 1924 declared bankruptcy. In 1927 the two companies were split and sold at auction. The former Washington, Arlington and Falls Church reemerged as the Arlington and Fairfax Electric Railway Company and continued to serve the city on the Washington-Virginia route until January 17, 1932, when the Mt. Vernon Memorial Highway (now the George Washington Memorial Parkway) opened.
The Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad Company was chartered January 24, 1900 and authorized to enter the District on January 29, 1903. It crossed over the Aqueduct Bridge and terminated at a station immediately west of the Georgetown Car Barn. In 1912, it was incorporated into the new Washington and Old Dominion Railway and became the Great Falls Division of that company.
By the mid-1890s, there were numerous streetcar companies operating in the District. Congress tried to deal with this fractured transit system by requiring them to accept transfers, set standard pricing and by allowing them to use one another's track. But eventually, lawmakers settled on consolidation as the best solution.
On March 1, 1895, Congress authorized the Rock Creek to purchase the Washington and Georgetown on Sept. 21, producing the Capital Traction Company. In 1916 Capital Traction took ownership of the Washington and Maryland and its 2.591 miles of track.
After Capital Traction's powerhouse at 14th and E NW burned down on September 29, 1897, the company replaced the cable cars with an electric system. The 14th Street branch switched to electric power on February 27, 1898, the Pennsylvania Avenue division on April 20, 1898 and the 7th Street branch on May 26, 1898.
The Anacostia and Potomac River began expanding on June 24, 1898, by purchasing the Belt Railway; the next year, it bought the Capital Railway.
Later that year, the Eckington and Soldier's Home purchased the Maryland and Washington. On June 27, 1898, the new, combined company changed its name to the City and Suburban Railway of Washington. Later that year, it bought the Columbia and Maryland, which ran running from Mount Rainier to Laurel
Between 1896 and 1899, three businessmen purchased controlling interests in the Metropolitan; the Columbia; the Anacostia and Potomac River; the Georgetown and Tennallytown; the Washington, Woodside and Forest Glen; the Washington and Great Falls; and the Washington and Rockville railway companies, in addition to the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and the United States Electric Lighting Company. They incorporated the Washington Traction and Electric Company on June 5, 1899 as a holding company for these interests. But the holding company had borrowed too heavily and paid too much for the subsidiaries and quickly landed in financial trouble. To prevent transit disruption, Congress on June 5, 1900, authorized the Washington and Great Falls to acquire the stock of any and all of the railways and power companies owned by Washington Traction. When Washington Traction defaulted on its loans on June 1, 1901, Washington and Great Falls moved in to take its place. On February 4, 1902, Washington and Great Falls changed its named to the Washington Railway and Electric Company, reincorporated as a holding company and exchanged stock in Washington Traction and Electric one for one for stock in the new company (at a discounted rate).
Not every company became a part of Washington Railway immediately. The City and Suburban and the Georgetown and Tennallytown operated as subsidiaries of Washington Railway until October 31, 1926 when it purchased the remainder of their stock.
During this time the streetcar companies continued to expand both trackage and service. The American Sight-Seeing Car and Coach Company started running tourist cars along Washington Railway streetcar tracks in 1902 and continued until it switched to large automobiles in 1904. In 1908, Washington Railway's U Street line was extended east down Florida Avenue NW/NE to 8th Street NE, and from there south down 8th Street NE/SE to the Navy Yard. On June 24, 1908 the first streetcars began service to Union Station along Delaware Avenue NE and by December 6 cars of both Capital Traction and Washington Railway were serving the building along Massachusetts Avenue NE.
In 1908, the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway began service from Washington to Baltimore and Annapolis. Though technically an interurban, this railway utilized streetcar tracks from its terminal at 15th and H Streets NE and across the Benning Road Bridge where it switched to its own tracks in Deanwood. It was the main source of transportation to Suburban Gardens, known as "the black Glen Echo", the first and only major amusement park within Washington.
The next major consolidation occurred on August 31, 1912 when the Washington Railway purchased the controlling stock of the Anacostia and Potomac River. This left only 6 companies operating in Washington - four of which had less than 3 miles of track. It also led to Congress passing the "Anti-Merger Act", prohibiting mergers without Congress' approval and establishing the Public Utilities Commission. In 1914 a failed attempt was made to have the Federal Government purchase all of the streetcar lines and companies.
Further consolidation came in the form of the North American Company, a transit and utilities holding company. North American began to acquire stock in Washington Railway in 1922, gaining a controlling interest by 1928. By December 31, 1933 it owned 50.016% of the voting stock. North American tried to purchase Capital Traction, but never owned more than 2.5% of Capital Traction stock.
The first threat to the streetcars came with the introduction of gasoline powered taxicabs. The taximeter, invented in 1891, combined with the combustion engine, created a new form of public transportation. Taxicabs were put into service in Paris in 1899, in New York in 1907 and in Washington in 1908. Over the years, their numbers expanded.
