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Streetcars of Charlotte

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

This photograph appears courtesy of Charlotte Trolley, Inc.

A Brief History Of Streetcars In Charlotte
The Return Of The Trolley
Charlotte's First Streetcars: Mule-Drawn and Horse-Drawn

A Brief History Of Streetcars In Charlotte

The growth and expansion of Charlotte in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were intimately bound up with the installation and development of its streetcar network. Streetcars initially appeared in Charlotte in January 1887, when a horse-drawn, later mule-drawn, system commenced operations. It was the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company, locally known as the Four Cs, which truly revolutionized the transportation system of Charlotte, however. In February 1891, the Four Cs signed a $40,000 contract with the Edison Electric Company to construct an electric streetcar or trolley system. Work began in March and terminated on May 18, 1891, when the first trolley departed from Independence Square, the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets in the heart of Charlotte. The system consisted of two lines, one from the Richmond and Danville Railroad Depot on W. Trade St. to McDowell St. on the eastern edge of the city and another from the Carolina Central Railroad Depot on N. Tryon St. to Latta Park in Dilworth, the streetcar suburb that the Four Cs opened on May 20, 1891.

The accessibility of residential property to the trolley system became indispensable for successful real estate ventures in Charlotte after 1891. The initial expansion of the electric streetcar network occurred in September 1900, when a line opened which extended through Fourth Ward to Elmwood Cemetery on the western edge of the city. In May 1901, the Four Cs began service on a line which meandered through First Ward or the northeastern quadrant of Charlotte. In March 1902, trolleys initiated service to Piedmont Park, Charlotteís second streetcar suburb. On December 13, 1902, the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company opened a streetcar line that extended approximately three-fourths of a mile from the intersection of East Ave. (now East Trade St.) and McDowell St. along Elizabeth Ave. to a point three hundred feet west of the main building of Elizabeth Ave. (the present site of Presbyterian Hospital), thereby providing a powerful impetus for the growth of Elizabeth as an affluent residential district.

The Elizabeth College streetcar line enhanced the prospects for real estate development in the surrounding countryside, including the farms along Providence Rd. In 1911, George Stephens became the founder and president of the Stephens Company, a real estate firm committed to transforming the Myers farm and certain contiguous parcels into a lavish, sophisticated suburb. Among the essential amenities of Myers Park was a streetcar line. Grading for the route was well underway by February 1912, and trolleys began serving the neighborhood on September 1, 1912. The Myers Park line branched off from the Elizabeth College line at the intersection of Elizabeth Ave. and what is now Hawthorne Ln., and extended southward into the suburb, entering Myers Park at the intersection of E. Fourth St. and Queens Rd.

Streetcar No. 85 is now running between Uptown Charlotte and Dilworth. It was built in the Dilworth Trolley Barn at Bland St. and South Blvd. in 1927 and continued in service until March, 1938. It was the last streetcar to operate on the streets of Charlotte and was the centerpiece at a "Goodbye To Trolleys"; Ceremony at the Square that same month. Many of Charlotte's streetcars were sold for scrap or turned into hot dog stands or lake houses. Some were sold to Bogota, Colombia. There are two Charlotte streetcars in Lincolnton, where they have been turned into an office building. No. 85 was hauled to Douglas Airport and served as the office of the Air National Guard. It then went to Caldwell Station near Cornelius and became a convenience store in the 1940's. I first learned about Streetcar 85 in 1986. It was being used as a house and was about to be scrapped. The Historic Landmarks Commission raised over $200,000 to restore No. 85. It was transported to the Atherton Mill Complex in October 1993, and began running along the Norfolk Southern Railroad line to Uptown Charlotte in August 1996. Hopefully, a bridge will be built over Stonewall Street, so that the streetcar line can extend through the Convention Center and run through Second Ward and First Ward to the Seaboard Station on North Tryon St.

The Return Of The Trolley

The return of trolley service to Charlotte began in 1981. That's when the Historic Landmarks Commission decided to send Dan Morrill on a tour of vintage trolley lines throughout the United States. Morrill visited Chattanooga, Tenn., Philadelphia, Penn., Lowell, Mass., Detroit, Mich., and Dallas, Texas, all of which had streetcars still running. Morrill returned to Charlotte and convinced the Historic Landmarks Commission to become an advocate for a trolley line in Charlotte. Consultants were brought to town, and Mayor Harvey Gantt formed a Task Force to study the idea. Unfortunately, City Council voted to spend no money on a trolley study, and the idea seemed dead.

