Today in Transportation History – 1885: Baltimore is Zapped Into the Future

The first commercial electric railway began service in Baltimore, Maryland. Replacing the mule-drawn cars on the Hampden line, the pioneering system used electricity in a third rail running down the middle of the track to power the cars.

Leo Daft, circa 1879.

English inventor and professor, Leo Daft began work on the railway line in the early 1880s, having successfully completed the electric railroad network in Newark, New Jersey in 1883. The Baltimore and Hampden Company signed a contract with Daft to replace the tracks from Charles and 25th Streets in Baltimore to 40th Street and Roland Avenue in the suburb of Hampden. The steep grades that the tracks covered presented a challenge to traditional mule-drawn cars, and Daft’s plan of an electric railway utilized an electrified third rail to provide power to a Morse pulling car.

The railway was a certified hit with the traveling public, though the line was not without problems. The third rail carried 220 volts of electricity and proved a dangerous shocking hazard to people and horses alike. The rails were subject to rough weather as well, and after four years wore out. The line reverted to mule-power, but the age of commercial electric streetcars had begun.

Leo Daft went on to build the Los Angeles Cable Railway in the late 1880s, and to devote more time to his passion for electrical geophysics and its application for metal-ore prospecting.

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