A DC Unicorn

Since my weekend adventures seem to be influencing my choice of topic and this weekend I had (perfectly respectable) adventures on H Street, today’s topic is that rare and lovely creature: a DC streetcar.

Much ado has been made about the resurrection of said unicorn and the new streetcar line running through Ward 6. The poor planning, repeatedly delayed opening date, and rumors of corruption even influenced the recent Democratic mayoral primary- multiple candidates, particularly Tommy Wells and Muriel Bowser, spoke out against the current administration’s efforts. Residents of H Street turned out to see the first streetcar test runs on December 13, 2013, but since then all has been quiet except for the whispered curses of pedestrians who trip over the empty rails.

Phenomenon? Of course not. DC’s reputation for scandal (or Scandal) aside, this ain’t the city’s first streetcar rodeo. Washington was actually one of the first major cities in the country to develop a streetcar system and the first transit company was chartered in 1862.

As noted in Leroy King’s book, 100 Years of Capital Traction, building a streetcar system in the middle of a war doesn’t at first sound like the wisest use of resources. However, with 252,000 soldiers and double that number of camp followers in a city that could potentially be besieged on all sides (again, L’Enfant was an artist not a general), and unpaved streets that were famous for becoming hip-deep mudpits, investing in a secure and reliable tracked transit system suddenly makes more sense. The actual charter read: “[the corporation] shall, on demand of the President of the United States, Secretary of War, or Secretary of the Navy, cause to be transported over said railway any freight cars laden with freight for the use of the United States.”

The first streetcars were horse-drawn on a track, similar to the rig seen here:

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The next innovation was a cable system, in use from about 1890-1899 by several of DC’s transit companies. One opportunistic inventor, Whitcomb L. Judson, made a bucketful of money selling his “Pneumatic Street Railroad” to the Brightwood Transit Company, who then figured out the system only worked when temperatures were above freezing. Oops. Judson is also the guy that invented the zipper.

In 1892, Congress authorized the first constructions of overhead electric wires for streetcars. Unfortunately, the damn things were highly flammable (sparks) and repeatedly burned down the car barns at the route termini. Though streetcar fare revenues were strong, several transit operations went bankrupt from the cost of replacing car stock and barns.

Between 1892 and 1920, numerous suburbs of DC evolved around streetcar lines. The Gordian tangle of legislators who approved charters, planning initiatives, and street extensions, businessmen who gave generous donations to legislators while buying up land around those street extensions, county leaders, utility companies, contractors, poor joes just trying to get to work, and rich cats who didn’t want to live next to the poor joes but still wanted an office downtown is…fascinating.

For example, the various villages of Chevy Chase were built as a speculative venture by Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada. Senator Newlands may or may not have had anything to do with the 1890 extension of Connecticut Avenue directly through all the land he had secretly purchased through holding companies just a few months before. On the opposite side of the District, asphalt czar Amzi Barber built LeDroit Park  with tree-lined streets, flower gardens, and iron gates to keep out the plebians.  And when I say plebians, I mean the dark-skinned, Hebraic, or non-WASPy folks that were expressly forbidden in covenants to buy, rent, or even live in these neighborhoods.

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[thanks to my esteemed colleagues at Ghosts of DC]

Streetcars became an important part of the city and were a standard of transportation into the early twentieth century. Then, as private automobiles became more common in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the suburbs started expanding beyond the feasible range of the streetcar.  Buses, became more and more popular with a) investors because they required no expenditure for infrastructure, no barns, and no tracks, and b) with customers because fares were correspondingly lower.

The Capitol Transit Company was formed in 1933 to organize the streetcar networks of the Metro area and try to avoid financial crisis. Streetcars seemed to limp along fine for a few years until 1949 when Louis Wolfson gained control of the majority stock- apparently attracted by Capitol Transit’s “strong financial statement”.

By January of 1955, Capitol Transit Company was operating deeply in the red and sought permission from the District for a fare increase. Permission was denied because of massive public protest against the added cost burden and the widespread knowledge that the company’s financial problems were directly related to the enormous dividends the four major stockholders of the Wolfson Group paid to themselves. Major proponents of a DC subway system successfully argued on behalf of the fare payers to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, based on a similar rate-hike case involving the famous San Francisco streetcars.

When transit workers launched a strike for higher wages in July 1955, Wolfson claimed the company could not support the higher wages without a fare increase. Knowing Capitol Transit held a monopoly on the District’s transportation systems and secure in the assumption that Capitol was the only private company with the means to keep the system going, Wolfson verbally dared Congress to revoke Capitol Transit’s franchise. Congress called his bluff and sold the franchise to O. Roy Chalk, a New York financier with diverse financial interests and hands in some very political pockets.

O. Roy Chalk then went home and drank a case of champagne.

Chalk purchased a transit system of streetcars and converted them to buses by 1963 in a murky agreement with Congress and the District. Later, District officials, Chalk, and automobile industry lobbyists would all vehemently deny any part in the “bustitution” and all claimed that they tried to maintain the streetcars in the face of opposition from the others.

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Chalk was indicted in 1967 for turning all the old car barns into private, market-rate office buildings and for actually selling off some of them (still public property). In FY 1966, the M Street trolley car building (Georgetown Car Barn) operated at a substantial $90,207 profit- all of it going directly to Chalk. In 1972, the WMATA Metro Subway authority was authorized by Congress to take over the Washington, DC-area bus lines as part of a cooperative transportation system. Chalk negotiated a sale of DC Transit’s assets that greatly benefited the company’s stockholders, of which he and his wife owned nearly a third of all stock, and retained significant company real estate. The real estate included horse farms in Middleburg and Annandale, trolley rights-of-way on DC and Maryland streets, a defunct power station, and six former streetcar barns.

 

Technological screwups, poor planning, blatant corruption, and just a whiff of racism. Some things never change, they just become legend. Or myth, in the case of our very own DC unicorn.

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[H Street ca. 1940, thanks to Shorpy]

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