Morrill visited with Jim Clay, who was overseeing the Cityfair Project in Uptown Charlotte, and obtained a commitment to contribute $80,000 to purchase and restore a vintage streetcar. This was truly an audacious idea, because there was no track on which to run streetcars in Charlotte. A trolley was located in Greece, purchased by Jim Clay's company, shipped to Connecticut and restored. It was hauled by truck to Charlotte in 1989. The Historic Landmarks Commission purchased the Greek trolley when Jim Clay's company went out of business.

Meanwhile, Morrill had been working with Lew Powell of the Charlotte Observer to locate an original Charlotte streetcar. Two were found in Lincolnton and one near Rockingham. None was worth restoring. In 1987, Charlotte-Mecklenburg planner Carl Flick contacted Morrill about a streetcar he had located at the end of David St. in Huntersville. The Historic Landmarks Commission bought the car for $1000, had it hauled to Charlotte, and began the process of raising the money to restore the trolley. Work began in May, 1989 in a fenced area immediately behind Discovery Place. In 1990 the trolley was moved to the old City Bus Barn on North Brevard St. where restoration was completed. In October, 1993 the car was moved to the Atherton Mill Complex in Dilworth, along with the streetcar from Greece, which was now named Streetcar No. 1. During restoration, it had been discovered that the Charlotte streetcar was No. 85, the last streetcar to operate in Charlotte -- in March, 1938.

In 1994 trolley service began on a railroad siding at the Atherton Mill Complex, and service opened between there and Stonewall St. in August, 1996. The trolley has been a rousing success. But the greatest potential for the trolley is in the future, when service is extended across Stonewall St. and into Uptown Charlotte. You can ride Streetcar 85 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The carbarn at the Atherton Mill Complex can be rented for parties. For information call Charlotte Trolley at 375-0850.

Charlotte's First Streetcars: Mule-Drawn and Horse-Drawn

On January 26, 1883, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the incorporation of the Charlotte Street Railway Company "to make, construct, equip, maintain and operate lines of street railways . . . within the corporate limits of the city of Charlotte."l Soon thereafter, on February 19, 1883, the Charlotte Board of Aldermen passed a resolution empowering Mayor F. S. DeWolfe to act on its behalf in entering into an agreement with the newly established streetcar company, which was headed by lawyer Thomas M. Pittman as president, S. H. HiIton as vice president, and E. K. P. Osborne, an attorney and member of the Board of Aldermen, as secretary and treasurer.2 On June llth the Board referred the matter instead to its Street Committee, which issued its recommendation regarding the streetcar contract to the Board of Aldermen on February 11, 1884.3 The contract, which was finally adopted on April 14th, was most generous. The Charlotte Street Railway Company had to pay nothing for its non-exclusive right-of-way on the streets of Charlotte and received an exemption from City taxes on the condition "that said company shall complete and have in operation one line of railway, on or before February the llth, 1886."4 These events of 1883-84 mark the inauguration of the 55-year history of streetcars in Charlotte, first as horse-drawn or mule-drawn vehicles and, after May, 1891, as electric streetcars or trolleys. For more than five decades the streetcar system was an essential component of the local transportation infrastructure and, especially during its first 30 years, had a profound impact on the physical growth and expansion of the city. Indeed, the evolution of Charlotte from a small town of less than 10,000 inhabitants in the 1880's to a regional urban center of almost 100,000 in the 1930's is understandable only when one takes into account the influence of Charlotte's streetcars and the tracks along which they traveled.5

It was not until 1885 that the first serious attempt to get streetcars rolling in Charlotte transpired. On August 30, 1885, the Daily Charlotte Observer announced that Dr. J. R. Zearing, representing a group of investors with headquarters in Chicago, had stated the day before that he was seeking to acquire the charter from Thomas M. Pittman and his associates to establish a horse-drawn streetcar system in Charlotte.6 "The interest manifested by our citizens in the proposed establishment of street car lines is surprisingly great," the newspaper proclaimed on September 3rd.7 By the middle of September, 1885, after visiting Charlotte and journeying to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Zearing, armed with "letters from some of the leading citizens of a most encouraging character," traveled to Chicago and attempted to convince his associates to obtain the Charlotte streetcar charter and proceed with the project.8 "Our people are getting impatient to ride on his cars," said the Daily Charlotte Observer on September 16th.9 Anticipation and excitement increased almost to the point of disbelief in Charlotte on September 29th, when the local press told its readers:

