'Development of Street Railway Systsma in Washington, D. 0»'
V. H. Gray - April 2?, 1957
Initiation Thesis for TAU BETA PI FRATERNITY
Maryland Beta Ohapter
In tracing the development of street railway Byatema in Waahington,
D. C. , it was deemed advisable to follow a chronological sequence of events
during the earlier phases of the subject, but, following the adoption of elect-
ric power, the development was divided into three branches treated more or
leas separately and concluded with a presentation of probable trends in the
future. The first phase, that of EARLY HISTORY, gives a glimpse of trans-
portation conditions exieting from ISOO until the first street railroad com-
pany was incorporated. Then, under the heading HORSE OARS, Is pictured the
railway facilities that were in existence before the advent of mechanical
motive power. Following this is explained the operation of the picturesque
CABLE GARS, along with some interesting history in their connection. In the
struggle to find the best type of motive power, several interesting and ingen-
ious devices were developed, some of which are presented under UNSUCCESSFUL
EXPERIMENTS. At this stage subsequent development is divided into these main
headings s COMPANY DEVELOPMENTi TRACK DEVELOPMENT, CAR DEVELOPMENT, and
FUTURE, The first of theee topics deals with the various companies, their
mergers, and congressional assistance. To illustrate the development of the
tracks^ an underground conduit system is traced through its installation, IData
on street car types down through the years j and a hint as to future trends com-
plete the subject*
Throughout the paper there has been purposely omitted any reference
to costs or monetary affairs whatsoever. This is to avoid complicating the
subject unduly, and is also due to the justifiable reluctance of the Capital
Transit Company at having their unit costs unofficially interpreted.
The author also wants to express his appreciation of the help that
he received from the employees of the capital Transit Company, who very gen-
erously offered their time and assistance la furnishing this material.
DEVELOPMENT OF STREET RAILWAY SYSTEMS IN WASHINGTON, D. 0.
The firBt attempt at any organized, comoierclal traneportatlon
Bystan in Washington waa in 1800, when a two-horse stage coach lino was
put into operation between William Tunnioliff s tavern at I'at and A, N.E.
and Georgetown at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. These coaches were sched-
uled to make two round trips a day, which in those days was a notable achieve-
ment. It is to be remenbered that Pennslyrannia Avenue, down which the coaches
plied, then more nearly resembled a muddy corn field than a street* However,
the line failed as it made no profit. For the next thirty years street passen-
ger service was confined to swarms of hacks, individually owned and unorganlxed.
The drivers of these hacks were often unscrupulous and extortionate in price
charging. Such conditions gave rise to considerable reproach, and after a
tlme(1350) some Omnibus lines sprung up. The first was from Georgetown to
the Navy Yard and later extended up to 7'th and L, N.W, These lines had a
12^ fare and consisted of large stage coaches that were scarcely better than
the hacks. There were several competihg^llnes, much overcrowding, and even
racing for passengers and blocking each other off the road. Congress, In
1850, passed an ordinance prohibiting such conduct.
In 1858 a group of New York capitalists with a few Waahing^oa in-
terests, applied at Congress for a charter to operate a street railway com-
pany in Washington. They failed to obtain it. However, on May 17, 1862,
Congress incorporated the Wasjiington and Georgetown Railroad Co. — the first
street railway company in Washington. Accordingly, on October 2, 1862, the
first street car operated in Washington pulled out of the Navy Yard on Wash-
ington and Georgetown tracks and headed, via the CSipital, to Georgetown.
This company also laid tracks along Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue.
The first horae cars were very Bmall and light, had side seats with
a center aisle running the length of the car. Their weight can be deduced
fran the fact that one ran over a man's ankle without permanently injuring it.
At first the cars were equipped with a tongue or pole to which the horses were
hameesedj but they were discardtd in 1872 as they were practically useless.
This illustrates an unthinking adherence to precedent » as tongues had always
before been used to turn the front wheels, and were obviously not needed for
that purpose with rails for the wheels to follow.
