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Charmed Life

Trolley Folly

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/21/2001

Whenever I talk with older locals--someone whose Mobtown memories stretch back to at least the early '60s--they invariably rhapsodize with misty-eyed reverence about one bit of bygone Baltimore: the streetcars. Today's transit network of buses, light rail, and subway isn't held in near the same regard as the city's old, rattling array of streetcar lines. Once connecting downtown to such far-flung suburban stops as Sparrows Point and Ellicott City, streetcars began their protracted decline in the automobile age that blossomed after World War II. Baltimore's streetcars rode into the sunset in 1963, when car No. 7407 made a final run between Towson and Catonsville.

While the town's trolleys live on in modern memory, no one is still around to recall the city's short-lived experiment with one of the most complex and costly mass-transport systems ever devised: the cable car. Baltimore's brief adoption of this convoluted rail concept dates to the 1890s.

It's a common misconception--particularly among those raised in the era of buses--to consider streetcars and cable cars as the same thing. Streetcars are essentially rail cars propelled by on-board electric motors powered by continuous connection with an overhead electrical line. That's how today's light-rail system works (but it can't properly be called a streetcar system because, save for the line's jaunt down Howard Street, the cars employ off-street tracks.) Cable cars, by contrast, lack on-board motors of any kind. They make their civic rounds by connecting and disconnecting with a vast loop of moving steel cable running within a conduit under the street. (The cars connect to the cable via a slot in the middle of the tracks.) Centralized powerhouses propel the cable (which can be several miles long) along the car route, with large pulleylike grooved wheels (or sheaves) employed to send the cable through turns and curves. Cable cars are a unique and complicated animal, and the only place on Earth where they still patrol the streets is San Francisco (where they appeal to tourists more than commuters).

It's somewhat ironic that Baltimore ever adopted the clunky cable-car system, as it was home to the first successful commercial electric railway in the country. In 1885, electrically powered rail cars began passenger service between Hampden and 25th Street; the system was designed by a clever engineer saddled with the unfortunate surname "Daft." The line operated for four years, until the equipment wore out and its owners felt a return to horse-drawn cars was more prudent. (Horses still pulled most of the city's streetcars, as they had since before the Civil War.) By 1890, electrical streetcar systems were beginning to be perfected but still had drawbacks, one being their need for overhead wires in an era when city streets were clogged with electrical and telegraph wires. Cable-car systems (pioneered in New York in 1868 but most successfully employed in San Francisco in 1873) were a viable option, but an expensive and problematic one. Constructing and maintaining the network of conduits and cables cost a small fortune (on the order of $80,000 a mile in 1890s dollars).

Nevertheless, the Baltimore Traction Co. opened the city's first cable line in 1891. It connected Druid Hill Park to Patterson Park, with the cable propelled by coal-powered steam engines housed in a pair of vast and rather ornate powerhouses. (Both still stand, one at Pratt Street and Central Avenue, the other on Druid Hill Avenue just south of the park; stone letters reading baltimore traction co. are emblazoned across the door of the latter building.) The moving cable dragged the cars along at speeds ranging from 6 to 11 mph, and the system drew enough riders that a rival transportation company, City Passenger Railways, began developing its own costly cable-car system. It's estimated that by 1893 more than $10 million had been spent sending cables snaking beneath the city's streets. But the cable era was short-lived. By 1895, the city's transportation companies were again spending money: converting their nearly new cable lines for use by electric streetcars (which, by then, had become more cost-effective). Baltimore's cables came to a halt for good in 1899.

Many American cities had similar fleeting flirtations with cable-car systems, with few surviving much after the turn of the century. Seattle, however, didn't get around to scrapping its last cable line until 1940. Cable systems do work well in extremely hilly places, where streetcars' on-board electric motors can have trouble getting up grades, thus explaining cable-car continuance in dramatically undulating San Francisco.

Through the years, various excavation projects have unearthed vestiges of Baltimore's cable car days. One of the large sheaves (pictured) was found beneath Paca St. in 1974 and put on display near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum on Falls Road. Streetcar enthusiasts told me a pair of these ancient cable car wheels were also discovered beneath Gay Street during subway digging. Think of it an expensive mass-transit system from the 19th century meeting an expensive transportation system of the 20th.

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