In 1909 the Metropolitan Coach Company began to switch from horse-drawn coaches to gasoline-powered coaches - replacing its entire system by 1913 - becoming a precursor to the bus companies. It was a financial failure though and on August 13, 1915 the company ceased operations.
The gasoline-powered bus was invented in Germany in 1895 and motorized buses were introduced in New York City in 1905. As improvements, such as balloon tires, were made, buses became more popular. The first formal bus company in Washington, the Washington Rapid Transit Company, was incorporated on January 20, 1921. By 1932 it was carrying 4.5% of transit customers. Two years later, the last streetcar line was built.
Just as the horse cars had replaced carriages and the electric streetcar replaced horse cars, so too were buses to replace the electric streetcars.
In 1923, the number of streetcar companies operating in Washington cut in half as three companies switched to buses. The East Washington Heights became the first streetcar company to switch, replacing its two streetcars and one mile of track with a bus line. The Washington Interurban switched next and its tracks were removed when Bladensburg Road was repaved. In that same year, the Key Bridge was constructed and, as a result, the Washington and Old Dominion gave up rail access to D.C. in exchange for a terminal in Rosslyn.
When electric streetcars began, several lines also delivered freight on rail cars running on their lines. Capital Traction abandoned this service in 1931.
In 1932, the Arlington and Fairfax Motor Transportation Company was established to replace the streetcar service of the Arlington and Fairfax which lost the right to use the Highway Bridge. The last Arlington and Fairfax streetcar departed from 12th Street NW and D Street NW, on January 17, 1932, abandoning all streetcar service in the city.
In the summer of 1935 - after consolidation, several major lines were converted from streetcars to buses. The line from Friendship Heights to Rockville (formerly the Washington and Rockville), the P Street line (Metropolitan), the Anacostia-Congress Heights line (Capital Railway) and the Connecticut Avenue line in Chevy Chase (Rock Creek) were all replaced with buses. At the same time, the Chesapeake Beach Railroad and the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis interurban ceased operations. The rail of the WB&A become the property of Capital Transit.
With further bustitution, the Columbia Railway Company Car Barn was converted to a bus barn in 1942.
On December 1, 1933 Washington Railway, Capital Traction, and Washington Rapid Transit merged to form the Capital Transit Company. Washington Railway continued as a holding company, owning 50% of Capital Transit and 100% of PEPCO, but Capital Traction was dissolved. For the first time, street railways in Washington were under the management of one company.
Capital Transit made several changes. As part of the merger, the Capital Traction generating plant in Georgetown was closed (and, in 1943, decommissioned) and Capital Transit used only conventionally-supplied electric power. In 1935, it closed several lines and replaced them with bus service. Because the Rockville line in Maryland was one of the lines that was closed, the Capital Transit Community Terminal was opened at Wisconsin Avenue NW and Western Avenue NW on August 4, 1935. At the same time, the car barn on the west side of Wisconsin at Ingomar was razed and replaced with the Western Bus Garage. In 1936, the system introduced route numbers. On August 28, 1937 the first PCC streetcars began running on 14th Street NW. By early 1946, the company would place in service 489 of the streamlined, modern PCC model and, in the early 1950s, become the first in the nation to have an all-PCC fleet. (Here's a General Electric ad about PCC cars in Washington)
During the 1930s, city newspapers began pushing for streetcar tunneling. The Capitol Subway was built in 1906 and three years later, the Washington Post called for a citywide subway to be built. Nothing happened until Capital Transit took over. The full $35 million plan to depress streets as trenches for exclusive streetcar use never materialized, but in 1942 an underground loop terminal was built at 14th and C Streets SW under the Bureau of Engraving and on December 14, 1949, the Connecticut Avenue subway tunnel under Dupont Circle, running from N Street to R Street, was opened.
At first, business was good for the new company. During World War II, gasoline rationing limited automobile use, but transit companies were exempt from the rationing. Meanwhile, wage freezes held labor costs in check. With increased revenue and steady costs, Capital Transit conservatively built up a $7 million cash reserve. In 1945 Capital Transit had America’s 3rd largest streetcar fleet.(A map of the system in 1948)
In 1946, a decision by the United States Supreme Court in North American Company v. Security and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court upheld the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 and forced the North American Company, because it also owned the Potomac Electric Power Company, to sell its shares of Capital Transit. Buyers were hard to come by, but on September 12, 1949, Louis Wolfson and his three brothers purchased from North American 46.5% of the company's stock for $20 per share and the Washington Railway was dissolved. For $2.2 million they bought a company with $7 million in cash. The Wolfson's began paying themselves huge dividends until, in 1955, the war chest was down to $2.7 million. During the same period, transit trips dropped by 40,000 trips per day and automobile ownership doubled.
On December 29, 1954, Capital Transit lost one of its last freight customers when the East Washington Railway took over the delivery of coal from the B&O to the PEPCO Power plant at Benning. Previously this had been done using Capital Transit's steeple-cab electric locomotives operating over a remnant of the Benning car line.
