1890: A Major Transition for Streetcar Service in Washington, D.C.

April 12, 1890

Nearly three decades after becoming the first streetcar company to operate in Washington, D.C., the Washington and Georgetown Railroad achieved a new milestone by switching from horse-drawn streetcars to cable cars. “CABLE CARS RUNNING,” proclaimed a headline in that day’s edition of the Washington Critic.

This change took placed due to a law enacted the previous year stating that all streetcar companies in the nation’s capital could start running cars with batteries, underground cables, or underground electrical wires; those who did not switch over to one of those alternatives to horses over the next two years would thereafter be required to do so. The Washington and Georgetown Railroad opted to go with underground cables and quickly built its first power house at 14th and E Streets, N.W., for that purpose.  The first of the company’s streetcars using that cable system began operating on the line along Seventh Street in the western part of the city. 

The gripman (operator) for those vehicles on April 12, 1890, was Lawrence Ady, a veteran of the cable car operations in San Francisco. The conductors for this pioneering run were L.R. Everett and W.H. Howes. The passengers on board included Henry Hunt, president of the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company; various other company officials, and members of the press.

The first trip of these cable cars was initiated at 12:10 p.m. with Hurt shouting out, “All ready” and somebody twice striking the gong on the first car. “Then away went the train, and the first cable [railroad] Washington ever had was inaugurated,” reported the Washington Critic. “The start was prettily made, without jerking, and the cars ran along smoothly.”

The Washington and Georgetown Railroad cable cars subsequently made runs on a daily basis between 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 a.m., transporting passengers at six miles (9.7 kilometers) per hour. The entire Washington and Georgetown Railroad streetcar network was fully integrated as a cable-powered one by August 1892. This network provided comprehensive state-of the-art transportation services later that year to American Civil War veterans who were gathered in Washington, D.C., for the reunion known as the National Encampment. 

The company’s quick and effective upgrade from horse-dependent transit to a more modern means of mobility reflected what was going on with streetcars not just within Washington, D.C., but across the country throughout the final years of the 19th century. In 1895, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad was bought by the Rock Creek Railway to form the Capital Traction Company. The land where that original power house was located is now the site for the main office building of the District of Columbia government.   

(The above photo of a Washington and Georgetown Railroad cable car train in service appeared in the September 1892 issue of Street Railway Journal.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the Washington and Georgetown Railroad, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_and_Georgetown_Railroad and http://www.cable-car-guy.com/html/ccdcbalt.html#wgrr

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