The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, April 13, 2012

5 Things About Richmond's Electric Trolley

The motorcade that led the last trolleys out of Richmond Nov 1949
Richmond, VA is proud of its trolley history.  Unfortunately, Richmond did not have the first in the world as many say, but we did have the first commercially successful electric trolley system in the US.  It ran from 1888-1949.  There is talk of conspiracies involving the car and bus manufacturers having a hand in killing the trolleys, but WWII is the only provable killer.  Routes were cut back, maintenance and upgrades were put off for the war effort and then the returning GI'S were more interested in driving their own cars then riding the trolleys.  The Richmond Trolley Company** has recently brought back a romantic reminiscence of the trolley.

Here are 5 interesting things about Richmond's trolleys.

1. The trolley system was designed by Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934).  He showed his potential for math and science in high school so his principal recommended he could get a free engineering degree if he went to West Point.  By mistake he took the entrance exam for Annapolis so he ended up in the Navy.

700 E Franklin St, Richmond, VA, VCU Library
2. The first paid customer on the famous electric trolley in Richmond, Va, was William A. Boswell who paid Conductor Walter Eubank $.05 to get on car No. 28 on Jan 9, 1888.

3. The building that still stands at 700 E Franklin St. was originally build as The Railway & Power Building.  The Railway & Power Company ran and powered the trolleys.  The company became VEPCO which became Dominion Power that still powers VA and beyond.  In 1913, when the 12 story building was built, it had decorative iron pipes on the roof's parapets that released stream, a pretty dramatic effect.

4. The shell of a building at the foot of 12th St, just past the Christopher Newport Cross on Richmond's Canal Walk was built after 1898 when the demand for power from the trolleys,  homes and industry increased.  Its hexagonal chimney for the boilers is said to be the first poured concrete industrial stack in the country.  The former hydroelectric plant is getting a make over by artist for the first annual  RVA Street Art Festival, April 12-15, 2012.

The Richmond Trolley Map in 1930, thanks to Church Hill People's News
5. In 1949, after the last electric trolley in Richmond  ran.  The cars were not recycled or even sold for scrap.  They were destroyed.  The last car, No. 408, was ceremoniously burned in a storage yard near Government Rd on Dec 15, 1949.

The info for this post comes from Rails in Richmond, by Carlton Norris McKenney.

**In the sake of disclosure I do work for a sister company of Richmond Trolley Company.

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  1. At one time in Richmond there was a trolley line that ran to Buckroe Beach on weekends from the old Lakeside Amusement Park. This is something that this company could bring back, especially for VCU/MCV students. A single round trip ticket could allow a rider to go and come back between specified hours, with an hour-and-a-half ride time, each way.

  2. I think there are a ton of lines they could bring back. I think most people would love to see the trolley again. How about a bus line? How about horses? I'll take any of it.
    Thanks for the comment. I may need to write something about that Buckroe Line. Did you ever ride it? I love hearing from people that actually rode these lines.

  3. How did he manage to apply to the wrong military academy? That's what I'd like to know!