Off the Rails - The Rise and Fall of the Streetcar

Ross, Jonmarc

Publisher:  Museum of the City
Date Written:  01/01/2016
Year Published:  2016  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20496

A history of the streetcar in the United States, beginning with the need for a modern, cost-efficient form of public transit, to its surging popularity, and ending with the General Motors conspiracy that sought to destroy rail-based public transit.



If you wander the streets of Portland Oregon you might catch the glint of buried steel track having worn its way to the surface over the years since they were paved over. These are the ghosts of the electric streetcars that were once ubiquitous in Portland and in major cities across America by the turn of the century and much of the early part of the 20th century. These icons of public transit connected people and linked neighborhoods to downtowns across the nation. The electric trolley provided a reliable and affordable means of transit for millions of Americans, yet by the 1950's, they were all but gone.


There are as many theories and opinions as to the demise of streetcar in the United States as there are websites and periodicals on the subject but there are certain documented facts that are hard to refute.

Beginning in 1937, National City Lines -- a transit company created and funded by General Motors, Mack Trucks, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum for the express purpose of acquiring local transit systems throughout the United States, embarked on a nationwide campaign to press cities to scrap electrically powered streetcars and trolley-buses, which G.M. did not make, and to substitute gasoline powered buses manufactured by G.M., burning Standard Oil gasoline, and rolling on Firestone rubber tires. National City Lines soon controlled 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. The company began scrapping these electric systems and replacing them with diesel buses.

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