"The news that Charlotte is to have a first class line of street cars was too good for many of our people to believe, but, now, when they hear that the street cars are actually to be established and that they will be propelled by electricity instead of by horses, they will likely hoot at the idea of such a thing. " 10

The prospects that Charlotte would lead the world in obtaining an electric streetcar or trolley system were dashed on October 20, 1885.11 Dr. Zearing explained that his company was precluded from constructing a system in Charlotte because of other commitments. But he went on to assert that the line would have already been built if Pittman and his partners had turned over the streetcar contract to Zearing and his associates instead of demanding $250 for it. "I was very much pleased with your city, and still better with the people I met there. They have a progressive, business-like way about them," Zearing declared.12 A successful initiative to bring streetcars to Charlotte finally unfolded in 1886-87. On September 28, 1886, F. W. Dickson and W. J. Rushton of Birmingham, Ala. and J. H. Reynolds, president of the First National Bank of Rome, Ga., officers of a corporation which operated streetcar systems in several cities and which had purchased a controlling interest in the Charlotte Street Railway Company, appeared before the Board of Aldermen. The initial charter granted in 1884 having expired, the City entered into a new agreement with Dickson and his associates. The contract granted the company the right to construct and operate a "Street Railway in and upon the entire length of any and all streets, avenues, and alleys of the City of Charlotte," stipulated that the company would pay no more than $25 in municipal taxes annually, and stated that the fare could be no more than a nickel. It further required that construction must begin within 60 days and that streetcars must commence service within 6 months on a line starting at the Richmond and Danville Railroad Station and proceeding along West Trade St. to the intersection of Trade and Tryon Sts., locally known as the Square, and on another line on Tryon St. between llth St. and Morehead St.13 "Hope all will come out right, and that the cars will be running by Christmas," proclaimed the Charlotte Home Democrat on October lst.14

The Charlotte Street Railway Company began laying track on West Trade St. on November 15, 1886, for mule-drawn cars.15 Built by the Brownell & Wright Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, Mo., the three streetcars, which were put into regular service on January 3, 1887, were each pulled by two mules and had a seating capacity of twelve.16 On January 1, 1887, a festive, inaugural run of the streetcars was held, beginning at the Richmond and Danville Railroad Station on West Trade St., traveling east to the Square, then continuing south on Tryon to Morehead St. Leaving the station at about 4 P.M., the first car was filled with local dignitaries, including William Johnston, Mayor of Charlotte, and E. K. P. Osborne, who replaced F. W. Dickson as Superintendent of the line and became the majority stockholder in the Charlotte Street Railway Company in May, 1887.17 The people of Charlotte greeted this innovation in local transportation with utmost enthusiasm. "It was a lively scene in Charlotte yesterday afternoon as the first streetcar came rolling up Trade St.," wrote a reporter for the Charlotte Daily Chronicle. When the first car arrived at the Square, a boisterous throng of about one thousand "cheered vociferously;" and "deafening shouts" reverberated throughout the heart of the town. 18

The ballyhoo surrounding the introduction of streetcars was symptomatic of the belief that these mule-drawn or horse-drawn conveyances were symbols of Charlotte's economic prowess and competitiveness. "Charlotte has something that every city of the same size hasn't," boasted the Charlotte Chronicle, on January 24, 1889.19 A promotional drawing of a new Y.M.C.A. building on South Tryon St. published by the local press on October 9, 1887, depicted a streetcar, then a compelling image of progress, passing in front of the edifice.20 On November 21, 1888, the Charlotte Chronicle reported that a visitor from New York City "was astonished at the business activity shown, the number of stores, the amount of stock they carried, the horse cars . . . ."21 Even the horses, which had replaced mules as the beasts of burden for the Charlotte streetcars by August, 1887, came in for special praise.22 "The best street car horses in America are right here in Charlotte," trumpeted the local press on January 20, 1889.23 The ridership statistics for 1887 demonstrate that the Charlotte streetcar system prospered during its initial year of operations. 24