These cars were unheated and became very cold in the winter. To
furnish warmth for the feet the center aisle was bedded with straw, into which
passengers carried raud and moisture^ and used as a cuspidor.
These first cars were pulled by two horses, but to meet the compe-
tition of the "Chariot Line" and the "Herdic" phaeton company, they were re-
placed by faster, one horse, "box" cars — so called because of a box for the
fare depositee. The Chariot and Herdlc lines were light, fast phaetons which
ran on 5j^ farea, and could drive up under porches during rainy weather.
Congress prohibited one-horse cars in 1392,
All horse cars had an open front platform where the driver rode
and was exposed to all weather. Agitation to enclose the driver was defeated
on the ground that the front window would become coa4ed with ice and obstruct
the driver's vision, which was necessary to be unimpaired at all times to safe-
ly handle the car through the fast traffic. The horses had bells on their
harness which would Jingle and warn of their approach. This practice was
discontinued at the complaint of one commissioner who did not like it.
Congress, in the Act of 1878, required that the street railways
maintain a suitable pavement between the rails and for a distance of two
feet on either side of the outer rail. The tendency at first was to pave
t}w streets with cobblestones so that the horeee could get more traction,
but in 1389 the commiaaioners prohibited the use of eobbleatonee for street
paving, and since then the paving has been either of wooden blocks, asphalt,
vitrified brick, or other brick, such aa scoria brick,whlch is now used to
The first rails employed with the horse cars were tram rails laid
on wooden tiea. It wi^a quite ouatomary then for the drivers, when they reach-
ed the end of the line, to drive off of the rails into the street to turn
around, sometimes driving around the block. Later they changed to girder rails
laid on ties spaced 13"' apart, gravel ballasted and paved with stone blocks.
The District Appropriation Act of I889 required the street rail-
way companies operating In the District of Columbia to adopt mechanical
power in propelling the vehiclAs and to use only flat, grooved rails.
Accordingly, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Co. began Installing the
second type of motive power used in Washington — cables. The osMe oar was
invented in San Pranslsco in 1875 because animal power was not sufficient
to haul cars up the steep hills. They were complicated and expensive, but
they still persist in San Fransisoo and Seattle as it is the only system
independent of wheel-rail friction.
The cable which operated the care travelled in an underground
conduit, guided by pulleys and powered by a central power plant. When the
operator wanted to go foreward he would cause the grip, which depended from
the car and enclosed the cable, to slowly grab the cable and thus pull the
In Washington, cables operated along 7'th Street, l4'th Street, and
Pennsylvania Avenue under the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Co. and the
Columbia Railroad Co. The power houses were located at 7'th and P, S.Kf.,
and at l4'th and §,iii.ff.
"The cable ayetem re present a to my mind an engineering achieva-
raent as great as that of the development of the Electric Railway" — J, H. Hanna
President, Capital Transit Co, Mr. Hanna did not say that because of the
cable system being in basic idea anything outstanding, but it was a wonder
to his mind how the engineers of that day could aver keep such an intricate
system working regularly on schedule. It is a tribute to those engineers
that they did succeed in maintaining service in spite of the fact that they
had to keep 20 miles of steel cable ruhiing smoothly over the pulleys, with
numerous cars starting and stopping, kinks and stray strands developing,
grips becoming jerky and the cable breaking in two, stranding from one to
two dozen cars. The system was tried sever ly when the Grand Army of the Repub-
lic convened and broke all previous records before and for ten years after,
for passenger volume. The gripman had all that he could hanlls in collecting
fares and at the same time manually operating the grip so that an overloaded
oar could ataiit without a Jerk. An interesting occurence that took place
infrequently was when a loose strand would wrap around the grip and not release.
