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Streetcars Clatter to a Stop

During the late 1800s & early 1900s, streetcars ran on tracks throughout the River City. They rattled along from Ortega to South Jacksonville to Panama Park, on the Northside. Trolley cars carried passengers just as city buses do today. However, trolleys depended on an outside source for power. An arm stretched from the streetcar to overhead wires, which provided electricity. During a violent storm, the arm might sag down, and the trolley would lose its power supply.

Streetcars just couldn’t win their battle against cars and buses. More and more Americans tried to obtain automobiles, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Just as most people today, they would rather drive themselves than to be dependent on public transportation.

To serve those who did rely on public means, buses seem the most economical way to go. For companies, bus routes are more easily established and changed. This is in contrast to streetcar systems, which require expensive tracks, overhead cables, and other equipment. You just can’t pull up tracks and redirect a trolley car as easily.

TOO COSTLY TO BUILD — Take a look at this excerpt from the 1932 report, “Comprehensive City Plan for Jacksonville.” It reveals some of the reasons for trolley systems, along with problems that plagued them:

“(Street car systems) were frequently installed by development concerns desirous of introducing new residents into remote sections; it is said that one of the first street car lines in Jacksonville was the Main Street line from downtown into Springfield and another with a line into old Riverside, both owned and operated by different companies, and each primarily to intensify development of their respective sections. It is also stated that the developers of Ortega installed their own street car line from Ortega to the (Jacksonville) city limits where it met another incoming line of different ownership originally. Such facilities permitted people to live farther from their business or occupation, away from the noise, dirt and heat of the city. But in the past twenty years the automobile has affected the influence of the streetcar… Many (trolley) systems are today laboring under difficulties largely brought about by an inability to anticipate the future needs (new neighborhoods)… It should be understood that no operating company can afford, or should be expected, to extend its service into territory wholly undeveloped or to some isolated factory, park, or residential district… With the influence of the automobile as a factor many bus lines have been inaugurated…”

OUT WITH THE OLD AND IN WITH THE NEW: (photo 1) This 1936 photo from Jacksonville shows a streetcar cheek to jowl with its rival, the bus. That year, 1936, was the last in which trolley cars ran in the River City. The picture was snapped on Forsyth Street, between the present-day Bank of America tower and the old Hayden Burns Library.

The tall building on the right side, the Bisbee Building, still stands and will be preserved by the City of Jacksonville. Next to it is a sign for the Forsyth Street entrance of the Arcade Movie Theater. This derelict building partly collapsed in 2002, and bulldozers have leveled the remains.

THE FINAL RUN — (Photo 2) These VIPs sat in on the final run of the Jacksonville’s trolleys, December 12, 1936.  They were the last paying rider (Judge Burton Barrs), the president of the streetcar company (J. P. Ingle), the mayor of Jacksonville (John T. Alsop), and a man who had been carried by the city’s first electric streetcar (C. D. Gay).  (Photo 3) That same day, these dignitaries gathered on the rainy, final day of streetcar service in Jacksonville. They were local government officials and Jacksonville Transit Company officers. The time was 11:30 AM. The location was on Forsyth Street downtown, just west of the intersection with Ocean. This would have been outside the windows of the old Hayden Burns Library.

Jacksonville’s city hall used to stand where the Haydon Burns Library building is currently located. Ironically, a large bus stop now occupies the spot where the people are assembled. Just to the left of the long-gone Hotel Windle is the 17-story Lynch Building (American Heritage Building). Erected in 1926, in recent years it was converted into an apartment building named 11 East.

Just four months prior to this photo, the Jacksonville Journal announced that Bay Street would be paved, meaning the end of the Jacksonville’s trolleys.  This would leave Jacksonville and San Antonio, Texas, as the South’s largest cities with all-bus service.  They would also rank as the region’s only urban areas of over 100,000 people that relied only on city buses for public transportation.

The streetcars in  photo 3 were the only two remaining streetcars in Jacksonville. After the picture was taken, they made their final run, rolling  from Forsyth Street onto Ocean, and then to Bay. Christmas shoppers waved farewell as the trolleys clattered by. They headed west to the Riverside Avenue viaduct, climbed over it, and crept into the trolley barns for the last time.

Whereas only two trolleys had served Jacksonville in December 1936, eighty-five city buses rolled about its streets.

The remaining two photos show the city’s trolleys in happier days. Photo 4 shows a horse-drawn trolley in the late 1800s, letting off its riders in what would one day become Riverside’s Memorial Park. Photo 5  was taken in 1915 and shows the Riverside Trolley.

written by Glenn Emery



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