THE PRE–D.S.R. YEARS — Part I
|THE EARLY HISTORY OF DETROIT PUBLIC TRANSIT
|Horse-drawn rail-cars operated along the streets of Detroit for thirty years before the operation of the electric-powered
streetcar. In the above photo, taken shortly before the arrival of the first electric cars, an enclosed horsecar can be seen
traveling east along Michigan Avenue, passing Detroit's third City Hall, which opened in 1871 and was located on Woodward
between Michigan and Fort Street. An open-air bench car also approaches heading south along Woodward Avenue.
(Photo source: courtesy of the Schramm Photo Collection)
Although the novelty of the horse-drawn rail cars would lessen and become more of an established fact of life in the city,
their usefulness was becoming more evident as ridership numbers continued to rise.l In 1875, the Detroit City Railway
Company alone carried 2,900,000 passengers on the four lines it operated within the city. Meanwhile, the years that
followed would bring a number of improvements to the service, including faster headways, extended night service, new
cars, and minor track and rolling stock improvements. Small coal stoves were even installed in the cars to provide heat.
Interestingly, in 1879, the city council decided to grant the City Railway company a new thirty–year franchise, prior to
the expiration of the old one. This soon-to-be controversial move would extend their franchise to 1909, instead of 1893.
By 1880, the city's population had increased to 116,340, with Detroit now ranked as the nation's 17th largest city. The
following years would again see the city's boarders expand, as portions of the surrounding townships were annexed to
the city, increasing the city's land size to nearly 22.2 square miles.l The 1880s would also usher in the launching of more
franchise lines, along with the continued expansion of current routes. A number of smaller suburban lines were also built,
making connections with city routes at the boarder.l However, it was also during this period that a number of the smaller
companies would find themselves being bought-out by the city's oldest and largest street railway company, the Detroit
City Railway. Take-overs and buy-outs were so prevalent, that by 1892 only two city-based companies remained.
ALTERNATIVE POWER SOURCES SOUGHT FOR CITY STREETCARS:
As the city's boundaries began to encompass the area up to and around the vicinity of the developing Grand Boulevard,
the streetcar companies tried to keep up by extending their lines into these new Detroit neighborhoods. However, these
longer lines were becoming much more expensive to maintain using horses. Typically, a horse could only pull a streetcar
for so many miles or hours on a given day, quite often requiring the need for ten horses per each horsecar. l In addition,
the housing, feeding and day-to-day care for each horse added to the expense. l As a result, a cheaper and much faster
alternative was desperately being sought to propel the cars. Meanwhile, experimentation would soon begin in the use of
electricity, steam and even storage batteries to power streetcars. l But by the late-1880s, the street railway industry was
turning its attention more and more to the possibilities of electric overhead power.
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The year was 1862. The American Civil War had already completed its first year, as had the presidency of the nation's
16th President, Abraham Lincoln. l The U.S. Census conducted in 1860 ranked the city of Detroit as the nation's 18th
largest city, with a population of 45,619 residents.l The city's African-American population (today estimated to be nearly
82%) in 1860 was recorded at 1,402, which was just 3% of the population.
During the 1860s, the Detroit city boundary lines covered a much smaller area than today. The city limits were roughly
bounded by what today would be 25th Street on the west and Mt. Elliott Avenue on the east, while northern boundaries
included the railroad tracks of the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Railroads,l together with (or in the vicinity of) what
today would be Milwaukee, Dubois, Leland, Elmwood and Gratiot streets.ll In total, the city's land area covered only 12.7
square miles. Even Detroit's famous island park, Belle Isle, was at that time still in the hands of private owners.
initially providing service from the Michigan Central Train Depot at Third Street to Elmwood Avenue. On October 1st, the
service was extended to Mt. Elliott (the city's eastern limits). The fare was five cents or twenty-five tickets for a dollar.
Shortly thereafter, the Detroit City Railway began operating service on other lines. On August 27, service would begin
operating along Woodward Avenue, from Jefferson to Adams Avenue. By October the service had been extended to
Alexandrine—-the vicinity of the original Harper Hospital. Gratiot Avenue service soon followed on September 12, from
Woodward downtown via Monroe, Randolph and Gratiot to Russell. On November 25, streetcar service would begin on
Michigan Avenue, from Woodward downtown via Michigan Avenue to Chicago Road (Michigan) and Thompson Street
(renamed 12th Street [Rosa Parks Blvd.]). [NOTE: Prior to 1867 Michigan Ave was known as Chicago Road west of 8th St.]