The sight of a car tearing down the street at 10 miles an hour unable to be
stopped was terrifying in the least. The gripman would have to ;Jump off and
run ahead to the first teleglone to have the power shut off until it could
The power for the cables was furnished by a stationary, recipro-
cating, horizontal Oarliss type engine which was geared by a roomful 1 of large
spur gears to deliver power to several cables, which wound over many friction
pulleys and out under the street for its circuitous route. The cable conduit
was equipped with carrier pulleys every Jl feet on straight track and guard
pulleys on every yoke(4-^') on curves,
With cable power, the care improved *i» interior conditions until
little was to be desired. Also rails were adopted which bad a side groove for
the wheel flange to run in.
The Dlatriot Appropriation Act of 1839 which required a mechan-
ical substitute for the horse and at the aame time prohibited the uae of
an overhead trolley wire within the fire limits (bounded generally by Flor-
ida Avenue on the North), gave rise to eeveral interesting devices for street
oar propulsion. During 1892 & 1895 there was considerable experimentation
with storage battery care. They were unsuccessful as they were too heavy and
costly. Compressed air cars were tried and found unreliable. An electric
System was tried wjilch had contact plates on the ground between the rails
and found unreliable. The trouble was that an autotnatic dead#ner which was
supposed to out off the current before and after the car did not always work
so wall and neighbors complained of their horses stjraying onto the track and
being electrocuted, A system aimilar to this one had, Instead, a series of
magnets, which were supposed to be magnetized at the right time and attract
the car. It was very unwieldy and complicated. Steam motor cars were also
Perhaps the moat interesting and novel device was one tried on
7'th Street north of Florida Avenue about 1890. It consisted of two para-
llal tubes, six or sight inches in diameter installed in as underground
conduit and revolved against a aet of staggered friction wheels attached
to and depending from the car, which It impelled on the principle of a screw.
The rotary motion was imparted to the tubes by emall^engines 500 feet apart.
What was most surprising about this idea was the way in which it failed.
The exaust air from the engines absorbed so much heat from the moisture of the
atmosphere that the ice so generated clogged the gearing of the wheels of
the engines by which the tubes were turned, and was an insuperable obstacle
to the efficient operation of the device.
At thlB point In the devaliopniAnt a brief consideration of the
legal activities of the companies la necessary. After the incorporation
of the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Go, in 1862, and up unto ia99»
Oongreas incorporated a cores of individual Railway Companies. Each of
these built their own tracks, operated their own routes, charged their own
fares, and had complicated transfer systeraB. These companies, including
the Metropolitan Railroad Co. which waa the second street railway company
in Waehing^on^ Incorporated in 1364, and a pioneer in all developments, all
sought aid to meet the enormous cost of electrifying their lines. Consequent-
ly, to make transfers easier and pool resources a company called the Wash-
ington Traction and Electric Co. tried to consolidate a number of lines.
This company went into the hands of the receivers, but illustrated the need
for such a merger. Then, by act of Congress June 5, 1900 the Waehingjon and
Great Falls Electric Railway Co, was authorized to acquire the stock of the
old Washington Traction and Electric Co,, which it did in 1902 and called the
company the Washington Railway and Eledtric Go., which existed until 195?.
The companies merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Co. are:
Washington and Great Fia.llB Electric Railway Co., the Metropolitan Railway Co.,
the Union Railway Co., the Brightwood and Silver Springs Railway Co., the Col-
umbia Railway Co., the Anaeostia and Potomac River Railroad Co., the Capital
Railway Co., the Brightwood Railway Co., the Maryland and Washington Railway
Co., The Georgetown and Tennalljitown Railway Co, of the Dictrict of Columbia,
The City and Suburban Railway Go, of Washington, the Columbia and Maryland
Railway Co. of Maryland, AND, the Berwyn and Laurel Electric Railway Co,
In 1895 The Rock Creek Railway Co. (incorporated by Congress in I89O)
acquired the stock of the Washington and Georgvtown Co. and changed the name
of both to the Capital Traction Compai^.
