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THE EARLY YEARS

No one person invented the trolley. Rebuilt from horsecars, the earliest electrics were uncertain vehicles.

Some inventors mounted the motor on the front platform, so that nothing was more natural than to christen the electrician standing beside it a "motorman." But since flimsy horsecar platforms showed a tendency to shake to pieces under this load, they soon moved the motor down near the wheels. Speeds were low, perhaps eight or nine miles an hour when all went well.

A man named Leo Daft invented a system employing two overhead wires, strung side by side, on which there ran a toy-sized cart or dolly known as a "troller" or trolley. Flexible wires dangled from the dolly to the car beneath, which towed it along. However, the Daft system proved troublesome since the troller kept falling off the wire and landing with a terrifying crash on the car roof. Consequently, Daft cars tended to leak in heavy rains causing passengers to keep their umbrellas raised inside. Daft used crude fuses to save the motors from overloading, but these fuses could let go with a brilliant yellow flash and a deafening bang, sending passengers out through the windows. 

Word got around about how trolleys "forced electricity into the ground," subjecting water pipes to a destructive corrosion called electrolysis. It was also widely rumored that the blue sparks flashing from trolley poles were injurious to eyesight.

Despite tremendous difficulties, a young Annapolis graduate named Frank Sprague built a 12-mile, 40-car line in Richmond, Virginia, which began service on February 2nd, 1888. Since both its size and survival were unprecedented, it quickly attracted the attention of horsecar officials all over North America. Soon, scores of similar lines appeared signaling the birth of the electric traction era.

Sprague used and improved the now familiar trolley pole instead of the 'troller' for power collection and designed a mounting for the motors that kept the gearing between them and the road wheels in constant mesh. He also showed that reversing the motors would slow the cars and bring them to a halt safely. Street railway patronage set new records every month, and cars grew in size in order to accommodate the riders.

As the industry rapidly grew and matured, the trolley became part of the fabric of everyday life. On most lines, even in the smaller cities, car came along every few minutes. On busier routes and in the larger cities one always seemed to be in sight. During the morning and evening rush hours, headways, the interval of time between cars, were measured in inches than in minutes, for companies pressed every car capable of turning a wheel into service to cope with the peak loads.

Small towns built systems as short as a mile in length. And big cities built systems with hundreds of miles of track. Suburbs grew up all around larger cities because of reliable, all-weather trolley transportation. Trolleys were everywhere and took people everywhere they wanted to go.

At first, a different company owned almost every line. So passengers paid an additional fare each time they changed cars. Around the turn of the century, a wave of consolidation swept most cities with just one or two big streetcar companies owning all the routes. These companies soon discovered that by issuing free transfers between lines, more than enough additional riders would take the cars to make up for the fares lost. Ridership soared.

Next: Those Loveable Trolley Riders

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