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The Dawn of Electric Mobility

Part 2 of 2

Thomas Edison built the first American dynamo-driven electric motor in 1880. Clever inventors like Frank J. Sprague, Leo Daft, and Charles J. VanDepoele quickly improved upon the design and developed a motor that could supply electricity to a moving vehicle and withstand the shock of ordinary street travel. The stage was now set for Grand Rapids, and cities around the nation, to put the horses out to pasture and take another momentous leap forward in transportation technology.

Montgomery, Alabama became the first city to adopt electrically powered streetcars in 1886. But by 1902, 97 percent of all street railways in the United States used electric power. Grand Rapids' newly consolidated system quickly made the conversion, beginning in 1891. The practical advantages of electric power and franchise stipulations prohibiting animal power and/or steam locomotives both contributed to rapid electrification.

Streetcar companies had a symbiotic relationship with some of the destinations they served. The growing popularity of Ramona Park at Reeds Lake stimulated streetcar patronage, and the streetcar service in turn stimulated the park’s growth. This growth spurred the birth of a new company, the Reeds Lake Electric Railway Company, which built a competing streetcar line to Reeds Lake in 1891.

The “other” Reeds Lake line had long been absorbed into the Grand Rapids Consolidated, but it still operated with the notoriously noisy steam locomotive. Perhaps owing to competitive pressures, the Grand Rapids Consolidated replaced the steamer with quiet electric cars. But the market had reached the saturation point; the new rival went out of business after only a few months.

The Golden Era
The E. W. Clark Company, a Philadelphia firm, acquired the Grand Rapids Consolidated in 1900, changing the name to the Grand Rapids Railway Company. Improvements flourished. The company replaced light rails with heavier ones, and retired all the four-wheel cars, replacing them with more stable eight-wheel streetcars. Ridership continued to rise at a steady pace.

The streetcar era produced several colorful characters, most notably L. J. DeLamarter. A Grand Rapids resident since childhood, DeLamarter worked in theatres and eventually achieved a management position. The success of his playhouse drew the attention of the Grand Rapids Street Railway Company, which offered him a summer position as resort manager of Ramona Park, which the company had purchased in 1904.

Ramona Park prospered under DeLamarter’s direction. He added new rides and attractions, and the popularity of the park’s theater swelled. DeLamarter quickly advanced in the company’s streetcar division, and he became vice-president and general manager in 1920. Although the system was nearly at its peak in size, with over 70 miles of streetcar lines, ridership was falling, primarily due to competition from buses and automobiles.

To reverse this trend, DeLamarter began a promotional campaign to encourage ridership and dispel outdated notions about the system. He dispatched employees on door-to-door surveys to determine why people chose not to ride the streetcars. He made a policy of following up on every passenger complaint. He distributed a newsletter, Trolley Topics, to passengers. He smoothed out friction with truck drivers by forming the Commercial Drivers’ Club and providing a meeting hall and free eye exams. These efforts benefited the streetcar lines too, with fewer accidents and faster running times. His enthusiasm earned him a biography in Forbes in 1926.

DeLamarter combined his theatrical experience and marketing savvy to create memorable promotions. One of his most noted stunts aimed to allay public fears about the safety of the streetcars. DeLamarter hired attractive young women to ride around town all day on the roofs of the streetcars, while banners on the sides proclaimed, "Don't worry--Relax! Ride the street car. It's the safest place in town." Surely if the models could ride safely on the roof, ordinary passengers would feel secure inside on the benches. Streetcar companies around the country soon copied the idea.

In 1925, a fire swept through the car barns at Hall Street just east of Division and destroyed 57 cars. DeLamarter turned this disaster into an opportunity to upgrade to the latest equipment. Having spent enough time in the maintenance department to understand the basic workings of streetcars, he believed that none of the new equipment available at the time truly exploited the many technological innovations advancing the automobile and bus industries.