CongroBB, in 1915j passed the anti-merger law which stated that
a street railway company cannot acquire the stock of another company with-
out the authority from Congress to do ao. At the same time Congress creat-
ed the Public Utilities Oommioeion oonBiBtlng of three Commia si oners with
power to supervise and regulate every street railway company and other com-
mon carriers. In the same year a 15 mile an hour speed limit was placed
over street cars operating in the business district, fenders and wheelgi^rds
were required, as also was a gong which must be sounded at the approach to
any crossing or any other vehicle.
The Washington Railway and Electric Co. and the Capital Traction Co,
merged on December 1, 1955 ^^^ changed the name to The Capital Transit Com-
pany. This company now owne or subsidizes all railway property and equipt-
ment in the District. The most recent appraisal of property was made in
1951- Juat prior to the merger, when the two companies were still separate*
The total physical property of the Washington Railway and Electric Go. waa
then approximately $29,600,000 and the Capital Traction Co, — $27,400,000.
This valuation included property, both right of way and real estatej under-
ground trolley track; overhead trolley track; carhouse and yard tracks;
underground conduits; poles and fixtures; buildings, such as shops and car-
houses and subetationa; bridges; passdnger cars; electrical equiptment;
passenger buses; service care; electric locomotives; office, shop and road
equipiment,and park and resott property.
The underground conduit, sliding shoe system, that is now used through-
out the business district of Washington was designed by Mr. A. N. Camett,
designer for the Metropolitan Railway Co., in 1896. The Rock Creek Railway
Co, tried an underground set of trolley wheels called the Love System which
was practical but more expensive than the sliding shoe system now used. The
idea was gotten from Budapest where it had been succeesfiilly operated for
saveral years. This method practically supplanted all other types by the
turn of the century. The overhead trolley, which was first operated in
the United States by Frank L. Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, was
disqualified from the business section of Waehington because the I889 Act
specified a metallic return system. This meant that the return current
had to have an insulated conductor rail as well ae the high potential side,
and that the rails could not be used as a ground return as on the overhead
To best illustrate the actiial underground conduit track construct-
ion it is necessary to follow the steps through a typical, new installation
and observe the construction. Throughout the discussion constant reference
will be made to the various diagrams and cross sections that follow.
If the street has an older type construction on it, it will be
necessary to remove the old tracks and sell them for scrap, in which the
cost of removal generally equals the salvage value. Temporary tracks must
be laid on the side of the street on wooden ties. Then the field engineer
drives line and grade states every 25 feet, and lays an offset line. The
excavation crew then excavates to the shape of the conduit tube, in which
they are aided by a template of the correct shape. After this, with the aid
of another template, the yoke spaces are excavated at every 4' 6" (observe the
yoke excavation lines on top of page 12). The cast iron yokes, as shown on
page 11, are then installed, supported temporarily by stakes, and first class
concrete( 1-2-51) is poured in around the yoke and set. Then the center slot
rails are bolted to the yokes and the slot opening is gaged to f" by tight-
ening or loosening the nut on the tie rods as shown on page 11, The wheel
rails are laid on the yokes and half gaged from the slot rails, and full
gaged to 4*8^'' as shown. The rail clamps are then put on with shims and
bolted down with two o^ the four bolts. Wooden tube forma are then placed
and the concrete gang pours the concrete to form the tube as shown (page 11),
I -r s"
— 1_- , . . . , i „
— ii . — ■— u
1 — TT
y-* . 1 . . . ^ ^,
// ." r'^/ mee/ /?^//
j j__ i _ L| 1
Therrr^f W^'/cJec Jo//7fi
yj^/ee/ /)^p'Kj''/ ''H,r/ac-
Plan Showing Raving And MH And H H.