Month Ridership
January 6,825
February 6,322
March 7,869
April 7,957
May 10,050
June 10,145
July 11,027
August 12,948
September 15,222
October 14,367
November 13,520
December 16,469
TOTAL: 132,721
GROSS REVENUE: $6,636.25

The performance of the streetcar system became especially impressive after E. K. P. Osborne assumed control of the Charlotte Street Railway Company in May, 1887.25 Osborne was most resourceful in laboring to upgrade service. In addition to replacing mules with horses, he improved the alignment of the track in the Square, developed a timetable designed to ensure that a streetcar would pass any point along the line every twenty minutes, laid tracks to a stable on College St., purchased a farm just south of the city where he grew fodder for the horses, and even contemplated the placement of steam-powered streetcars on the tracks.26 On November 29, 1887, Osborne brought a fourth car, also built by the Brownell & Wright Manufacturing Company, to Charlotte and put it into service the next day.27 Seeking to keep pace with accumulating ridership, the assertive president of the Charlotte Street Railway Company added two 24-seat cars to the system in April, 1890, and claimed that nobody would have to wait longer than 10 minutes for a streetcar on the Tryon St. Line.28

The mule-drawn or horse-drawn streetcar system had a dramatic impact upon the growth of Charlotte in the late 1880's, because it gave rise to the town's first residential suburbs. One area of intense real estate activity was known as "Phifer's," a district situated between Tryon St. and College St. near the northern edge of Charlotte. "Four new houses are now in process of erection, besides several already finished," reported the Charlotte Chronicle on February 13, 1890.29 A second suburb arose at the opposite end of town between Tryon St. and Church St. The local press announced on March 14, 1890, that the streetcar lines would be extended into this emerging residential section and that E. K. P. Osborne would "erect a handsome residence on part of the property."30 One especially dramatic photograph of Charlotte's horse-drawn streetcar system survives.31 Taken from the southeastern corner of the Square sometime between November 30, 1887, and March 22, 1891, it provides a panoramic view of the four 12-passenger streetcars that E. K. P. Osborne and his company operated in Charlotte. A pedestrian, handsomely attired in a white shirt, dark suit, and a dapper hat, strides southward across E. Trade St. Teams of well-groomed horses make ready to continue their runs. Everything bespeaks of pride, progress, and prosperity. But the impressive array of horse-drawn equipment owned by the Charlotte Street Railway Company, which included 6 cars, 20 horses, and about 40 sets of harness, was soon to be offered for sale.32 The horse-drawn streetcars were withdrawn from service in Charlotte on March 21, 1891, to make way for the electric streetcar or trolley system that the Edison Electric Company was installing for the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company, locally known as the Four C's.33 Indeed, the history of Charlotte streetcars was just beginning.34


1 Laws and Resolutions Of The State Of North Carolina, Passed By The General Assembly At Its Session Of 1883 (Raleigh: Ashe & Gatling, 1883), 76-79.

2 Minutes of the Charlotte Board of Aldermen, February 19, 1883, Book V, 416, Charlotte City Hall, Charlotte, North Carolina, hereinafter cited as Minutes of Charlotte Board of Aldermen.

3 Minutes of the Charlotte Board of Aldermen, Book VI, 86; Charlotte Home Democrat, February 15, 1884.

4 Minutes of the Charlotte Board of Aldermen, Book VI, 101; Charlotte Home Democrat, April 18, 1884. The contract specified the streets upon which streetcars could operate. They were: Trade, Tryon, Church, Graham from Trade to 12th, Tenth, Third from Tryon to the Richmond and Danville Freight Depot, and Morehead from Tryon to the Graded School.

5 The population of Charlotte in 1880 was 7,094, and in 1940 it was 100,899. Legette Blythe and Charles R. Brockmann, Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, Charlotte: McNally, 1961), 449.

6 Charlotte Observer, August 30, September 3, October 3, 20, 1885. Prominent citizens of Raleigh wanted Zearing to establish a streetcar line there, but Zearing preferred Charlotte.