The first horse-drawn cars to operate in Detroit were sixteen feet long, with low steps leading up to a platform located at
both ends. Entrance into the interior was through sliding doors leading to an interior finished in maple. Perimeter bench
seating ran the car's entire length, with interior lighting being provided by oil lanterns. Since these cars provided no heat,
straw had to be placed on the floor during the winter to warm the passengers' feet. With the increase in streetcar traffic
along the streets of Detroit, the Common Council passed a resolution in August of 1864 which required each car to be
equipped with a bell to warn pedestrians; after a man was run down and bruised by an on-rushing streetcar. l Although
these horsecars were considered slow, even by that day's standards,l the iron-rail right-of-way they rode upon provided
a more smoother ride than the rough cobblestone or dirt roads used by horse-drawn carriages and ominbuses.
|By the year 1926, Detroit's land area had reached 139.2 square |
miles, as depicted in the gray area in the above map. However,
when horse-drawn streetcar service began in 1863 the city's land
area covered just 12.750 square miles — shown above in white.
(click-on map for a more detailed version)
Although a few cobblestone streets and plank (wooden) roads
could be found scattered around the city, most city roads were
either gravel or stone. Because of the passage of the General
Plank Road Act of 1848 by the state legislature, many of the
principal roadways radiatingl from Detroit were toll roads run by
private companies chartered by the state. The upkeep of these
roads were entirely the responsibility ofl thel private companies
as a means to improve road conditions across the state.
Meanwhile, public transportation in Detroit was minimal, at best,
consisting primarily of horse-driven cabs and buses, which were
used by hotels to connect with railroad depots and boat docks.
Numerous attempts to operate a horse–drawn omnibus service
along E. Jefferson — and later along Woodward Avenue — had
also been tried, with limited success, during the years following
1847. ll However, for the most part, foot–travel would continue
as the primary means of transportation for most citizens at the time,l since only the more wealthy could afford their own
horse-driven vehicle to transport themselves around town.
Meanwhile, Detroit was quickly becoming a manufacturing boom town. After the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825
(a waterway that connected the eastern seaboard with the Great Lakes), settlers began to arrive in large numbers, most
coming from the northeastern United States and Europe. From the time Michigan was granted statehood in 1837, the
city's population more than doubled every ten years following 1840. l By 1860, the city's narrow streets were becoming
more and more congested, raising concerns that the City should begin to seek solutions to help move its people around
town through the use of some form of public transportation. By that time, several major U.S. cities had already begun
operating metal-wheeled cars (or carriages) that were pulled by horses along rails set into existing roadways. l As a result,
a number of the city's business leaders felt it was finally time for a similar type of service to operate here in Detroit.
In response,l the Common Council of the City of Detroit passed an ordinance on November 24, 1862, establishing the
guidelines for obtaining a thirty–year franchise, with exclusive rights to build and operate streetcar lines within the city of
Detroit. The ordinance required the franchisee to construct and operate animal-powered cars on and through such city
streets as Jefferson, Michigan and Woodward Avenues, Gratiot, Grand River and Forts Streets; among others. It also in-
cluded provisions that the cars not exceed six miles per hour,l and prescribed the frequency (at least every 20 minutes)
and hours of operation. It also stipulated a fare of five cents on each line, and a franchise tax of $15 per car per year.
DETROIT'S FIRST HORSE-DRAWN RAIL CARS:
On January 5, 1863,l a $5,000 deposit was made to the city on behalf of a company backed by a group of investors
based out of Syracuse, New York.l On May 9, 1863, a thirty-year franchise was granted to a Cornelius S. Bushnell, et al.,
who organized the Detroit City Railway Company, which was incorporated under the same name on May 12, 1863.
Construction began on June 30, 1863, on Jefferson Avenue near Bates Street. The trackage was similar to that used on
steam railroads and was laid within the middle of the street. The track rested on a two-inch bed of cinders, brought flush
with the top of the rails to provide footing for the horses. The track gauge used was four feet seven inches. The first line
to be constructed was along Jefferson Avenue,l from the Michigan Central Train Depot at Third Street (currently the
location of Joe Lewis Arena) eastward to the city limits at Mt. Elliott Avenue. The first two streetcars arrived from Troy,
New York on July, 31, 1863, with city officials, a number of prominent citizens,l and representatives of the press making
that first trip over the line on August 1, 1863.
