When Cars Ran On Rails; Charlotte's Streetcar Past
It's time for another radio road trip Along the Great Wagon Road - our series exploring the history of the Charlotte region with Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South.
A road trip these days usually means hopping behind the wheel of an automobile. But there was a time when streets in Charlotte were also home to tracks. And that time is coming again. Construction is underway for Charlotte’s new streetcar, which will run from Elizabeth to the Transit Center.
While the idea of riding a streetcar through the streets of Charlotte now may seem like a quaint and delightful notion to some and a controversial plan to others, at the turn of the 20th century Tom Hanchett says it was vital to getting around. “Charlotte had a streetcar every four or five streets. You didn’t have to walk very far for public transit.”
At a time when cars were exotic and expensive, often powered not by gas but steam boilers or electricity, streetcars were more for the common man. And they allowed Charlotte to expand, Hanchett says. “It connected people with this new vision of living in the country on a tree-lined street. Yard, front porch, all of those things we now take for granted. That suburban world came in to being because of streetcars.”
In the 1890s, all of the city was inside what is now the I-277 loop. Developer Edward Dilworth Latta envisioned a community just outside the area on the several hundred acres he owned. He even had a name for it, his own: Dilworth.
But he needed a way to get people there. Streetcars were the answer. But they’d need to change. At the time, the cars were pulled along their tracks by teams of horses and mules. So, in 1891 Latta hired none other than Thomas Edison to bring in a new method of propulsion, electricity. “And when that streetcar began running in May of 1891, Dilworth became a viable real estate venture,” Hanchett says. “And our rush to the suburbs began, and hasn’t really stopped.”
And the neighborhoods around uptown we know today began to crop up. After Dilworth, there was Elizabeth, Wilmore, Wesley Heights, and Myers Park. Even today, those areas are still called Charlotte’s “streetcar” neighborhoods.
A ride on a streetcar would’ve cost you a nickel in an age when you would be doing well to make a few bucks a day. And as long as you paid you could ride. The streetcars were open to both black and white patrons, at first, Hanchett says. “Segregation really happens in the South around 1900. And when streetcar segregation become law right about 1903 across North Carolina, African-Americans in Charlotte boycotted the streetcars. There just weren’t enough African-American riders to really hurt the bottom line as there would be with the Montgomery bus boycott a couple generations later.”
Streetcars were popular. But by the late 1930s they weren’t making a profit. And a new mode of public transport caused the trolley service to stop Hanchett says. “In 1938, buses were the hot thing. Why spend money to maintain that old trolley system? It had some wear on it, it needed capital infusion. It was easier to throw something away and start new with the buses. That’s kind of an American tendency.”
But streetcars in Charlotte weren’t dead yet.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s: as a way to generate new interest in center city neighborhoods, one of the streetcars from the 30s was renovated and put back on the tracks. It ran between uptown and what people were starting to call South End. Hanchett says the streetcar’s return was tremendously popular and spurred development along the route. But it ended up serving another purpose. “I think that’s one of the reasons light rail happened. People instead of having to imagine that from whole cloth could see that little streetcar running back and forth.”
And it was the light rail that eventually killed streetcar service in 2010.
Today, with construction underway on Charlotte’s third generation of streetcars, you can still see remnants of the trolley’s forebearer from a hundred years ago. There’s a Charlotte trolley museum in South End. The old streetcar stops in Elizabeth are still there, those stone canopies at the corners of the intersection where Hawthorne turns into Queens.
But the most visible reminder of Charlotte’s original streetcar is the neighborhoods it spawned.
City leaders are hoping the new streetcar will also bring development. Either way, Tom Hanchett plans to be a regular rider. “I want to be on the first streetcar on the first day just like folks were in 1891.”
If all goes to the city’s plan – that first ride will take place sometime in June.