In January 1955 the Capital Transit Company, then consisting of 750 buses and 450 streetcars, sought permission for a fare increase, but was denied. So that spring, when employees asked for a raise, there was no money available and the company refused to increase pay. Frustrated, employees went on strike on July 1, 1955. The strike, only the third in D.C. history and the first since a three day strike in 1945, lasted for seven weeks. Commuters were forced to hitch rides and walk in the brutal summer heat.
On July 18, 1956, after Wolfson dared the Senate to revoke his franchise claiming no other entrepreneur would take the company on, the Congress did just that. Months later, the franchise was sold to O. Roy Chalk, a New York financier who owned controlling interest in Trans Caribbean Airways, for $13.5 million. The company's name was then changed to DC Transit.
The remaining system, including lines to the Navy Yard, the Colorado Avenue terminal, and the Bureau of Engraving (Routes 50, 54) and to the Calvert Street Loop, Barney Circle, and Union Station (Routes 90, 92) was shut down in January 1962. Early on the morning of Sunday, January 28, 1962, preceded by cars 1101 and 1053, car 766 entered the Navy Yard Car Barn for the last time, and Washington's streetcars became history.
Of the hundreds of streetcars that once plied the streets of Washington, there are only about 20 remaining. Of these only one, Capital Transit 1551, is still in daily transit use. One of the 15 sold to Fort Worth, it was repainted and transferred to the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority in 2002 where it provides part-time regular streetcar service along the streets of Dallas. The only other car still in use, a Capital Transit PCC car sold to Sarajevo, has been restored and operates in charter service in Sarajevo.
Others serve as museum pieces. The only Washington streetcar still in the District is Capital Traction 303 which serves as an exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Washington and Georgetown 212 is also preserved by the Smithsonian, but stored in the Smithsonian's facility in Suitland, MD. Seven more, including D.C. Transit 1101 and 1540, Capital Transit 509, 522, 766 and 1430, and Washington Railway 650, are preserved at the National Capital Trolley Museum in the Washington suburbs. Three other cars owned by the Trolley Museum were lost in a fire on September 28, 2003 Farther from D.C., D.C. Transit 1470 is kept at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia, Capital Transit 09 is at Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania, Capital Transit 010 is maintained at the Connecticut Trolley Museum and D.C. Transit 1304 is kept at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, ME. Three of the Ft. Worth cars are held in storage by North Texas Historic Transportation with plans to place them in yet-to-be-built museum. Finally, two of the Barcelona cars are privately owned and stored in Madrid, Spain and Ejea de los Caballeros, Spain, and another two are in the del Transport in Castellar de n'Hug, Spain (Photo of one).
In other places, the track was buried under pavement. The loop tracks of the former Capitol Transit connection, behind the closed restaurant on Calvert Street NW, immediately east of the Duke Ellington Bridge, are extant under asphalt. The tracks on Florida Avenue also exist under pavement (as evidenced by the eternal seam above the conduit). Tracks also exist under Ellington Place NE, 3rd Street NE and 8th Street SE among others.
Other car barns were demolished.
A few stations and terminals have survived. Sometime after conversion of the Mt. Pleasant Line in December 1961, the Dupont Circle streetcar stations were used as a civil defense storage area for a few years and then left empty again. The space was once considered for a columbarium — a storage place for ashes of the dead. In 1993 one of the stations was opened as a food court called DuPont Down Under, but after only 18 months it closed and the space has been vacant ever since. In 2007, D.C. Council member Jim Graham began consideration of a suggestion to allow adult-themed clubs to move into the property.
The Colorado Avenue Terminal on 14th Street NW is still in use as a Metrobus stop and the Calvert Street loop just east of the Duke Ellington Bridge is still used as a Metrobus turnaround loop.
The streetcar turnaround at 11th and Monroe NW is now the 11th and Monroe Streets Park.
The C Street NW/NE tunnel beneath the Upper Senate Park remained in use as a one-way service road adjacent to the Capital, but since 9/11 it has been closed to the public.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing underground loop is now part of a parking structure and storage area that is located directly underneath 14th Street SW. Tracks can still be seen in the floors in some locations of the Bureau.
The right-of-way of the Glen Echo line is extant from the Georgetown Car Barn all the way to the Dalecarlia Reservoir filtration plant. It includes an abutment near an entrance to Georgetown University, a trestle over Foundry Branch in Glover Archibald Park, a bridge over Arizona Avenue NW, between Dorsett Place NW and Sherier Place NW and the median of Sherier Place NW from Cathedral Avenue NW to Manning Place NW. Part of the right-of-way on the Georgetown campus was removed in the spring of 2007 to create a turning lane off of Canal Road NW.
The wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue SE from the Capitol to Barney Circle was built in 1903 to serve as a streetcar right of way. It now serves as urban greenspace.
Still other remnants include the Potomac Electric Power Company, the electric portion of Washington Traction and Electric Company, which remains the D.C. area's primary electrical power company; some streetcar-related manhole covers that remain in use around town; and two trolley poles for Capital Traction's overhead wires on the Connecticut Avenue Bridge over Klingle Valley in Cleveland Park. The poles likely date back to the bridge's construction in 1931.