On the evening of Monday, August 3, 1863, a
major event would occur which would forever
impact the future of Detroit, as men, women
and children thronged the sidewalks along
Jefferson Avenue, between Woodward and
Randolph, waiting with excited anticipation to
climb aboard the four cars lined-up and ready
to receive the first passengers. Free rides were
offered that day for all passengers, as the tiny
rail cars bounced along East Jefferson Avenue,
from Randolph Street to Elmwood Avenue.
The era of public transportation in Detroit was
now becoming a reality.
The next day, August 4, 1863, regular service
would begin with eight small horse–powered
cars now operating along Jefferson Avenue,
|During the period of 1880 through 1890, a number of new horsecar lines were built.
One of the last horsecar lines to be constructed was the Chene Street line, built by
the Detroit City Railway in 1889. The Chene line was also the last horsecar line to be
converted to electric power, on November 9, 1895. (from D.S.R. photo files)
At the end of 1863, the Detroit City Railway Company had four horsecar lines in operation; Jefferson, Woodward,
Gratiot and Michigan—with all lines converging at Woodward and Jefferson Avenues. Because more of the population
at the time was concentrated around the River, the Jefferson line soon became the company's main line, receiving the
better equipment, and provided the most frequent service. Although company officials were optimistic about the future
at the end of 1863, the company's first three years of operation were not profitable, forcing the owners in 1866 to lease
all the company's lines to George Hendrie and Thomas Cox, former owners of an omnibus line, who were eventually able
to stabilize the financial condition of the company. George Hendrie later purchased the company, operating it until 1891.
MORE PRIVATE-OWNED COMPANIES JUMP ABOARD:
Meanwhile, the Detroit City Railway had decided to forfeit its first franchise rights to build along other streets. This now
opened the door for other companies to seek franchise approval to build new lines within the city. The second company
to be granted a streetcar franchise was the Fort Street and Elmwood Avenue Railway Company, which sought to
build a new line along W. Fort Street. At 4:00 P.M., on September 6, 1865, the Fort Street and Elmwood line began
operations, and would become the first line to operate across the entire city from east to west. Upon its completion, the
new 5½–mile long line would operate from the city's western limits,l just west of Porter Road (the present-day 24th St.),
eastward along West Fort Street, through Michigan Grand Avenue (present-day Cadillac Square) to Randolph, then east
along Croghan Street (present-day Monroe) to the Elmwood Cemetery at Elmwood Avenue. By 1866, the line had been
extended westward into Springwells Township, via Fort Street, Clark, and the River Road (W. Jefferson), to the entrance
of the Fort Wayne military reservation, near what later became Artillery Avenue (Livernois). In 1871, the company was
renamed the Fort Wayne and Elmwood Railway Company, and its car-line, the Fort Wayne and Elmwood line.
Soon other lines would follow as other companies jumped on board, namely; Grand River l(Grand River Street Railway,
1868), Cass and Third (Central Market, Cass Avenue and Third Street Railway, 1873),l Congress and Baker (Detroit
and Grand Trunk Junction Street Railway, 1873), and Russell (Russell Street, St. Aubin and Detroit and Milwaukee Junc-
tion Street Railway, 1874). l By 1874, six streetcar companies were operating nine car–lines within the city of Detroit. As
the population continued to expand outward to the city limits, many of the routes were also extended, such as Gratiot,
to the Grand Trunk Railroad crossing along-side Dequindre Street, then later to Chene St; Grand River, from 7th Street
to the Grand Trunk Depot at 17th Street; Michigan, from 12th Street to the city limits at 25th Street, and Woodward,
to the Grand Trunk Depot, just south of what would later become Baltimore Avenue.
Meanwhile, a horse disease epidemic
would strike Detroit on October 25,
1872. As a result, no street railway
service operated across the city for
several days. The disadvantages of
using horses was just beginning to
become more and more evident. In
addition to being rather slow, horses
were susceptible to sicknesses, and
the life expectancy of a l streetcar
horse was rather short. Having to
contend with horse droppings along
city streets was also a problem.
In addition, the expanding Detroit
boundaries would require a need for
the routes to be extended outward,
and horsepower would soon prove
to be a hindrance to that cause.
