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What was it like when streetcars were ‘fundamental’ to Charlotte?

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When Charlotte’s streetcars made their debut in 1887, they were touted as the latest thing and as proof that this town, which then had a population of less than 10,000, was on the move.

By the time their initial Charlotte run ended in 1938, the streetcars had become symbols of the past with no place in a city, then home to nearly 100,000 people, that was eager to get to the future.

Observer reader Clifford Roemer wondered about this half-century of Charlotte streetcars — a time when they were not only a major form of local transportation but also the reason “streetcar suburbs” like Dilworth and Elizabeth popped up.

So Roemer posed a question to Curious NC, a joint venture between The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to submit questions about North Carolina for our reporters to answer.

His question: “What did the street car system in Charlotte look like?”

For starters, Charlotte’s first streetcars were pulled by mules and later horses, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. These boxy “horsecars,” traveled along “street railroads.”

“Running along rails (embedded into the street) eliminated most of the friction,” the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association in New York explains in its history of the streetcar, “allowing horses to pull a much greater load with a lot less effort.”

In Charlotte, there was an inaugural run of the streetcars on Jan. 1, 1887, according to the local Historic Landmarks Commission. It started at the Richmond and Danville Railroad Station on West Trade Street, went east to “Independence Square” — the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets at the heart of uptown — and then continued south on Tryon to Morehead Street.

“It was a lively scene in Charlotte yesterday afternoon as the first streetcar came rolling up Trade St.,” reported The Charlotte Daily Chronicle, which added that the crowd of about 1,000 at the Square “cheered vociferously.”

Two days later, three streetcars, each of them 12-seaters pulled by two mules, began regular service, carrying Charlotteans to their jobs and to social events. Charlotte city officials told the Charlotte Street Railway Company — the firm operating the streetcars — that it could charge a fare of no more than 5 cents.

Horses later took over as streetcars’ beasts of burden. And Charlotte, a big booster town even then, seemed to have an especially high opinion of these local creatures. In 1889, The Charlotte Chronicle bragged that “the best street car horses in America are right here in Charlotte.”

In Charlotte’s first year of streetcars, ridership totaled 132,721 and gross revenue was $6,636.25, according to the Historic Landmarks Commission.

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Observer File Photo

‘Streetcar suburbs’

Less than five years later, the horses and mules were replaced by electricity. And the new trolley cars — a subset of streetcars that were powered by an overhead electric wire — would become even more indispensable to Charlotteans and their fast-growing city.

“They were not at all a novelty,” said historian Dan Morrill, one of the city’s leading experts on Charlotte’s past. “They were fundamental to getting to work, and just getting around.”

Enter the Four C’s — local shorthand at the time for the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company, led by Edward Dilworth Latta. A clothier who had become a real estate developer, Latta saw the electric streetcar as a way to grow the city. And it did.

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Observer File Photo

In February 1891, according to the Historic Landmarks Commission, the Four C’s inked a $40,000 deal with the Edison Electric Company to build a trolley system.

Three months later, with heavier tracks in place, it was ready to roll. At first, there were two lines: One began at the railroad depot on West Trade Street and ended at McDowell Street. The other one started at the Carolina Central Railroad Depot on North Tryon Street and extended to Latta Park in Dilworth — the city’s first streetcar suburb, with an amusement park and residential lots for sale at the end of the line.

Latta’s company extended streetcar lines to the outskirts of the city, stimulating residential development, Morrill said, in places like Elizabeth and Biddlesville.

Washington Heights was the first African-American streetcar suburb in Charlotte — and maybe the South, said historian Walter Turner of the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation. But racial segregation was still the law. So to get home on a streetcar, Morrill said, black Charlotteans had to sit in the rear. And that meant changing seats at the end of the line, when the back of the streetcar suddenly became the front of the streetcar on the return route.

‘Rich Yankees’

In 1910, the Southern Power Co. — a utility started five years before by tobacco tycoon James B. Duke — won a streetcar franchise in Charlotte, according to the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation. Soon after that, Latta sold his trolley company to Southern Power (later Duke Power) for $1.2 million. By then, it had laid down 13 miles of tracks and operated 39 trolley cars.

Around this time, streetcars were getting new competition from Model-T Fords, the first cars that were affordable to the middle class.

Still, the streetcars kept changing Charlotte, turning it into a bigger and more urban place. Farms were turned into residential areas served by trolleys. The Myers farm was turned into Myers Park, a “lavish, sophisticated” suburb, in the words of the Historical Landmarks Commission. By 1912, a trolley line ran along Queens Road to what is now Queens University of Charlotte.

A Charlotte postcard from 1911 shows a trolley stopping in front of The Manufacturer’s Club, which was founded by D.A. Tompkins, a builder and owner of cotton mills and a one-time owner of the Charlotte Observer. According to the Historic Landmarks Commission, “rich Yankees” visiting Charlotte on business would get off the train at the Southern Railway station and take a streetcar to Tompkins’ club, “where (he) would wine and dine them.”

To take crowds of people to sporting events, streetcars were hooked together. In the hot summer months., there were “convertible cars” with open sides. And, Morrill said, there was even a “hearse car” that would carry coffins to Charlotte’s Elmwood Cemetery.

Each streetcar had a motorman, who operated it and decided on the right speed, and a conductor, who collected fares and announced stops, according to the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation.

These early trolley staffers worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, and made just pennies an hour — 8 cents an hour to start and 12 cents after a few years. According to the museum foundation’s account, when Latta ran the streetcar system, employees got one work holiday a year: Christmas.

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‘Out of date’

By the 1930s, with Charlotte getting ever-bigger and cars speeding along a growing network of roads, streetcars were seen as out-of-date — “yesterday’s method of getting around,” said Morrill.

Gasoline was cheap then. And General Motors wanted to sell buses to cities like Charlotte. Rubber tires, not tracks, were the new mode for getting where you needed to go.

In 1937, Duke Power and the City of Charlotte applied to the N.C. Utilities Commission to replace the trolleys with buses, according to the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Trading trolleys for buses, said then-City Council Member J.S. Nance, would be “one of the most progressive moves that Charlotte has made in quite a while.”

On March 14, 1938, Streetcar No. 85 — built in 1927 and the last streetcar to chug along Charlotte’s streets until many years later — made one last ride. It went from Presbyterian Hospital to Trade and Tryon, the site of a goodbye ceremony. It then headed for retirement at the car barn in Dilworth.

Epilogue: From 1996 to 2006, Charlotte brought No. 85 out of its long retirement for a regular daily run between SouthEnd and uptown.

And now Argos Real Estate Advisors plans to get a restored No. 85 back on the tracks yet again as part of its plans to transform historic Savona Mill in West End into a hub of stores, offices and residences. Hauling riders along a mile of still-existing track between the mill and Cedar Street, near Bank of America Stadium, will recreate what Argos President Greg Pappanastos calls “the trolley experience.”

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Tim Funk: 704-358-5703; @timfunk

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