A Century-Old Era of Streetcar Service in Washington, D.C., Comes to an End

January 28, 1962

The conclusion of the first era of streetcars in Washington, D.C. and the grand finale for a memorable part of the city’s transportation history, took place. “A century of streetcar service ends in Washington,” reported the Associated Press, “and nostalgia lies thick along the Potomac.”

This first era of regularly scheduled streetcar service in Washington, D.C., reached its finish line when car 766 – preceded by cars 1101 and 1053 – entered the Navy Yard Car Barn for the last time. The city’s first streetcars had been horse-drawn vehicles that began operations along a route between the U.S. Capitol and State Department during the summer of 1862. Those original streetcars transported passengers for relatively short distances on flat terrain. The introduction of electric streetcars on a regular basis in 1888, however, resulted in transit routes on steeper inclines and into such hilly areas as the Anacostia neighborhood in southeast Washington.

Several streetcar lines within the city subsequently made their way out into the suburbs of Maryland. In addition, at least two streetcar lines based in Virginia were extended into Washington.

These transit services were extensively used to take people across the city and throughout the region, with high-ranking government officials and working-class residents alike becoming regular streetcar passengers. (The above photo features an electric motor car that was owned and operated by the Capital Traction Company, which ran streetcars in the Washington, D.C., region from 1895 to 1933.) Ridership steadily fell from the end of World War II onward, however, and the fate of these streetcars were sealed once and for all in 1956 when city officials required that these lines eventually be replaced with bus routes.

Thousands of people, including plenty of children, boarded the streetcars for their final runs on that Sunday in 1962. A streetcar motorman named Joseph E. Greer noted, “Those kids are just going back and forth, having a time.”

Greer, according to the Washington Post, also stated that “he couldn’t recall a busier day or a noisier one.” More than 20 extra cars were placed into service that day to better accommodate the larger-than-average number of passengers. One of the most appropriately attired streetcars transporting people that day was a 1919 wooden trolley draped with black crepe and adorned with a funeral wreath. This trolley also sported a sign proclaiming, “End of an Era, 1862-1962.”     

In the words of a popular 1970s song, however, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.” More than a half-century after that one vintage trolley proclaimed the end of an era, streetcar service returned to the nation’s capital. In 2013, the District Department of Transportation began testing streetcars in the city for the first time since that somber day in 1962. Streetcars began making regular runs again in Washington, D.C., in 2016, with a 2.4-mile (3.9-kilometer) route located in the northeast part of the city between H Street and Benning Road.

For more information on the first 100 years of streetcars in Washington, D.C., please check out https://www.dctrolley.org/images/NCTM_Journal_V2_N2.pdf

A collection of photos of those streetcars throughout the decades is available at https://ddot.dc.gov/book/dc-streetcar-historic-photographs

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