On September 1, 1886, the first electric streetcars to begin operating within the city of Detroit began along Dix Avenue
(now known as West Vernor), from 24th Street (where it connected with the Congress and Baker horsecar line)l west to
Livernois Avenue (which became the new western city limits in 1885). The line continued west into Springwells Township
to Woodmere Cemetery. This new company, known as the Detroit Electric Railway Company, operated its cars by
using an electrical system developed by a Detroit immigrant named Charles J. Van Depoele. The Van Depoele system,
which utilized double overhead wires, was capable of pulling a train of up to three cars. Even though the system operat-
ed quite successfully across the country, it met opposition here in Detroit. ll Public fear, coupled with complaints over the
objectionable rumbling noises and electric arching the system initially produced from its overhead connection, prompted
the common council — citing irregular service concerns — to order the electric cars withdrawn in 1889. l As a result, the
city's first electric line had to be converted into a horsecar line.l In 1892, the line would become part of the newly formed
Detroit Suburban Railway Company, which was created by consolidating the area's suburban railway companies.
Around that same time, Detroit's second electric line began operation on September 18, 1886, after Greenfield Township
(along with the city of Detroit) granted a franchise to the Highland Park Railway Company.l The line began at the six-
mile-line marker within the unincorporated village of Highland Park (just north of what is now Manchester),l and operated
along the west side of Woodward Avenue, southward through Greenfield Township, across the Detroit border at Pallister
Avenue, to the Grand Trunk Railroad crossing just south of Baltimore Avenue in Detroit. ll There, passengers could make
connections with the Woodward horsecar line. l This line initially operated utilizing a slotted third rail type system, but was
later converted to an overhead trolley operation in 1889.l The line later became part of the Detroit Suburban Railway
Company in 1893.
Meanwhile, the technology in the use of overhead electric trolley operation would improve,l and despite a reluctance by
some, the use of electric power to propel streetcars in Detroit would prevail. On August 22, 1892, the electric streetcars
would finally begin on the city-based lines, with electric service beginning on Jefferson Avenue. Conversion to electric
power on other lines would eventually follow. The last of the horsecars would be removed in November of 1895.
For over thirty years,l horse–drawn streetcars pulled passengers along Detroit's major roadways at a clippety–clop pace
for five cents. The horsecars offered not speed, but comfort and safety. Instead of clattering along the stone and brick
streets, metal wheels on steel rails set into the roadway transported riders with some form of relative calm.l The streetcar
made "all-weather" transportation a possibility for the first time along the city's mostly unpaved dirt roads. As streetcars
became more dependable, they were credited with being major contributors to the development of the city's prosperity
and instrumental in building up the outer portions of the city.l This more than guaranteed that the clang! clang! clang!
of the streetcar bell would continue on as part of Detroit's transit scene as the city entered the 1890s. ll Although major
improvements in streetcar service would soon follow, bigger problems were on the horizon.
|During the early years, the name of the line and company was painted along the sides of the car to identify the route each car|
was assigned. The two examples above show Detroit City Railway car #44 (left) assigned to the Woodward line, and Detroit
Citizens' Street Railway car #73 (right ) assigned to the Chene line. This practice would continue thru the turn of the century.
(Photos courtesy of the Schramm Photo Collection)
See Part 2 for the beginning of the 30-Year War between City Hall and the Streetcar Companies.
|During the early years of street railway operation in Detroit most streetcar lines converged
downtown at Woodward and Jefferson Avenues. The above photo from the late-1880s shows
horse-drawn rail cars from various companies lined-up along Woodward, just south of Jefferson.
ON A SIDE NOTE: During the early-1950s, the block of center buildings visible in photo would give
way to Detroit's forth city hall, which will be known as the City-County Building (CAYMC).
(Photo source: from the D.S.R. photo files)
The above article was compiled from information acquired from Detroit's Street Railways Vol.I (1863-1922) by Schramm/Henninig (Bulletin 117 CERA); A History of
The Detroit Street Railways by Graeme O'Geran; the Detroit Free Press publication: The Detroit Almanac 300 years of life in the Motor City; and other numerous
publications and online sources.
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|The unique website which takes a detailed look back at the History of Public Transportation in
and around the City of Detroit.
|Car 81, seen here working the Congress and Baker Street line, typifies the
type of horse-drawn streetcars first used in 1863. The Detroit City Railway
took over this line from the Congress and Baker Street Railway in 1882.
(Photo source: from the D.S.R. photo files)