After the concrete hae set (about two days in sunmier) the forms are removed,
and the rails are line-and- surface checked with a transit and all bolts are
placed and tightened. The manhole and handle le castings are placed and the
paving base, is poured for two feet on either side of the t)*ack8 with second
class (1-2^5) concrete 7" thick, Thi« is covered with 2f" of surface as-
The oonduit is now permanent and ready for electrification. Con-
ductor rails are brought in through slot hatches placed every 500 feet on
straight track and at the entrance to all switches and curves. The con-
ductor rails are supported by arma from the insulators every JO feet as
shown on page l4 and page 1?. At each conductor rail junction a flexible
oftble connector is bolted to the rails as shown on page lA,
The power feeder system as diagrammed on page l6, consists of
several substations dispersed throughout the system and converting the
15,000 volt alternating current from the power source to 600 volts direct
curreflt by means of rotary converters. Each car requires from 550 to 450
starting amperes and from 60 to 100 running amperes. The feeder system is
designed to carry a rush hour load of 1200 amperes. Tap offs from the sub
station go to the tracks at points designed to meet the power requirements*
At studied areas of conjestion, for instance, there would be a power tap off
every half mile or so, while ih the suburbs one line could supply miles of
The earlier construction of conduits and yokes proved too light
to support the cars as they increased so rapidly in weight. So, the period
around 1907 witnessed a general reconstruction of track and installation of
heavier and better designed yokes. This construction went on during regular
traffic, and had to bo so arranged that it did not interfere with service.
Sometimes even a JO foot wheel rail would be replaced in between street care.
Section At A- A
v** ' / '"//, .>( ^/''.J'M
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fube Co/>crt /,'
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Longitudinal Section - «fe Slot - Straight Track Construction
Notes For Curve TRAC^\ Construction
Outer /-fo// ' 7r //by Sec /-/on /^^-49/
/nner ffa/f GuarcJ 6ect/on /40-466
CytoryiJori^ T/?er/r?/fe yVe/r/^c/ >-Jo//7/.s
Manha/e frame 379 W//7/ f P/aned Off Y^heei ffoil Side
Mar)/}o/e frame B//
Yoke •Spoc/ny 4' 6"
//76u/ofor 6/Ooc/op //' 3"
A/i 0/f)er Mo/er/af 6arr?e As fbr Straj^hf Trc^k
ISQOO V - A.C.
Rof0ry C onv trter
-4— — Oauae ^ ^^
Afo/rf(7//7ec/ fiv /?y Co
Ail ' 'rf//r!'/ Tj Low .
J'*^*^ OM Yo^e
The general procedure in replacing yokes as shown above, was to awing the
rails on two wooden beams, one vertical and one imbedded into the ground.
Thus the rail load is taken off of the yokes and the old ones san be removed.
The diagram shows the deformation occasioned by oars running over it that
were heavier than the yoke was designed for.
The following photograph on page 19 shows a completed crossing
at l4'th and New York Avenue that was recently installed^ maintaining
regular service. The picture clearly shows the manhole and handhole castings
and the manganese steel inserts where two wheel rails cross, placed to take
At this corner was previously located an oddity seldom found, -that
of having four parallel tracks on the same street. That was before the recent
merger, when both companies operated a pair of tracks on this street.
Double track orossing double track with connecting curves in one quadrants
The first electric street oar to operate in Washington waa in a short
section of track on the Eckington and Soldier's Home Line in 1883, which had
a steam power plant and an overhead trolley. By 1898 the care were almost en-
tirely electric. The first cars had 25 foot bodies, a single truck, hand op-
erated brakes, and two motora, each a 25HP four pole, direct current motor,
the motors then, and now, are almost evenly divided between Weetinghouao and
Around 1905-5 the K controller was developed and intra pole motors
installed. The K controller is the familiar hand lever operated resistance
box for varying speeds. Intra pole motors had extra fields in between the
poles. The weight of these care compl*te was near 50,000#,
Then, during 1907-8 numerous open cars were built with double trucks
and two motors. During the period 1910-12 air brakes were developed with 75%
braking ratio, meaning that the total braking force was | of the car's weight.
These cars were of the double truck type, with 57 foot bodies, 55 to 60 HP
mottra, some with two and some with four, weighing around 58»000#. Some of
these cars, called the "maximum traction" cars had one large wheel and one
small wheel with the large wheel axle carrying 60^ of the load to give the
drive wheelfl the maximum traction.