DeLamarter proposed several design changes, such as the use of roller bearings on the wheels. He also declared that the weight of the cars should be reduced by half, to 25,000 pounds—a proposal many thought to be outrageous and impossible. Yet in less than a year, three manufacturers had built prototypes which went into test service. Each incorporated different changes to improve operation, styling and passenger comfort, and all weighed close to 25,000 pounds.

The company asked passengers to vote for their favorite colors, seat design, upholstery, interior finish, lighting and exterior styling. The votes were counted and the final design prepared. Twenty-seven new coaches emerged in 1926. The new design, named the 'Grand Rapids Electric Coach,' set the standard for future streetcars.

It featured a streamlined design, giving it a lower appearance, and a two-tone paint scheme in a variety of color combinations. A steel skirt hid the wheels, which ran on roller bearings. Mahogany wood paneling adorned the interior walls, and passengers rode on custom-made, ergonomically designed leather seats. Each car had a smoking compartment and a rear exit door, which would operate only when the car was stopped. The cars designed for Grand Rapids influenced the entire industry, and similar cars soon appeared in many other cities.

The arrival of the new trolleys gave DeLamarter another opportunity for showmanship. Rather than integrate the new cars into the fleet slowly as they were completed, he had all 27 cars delivered at once. Thousands lined the streets to see the triumphant arrival of the long line of new cars, with a few of the old cars included to highlight the contrast. As with the arrival of the first streetcars 61 years earlier, the celebration included music, speeches, and feasts.

Yet DeLamarter put on his largest show ever in disposing of the old cars. A week after the new-car parade, a crowd of 50,000 gathered at the West Michigan Fair Grounds in front of a string of 20 of the old streetcars. The spectacle began at dusk with a balloonist ascending amid a fireworks display. The display ended with a familiar jingle rendered in brilliant flames: "Don't worry--Relax! Ride the street car. It's the safest place in town."

The message appeared strangely incongruous with the events that followed. Signaled by blasts from three aerial bombs, DeLamarter and Mayor Elvin Swarthout set fire to opposite ends of a string of 20 of the old streetcars, well primed with hay, kerosene and black powder. The resulting inferno could be seen for miles, and burned well into the morning.

Twilight of the Streetcar Era
Despite the theatrics and shiny new equipment, the prosperity of the 1920s represented a short lull before the storm of the Depression battered the nation. The economic blight sent ridership plummeting and streetcar lines around the country struggled to compete with the proliferation of automobiles and improvements in roads and highways. In some cities, business interests with ties to the automotive industry purchased the streetcar systems for the sole purpose of scrapping them out to eliminate competition; in others, the streetcar systems simply went bankrupt.

In Grand Rapids, an extensive street-widening project in the 1930s hastened the demise of the streetcar system. Workers removed rails as they resurfaced the streets. Buses, introduced in 1923 as extensions of the streetcar lines, began to replace the trolleys. The first downtown bus route began operating in 1932. The Grand Rapids Railway Company went into receivership that same year.

The city that served as a leader in developing streetcar service also led the way in eliminating it. In 1934, buses began to replace all of the streetcars, making Grand Rapids the second city in the nation to abandon electric rail service entirely.

The streetcar era in Grand Rapids came to an end on August 23, 1935, when the last streetcar made a lonely final run along the Cherry Street route. No exuberant speeches or fiery festivals marked the occasion. Streetcar operators in Mexico and South America quietly purchased some of the cars, while most of the others went to scrap yards. One electric streetcar from the Grand Rapids system is well preserved at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

By the end of World War II, streetcars had virtually disappeared from the American landscape. Streetcars had a major impact on the history of the city and the nation. Better transportation brought expanded commerce and more leisure options, and the streetcars served their purpose well.

Today, transportation planners face a different set of problems, including highway congestion, air pollution, diminishing fossil fuel supplies and rising gas prices. Yet the modern incarnations of streetcars, now called “light rail,” offer a promising solution as they reappear in cities around the country. The story, it seems, is far from over.

Dr. Robert Samuel Gillespie is a Grand Rapids-raised train enthusiast now working as a pediatric nephrologist in Texas. A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Michigan History magazine, a publication of the Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries. Click here to read part one of this series. 

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