Yesterday's American Love Affair

Return to Table of Contents

By Vern Colby

Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, April 6, 1983

Depending on your age, this will take you back to the days when your parents or grandparents were young and full of life. Of course if you're old enough and willing to admit it, this gathering of some notes on the Golden Age of American Trolley Car will return you to your own Age of Youth. One of the writers we'll quote, says in fact that before Americans developed their love affair with the automobile, the trolley car was their object of affection.

There is an accompanying story on the Hampton Trolley System, Division of C&J Airport Limousine Service, Dover, N.H. that's due to start with new Disney-designed, trackless trolleys on May 27th. That was our inspiration for this. We don't claim completeness or coherence - after all we're typing on April Fool's Day - but when new trolleys are coming to Hampton Beach again, we should write a bit about the good old days.

If you decide you want a complete run down, we'll refer you to books obtainable at Hampton's Lane Memorial Library - which we should credit anyway since they form base of facts for this article: Trolley Car Treasury, Frank Ransome, McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1956; Trolleys and Streetcars on American Picture Postcards, Ray D. Applegate, Dover Publications, Inc., N.Y., 1979. Other credits to author, O.R. Cummings are in another story - and Cummings' book covers the local streetcar story exhaustively. So....

When was the first practical trolley car powered by electricity developed? Frank Sprague, ten years out of Annapolis, did that in 1887-88 in Richmond, Virginia. It was a twelve mile line with forty cars. He'd been an assistant to Tom Edison. With the growth of the cities, it was time for modern transportation. Officials of horsecar companies paid attention. The idea of electric or someother form of mass transportation had been a dream of inventors since before the Civil War, 'compressed air, ammonia, steam, giant clock springs,' had all been tried and it was all heartbreak and failure.

An inventor named Daft invented the system that gave trolleys their name, since flexible wires trolled by the car reached overhead to a dolly running along electrified wires. There were some daft ideas. When Trolley Days swept the country, commuting businessmen would hand their wives their watches before stepping on the trolleys so the watches wouldn't be magnetized.

Within a decade, Americans fell so in love with the trolley that the golden years began - about 1898 - and they lasted until WWI production demands and the emergence of mass-produced autos. Probably, 1898-1918, encompasses this heyday. The span of trolleys, to the Hampton Beach Casino was 1897-1926 on the EH&A (Exeter, Hampton & Amesbury) Street Railway.

Of course, trolley car rides to Hampton Beach Casino or Canobie Lake Park tell same story as the rest of the country everywhere. The streetcar folk built parks with lights and music, Ferris Wheels and Rollercoasters, picnic benches and restaurants all over the place - but always at the end of the trolley routes. Which is one explanation for the love affair with trolleys. "Take me out to the Ballgame! "Saturday Night is my Delight!"

And there were open trolley cars to catch any summer breezes - or to make their own winds' as they whizzed along. Nothing could be better to escape sweltering summer nights in homes without air-conditioning or insulation than to ride to a seashore or lakeside park in an open trolley.

Some idea of the tempo of trolley-traffic. Our USA trolleys took 5.8 billion passengers on board in 1902. A Postcard picture that we'll guess was about 1920, shows trolleys of the Long Beach, California area of the Pacific Electric Railway Company. This was the biggest, between-cities fleet. To serve suburbs within 75 mile radius of L.A., the system owned 720 passenger cars, a resort park and a cable railway at Mt. Lowe.

Before electric cars, horses did the work for city travel. There were horse-drawn omnibuses in the 1820's. Horsecars drawn along rails started about 1830. In the 1880's, horsecars were at peak, some cars were ornate and carried advertising signs. In 1886, there were more than 500 horsecar companies in 300 USA locations, and 100,000 horses were employed.

The postcard craze in this country coincided with the Golden Age of the trolleys. Having a trolley system was point of civic pride - so that for flattery's sake, postcard people sometimes put trolleys on postcards of cities that didn't have a trolley system.

At any rate, the craze and the love affair coinciding meant that we would have lots of postcards of trolleys - and we thank Tuck Memorial Museum for the ones we're showing you. One night recently we saw a Boston-TV ad for the Seashore Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport, Maine - so that's a possibility should you wish to know more about trolleys.

Return to Table of Contents