7 Charlotte Observer, September 3, 1885.

8 Charlotte Observer, August 30, September 16, 25, 1885.

9 Charlotte Observer, September 16, 1885.

10 Charlotte Observer, September 29, 1885.

11 The first community in the United States to obtain a citywide electric streetcar network was Montgomery, Alabama, in 1886. But it was the ability of the Union Passenger Railway to surmount the hills of Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, that proved the practicability of the electric streetcar. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "Continuity and Change: Southern Urban Development, 1860-1900," in Blaine A. Brownell and David R. Goldfield, (eds.), The City in Southern History: The Growth of Urban Civilization in the South (Port Washington, New York: National University Publications, 1977), 113.

12 Charlotte Observer, October 20, 1885. 13 Minutes of Charlotte Board of Aldermen, Book VI, 310-12. 14 Charlotte Home Democrat, October 1, 1886.

15 Charlotte Chronicle, November 14, 16, 24, 1886; Charlotte Chronicle, January 24, 1889.

16 Charlotte Chronicle, November 24, 1886, January 4, 1887.

17 Charlotte Chronicle, November 24, 1886, January 2, 1887; Charlotte Home Democrat, n.d., May 6, 1887. The section of the line from the Richmond and Danville Railroad Station, later Southern Railroad Station, along West Trade St. to the Square was completed in mid-December. Charlotte Chronicle, December 15, 1886. On November 26, 1886, the laying of track on the second portion of the line commenced, from the Square along South Troy St. to Morehead St., which brought the streetcars within easy walking distance to the South Graded School. Charlotte Chronicle, November 27, 1886. Work began in late December on the third section of the track, from the Carolina Central railroad Station, later Seaboard Air Line Railroad Station, on North Tryon St. southward to the Square. Charlotte Chronicle, December 29, 1886. Crews started laying track on the fourth and final leg of the system, from the Square along East Trade St. to "near the creek," in July, 1887. Charlotte Home Democrat, July 22, 1887. The fare, as the contract stipulated, was five cents each or twenty-two for a dollar. Charlotte Chronicle, January 4, 1887. Thomas M. Pittman, the first president of the Charlotte Street Railway Company, moved to Vance County in October, 1885. Charlotte Observer, October 3, 1885. Newspaper accounts and the Minutes of the Charlotte Board of Aldermen also spell F. W. Dickson's surname "Dixon."

18 Charlotte Chronicle, January 2, 1887.

19 Charlotte Chronicle, January 24, 1889.

20 Charlotte Chronicle, October 9, 1887.

21 Charlotte Chronicle, November 21, 1888.

22 Charlotte Chronicle, August 19, 1887.

23 Charlotte Chronicle, January 20, 1889.

24 Charlotte Chronicle, January 18, 1888.

25 Charlotte Home Democrat, May 6, 1887.

26 Charlotte Chronicle, August 19, September 7, 14, 1887, May 30, July 15, 1888.

27 Charlotte Chronicle, November 30, 1887.

28 Charlotte Chronicle, April 15, 1890. The operations of the Charlotte Street Railway Company were not entirely free of difficulty. On August 9, 1887, an embarrassing event occurred, when a 447-pound teenage boy, appropriately named Leroy Stout, who was on his way to nearby Mt. Holly to be exhibited at the fair, fell through the vestibule floor and caused a streetcar to be taken out of service for repairs. Charlotte Chronicle, August 10, 1887. A more serious mishap transpired on October 15, 1888. John McCall, an inexperienced driver, left his car unattended at the end of the line on West Trade St. to get a drink of water. Unfortunately, the horses took this opportunity to bolt toward the Square, pulling the empty streetcar behind them. This incident ended when the runaways moved through the Square and slammed into another streetcar that was traveling west on East Trade St. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Not even the horses. Charlotte Chronicle, October 16, 1888.

29 Charlotte Chronicle, February 13, 1890.

30 Charlotte Chronicle, March 16, 1890.

31 A copy negative of this photograph is located in the Spangler Robinson Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library.

32 Charlotte News, March 19, 1891.

33 Charlotte News, June 27, 1890, February 12, March 19, 1891.

34 Interestingly, streetcar service, which ended in Charlotte in March 1938, returned on August 29, 1996, when Charlotte Trolley, Inc. began operating a vintage streetcar on the railroad line from Tremont Ave. to Stonewall St.

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