Today in Transportation History – 1859: Chicago Gets Its First Streetcar

The first streetcars in Chicago went into service. These streetcars, running on State Street between Randolph and 12th Streets in the city, were each pulled along by a single horse at about three miles (4.8 kilometers) per hour. In addition, the streetcars measured 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length and could carry up to 18 passengers.

One of the leading figures in the establishment of streetcar service in Chicago was Franklin Parmelee, who had been born in the town of Byron in western New York in 1816. By the time he was only 15, Parmelee was working in that region of New York as a bookkeeper for a stagecoach line. At the age of 20, Parmelee began another transportation-oriented job when he became the onboard clerk for a Great Lakes steamship. It was during the course of Parmelee’s 13 years as a steamship clerk that he first visited Chicago.

Sometime during the early 1850s, Parmelee ended up settling in Chicago and pursuing new transportation ventures there. He initially launched and managed stagecoach services within the city. Parmelee eventually invested in and helped spearhead a streetcar line for his adopted hometown. His partners in this effort were Liberty Bigelow, Henry Fuller, and David A. Gage. Their enterprise, the Chicago City Railway Company, was incorporated in February 1859. Two months, later the company officially began operations with its horse-drawn streetcars.

This transit system proved to be popular and expanded its reach within the city. The horse-drawn streetcars were replaced by cable car service in the 1880s. By 1906, those cable cars were supplanted by electric trolleys. Chicago’s streetcar network went on to become one of the largest in the world. By 1935, there were a total of 3,742 streetcars operating on more than 500 miles (804.7 kilometers) of tracks on nearly 100 routes throughout the Windy City.

Over the next couple of decades, however, Chicago’s streetcars were increasingly phased out in favor of buses. The last streetcar in the city made its final run in June 1958.

For more information on Chicago’s streetcars, please check out http://www.chicagobus.org/history and the 13 December 2013 Chicago Tribune article “Chicago Streetcars” at http://galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com/chi-131212-history-chicago-streetcars-trolleys-transportation-pictures/.

Additional information on Franklin Parmelee is available at http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/p/parmelee/parmelee.htm.

Featured image courtesy of the Digital Research Library of the Illinois History Journal.

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