Then, in 1912-18, the heavy double truck oars were bought, which
had four motors, cross seats and the automatic circuit breaMer under the
car. These cars were 44 feet over all and weighed from 45-48, 000#. Some
of the interrurban care are aa heavy as X00,000#.
Prom 1918-5 6 there was no outstanding change in car design. 90%
of the cars now in service were originally put into use before the war. The
old oars were rebuilt many times and added to when improvements were imperative,
In 1956, as a result of a five year Investigation, 20 new stream-
lined cars were built and put into operation. These ears are the very latest
in street car design and deserve to be described more fully. They have an
automatic accelerating control with 22 contacts, which gives a smoother take
off tlian the old K type, Theae cars can move from re at to 4o miles per hour
in ten seconds, a maximum acceleratidin of 4.5 railes/hr/sec. Ten of these
wsre built by the J. 3. Brill Co. and ten by the St. Louis Ob^t Co. to speed
These cars have three independedli seta of braking systems which
are coordinatei to give a smooth, positive stop at 150% braking ratio and a
retarding rate of 8 miles/hr/sec. The brakes that take the greatest part of
the load are dynamic, converting the motors into generators and absorbing
the kinetic energy of the car in resistancce coils. When reduced speeds are
reached the air brakes automatically cut in, and in eraergencyj magnetic track
brakes are used. This type of brake is a natural result of increased speeds
as it is independent of wheel-rail friction. When applied, an electromagnet
drops to the rail and grips the rail with magnetic force which increases as
more braking force is required.
The truck and frame construction is thouroughly in accord with
modern developments. Extensive use is made of rubber for springing and
quieting and la sub j acted to shear, thereby preserving its life. Inter-
ier appointments make use of Masonite Presdwood, Agasote, Oregon fir.
Maatipava^ aluminum, chrimium, Corten, stainleaB steel and rubber. Houdaill©
shock absorbers are Installed on the right side of the r*Br truck bolster
and on the left side of the ft-ont truck bolster to prevent synohronized
oscillations. Roller bearings are used instead of sleeve bearings and the
journal boxes are mounted din pivoted pini fastened to the side frames, thus
doing away with the pedestals and guides. The wheels are resilient and axles
of hammered steej. The motors (4) are high speed, spring supported, rated at
50 HP and drive through a double reduction gearing at a ratio of 7*55 to 1,
The length is 44 feet, the weight 55jOOO#, TheJ; are ventilated
through a forced exauat capable of 1000 cubic feet/minute, and are heated by
14 panel type heaters located at the side of the car at the floor line.
Considerable criticism has arisen due to the obsolescense of the
majority of street cars now operating. In meeting this criticism the Oap-
Ital Transit Oo, has decided to scrap all its open cars and 200 more of the
worst ones. Also, there has already been ordered 4/ Tsore streamlined cars
and contempiation of 200 new ones.
The trend is toward lighter, speedier oars brought about ty light
w*4ght alloys and better technique of construction. Four gas-electric vehicles
have been ordered and are going to be tried out. This type has been occasion-
ed by the growing demand for smoother, quieter service , which is now ushering
in a new era in street transportation. It is believed that with the advent of
new equippment and complete modernization^ the street cars will regain much
of the ground that they lost to the buses during their hybernation.
Old 1900 single truck car converted into a rail grinder
(carbarn, l4'th and East C&piUl)
Scrapping of the last open oara
1915 typ« — representing the
bulk of Washington's 700
Streamlined car-195^ model
General offices of Capital Traneit Co.- JS'th and M Streets, N. W.
TyPICAl CA ft WIRING
"Transit Journal "-September 15, 1954
1951 Appraisal Washington Railway an# Electric Co. — W. B. Bennett,
1951 Appraisal Capital Traction Go.
"Transit Journal "-March, 1955
"Beginnings f Street Railways in the National CJsipital"-
-Dr. William Tindall-February 20, 1917
"Transit Journal "-June, 1955
Washington Daily News
Oipital Transit Go, street car publications
Reports of Congressional Oommitteea 1906-1952