The Rise and Fall of Charlotte’s Streetcars

This artifact was one of the most ambitious research projects I have ever committed too. It involved looking into the old Charlotte archives, hours and hours of online research, looking through databases, and even checking out books filled with thousands of records. I chose it because it taught me a lot about university-level research, citing your sources, and thinking critically about a strange (but interesting!) topic.

Photo of streetcar from the George M. Ivey collection

As part of the University Honors Program, every new freshman must complete the City as Text program. The City as Text program is meant to introduce all of these new University of North Carolina students to the city of Charlotte, as well as proper research and citation methods. This experience is unique to the Program, and it really sparks interest in the greater community and the city. You are also spurred on to do research on rare documents, held in the top floor of the library.

My first visit to the rare books collection was when the class met on the 10th floor. I had been up to the 10th floor once before, but I never went into the rare books area. When you first enter the glass-enclosed area, you enter a new, distinct environment. There are walls of rare books and large, historical maps sprawled across the tables. There are two computers on either side of you, used by the librarians to digitize information, do research, and scan documents for people. The scanning is important, because unless you scan something or take a picture, you won’t have access to the information – most of the stuff has to stay there!

The reason most of the books, manuscripts, and pictures have to stay there is because of their value. Not necessarily their monetary value, but there informational and educational value; some of those documents would be very hard to find outside of that collection, and represent a historical look at the City of Charlotte. This is why I found the area to be so academically intriguing; from an academic perspective, there are few other experiences that can compare on campus. What was most surprising to me about this experience was how eclectic the collection was, with documents, maps, and more on many different subjects. This led me to look around at the wide variety of documents on display.

While looking around at the great variety of items in the collection, I considered many different topics. The collection is seriously extensive; some of the stuff in there, such as seemingly useless pictures of the sky, just confused me. Despite that confusion, I continued to look at everything, mentally piecing together related items. All of this mental arrangement just created a lot of questions: what WAS the purpose of an old picture of the sky? How did they even collect this much random stuff? I knew I had found the topic I wanted to cover when one particular document really sparked questions; that document was an old book about streetcars and transportation in Charlotte. Did a similar system exist now? What led to this kind of transportation being created? How expensive was it? These questions convinced me to do more research on the topic.

In trying to do more research, I looked at everything that seemed kind of related to public transportation and the streetcar. I found a lot of maps showing streetcar routes, but there was a problem with these; they took the streetcar as a fact of life and not something novel, so they included the simplest of information. Nevertheless, the maps were essential in understanding the layout of the streetcar system. The most useful maps for this were put out by the Chamber of Commerce. I also found a book about the streetcar, Center City Study, which analyzed the effectiveness of its routes. Lastly, I spoke to one of the librarians, who directed me to the George M. Ivey manuscript collection. This collection contained many pictures and other contents about the street car.

First up, we have the maps. I chose one map in particular, Map of Business Section and Portion of Residential Section, Charlotte, N.C., which was put together by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce is an organization dedicated to bringing together businesses to increase cooperation, so it makes sense that they would be interested in the businesses in the area as well as the streetcar that many people used to get to them. Although this wasn’t the biggest map of them all, it had the most detailed display of streetcar routes. This would make it a kind of “transit map”. It’s dated to 1917.

To support this map, I also referenced another map as an additional source. I chose to reference this other map because it was much larger, and even though it was less detailed, it really put the system in context. This second map was made by the Pound & Moore Company. At first I was confused on why on office supplies store would make a map, but then I understood they were the sole sponsors of it. This allowed them to advertise all over a document that many people would need to use. Clever! This particular map could best be described simply as a “street map”, because it outlined almost every street in Charlotte. They made it in 1928, and you can definitely see that some of the streets have been renamed and expanded. The streetcar system itself had been slightly expanded as well.

The second additional source is another map. This map, West Corridor Approach Options, was the only one explicitly about the streetcar. Despite this, I chose to let it be an additional source rather than a primary artifact because of hoe little information it actually contains. The map is from 1902 and is another transit map, this time produced by the city itself. Although I wouldn’t find out until researching the next artifact, this is about a decade after the system opened which actually meant it was still in its infancy. The map was showing a proposed streetcar route, with a special outline, but not much else.

The place where I got the most information from was probably this second artifact and associated additional sources, Center City Study. This is a book all about transportation options and development, and they have actually produced new versions of it, the newest I found being produced in the early 2000s. The copy I was looking at was produced in 1902, and was actually produced by the City of Charlotte. The book contained a lot of information, although some of it was pretty obtuse; for example, it listed the boundaries of the city by listing off over a dozen street names, which was very confusing but kind of made sense once I compared it to a map from that time. The most useful information that I learned from this book is that the streetcar system was started in 1891.

An additional source for that artifact was an essay from the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. From this document I learned a lot, including when other cities in North Carolina built streetcar systems. I learned that Charlotte was beat out by Winston and Asheville, who implemented electric streetcar systems a few months before Charlotte. But that still means Charlotte had its system in place pretty early on! I also learned that the reason they had to introduce the streetcar in a lot of places was because some of the hills were too steep for horsecars.

Another additional source for this section was Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina by Walter R. Turner. Turner talks a lot about the reasons those cities had to develop streetcar systems in the first place. He even talks with specific numbers, saying “From the 1890s to the 1920s, almost every city of at least 10,000 people acquired an electric streetcar system that continued to expand” (p. 3). He goes on to say that these expanding systems were necessary to deal with the rapidly increasing population. Old systems were starting to be crushed under the effects of the bulging populations and increasing consumerism.

The last artifact I looked at was the one that I only found out about after talking to one of the librarians. This was a photograph from the George M. Ivey manuscript collection. In the photograph, you see people waving at the streetcar and some people hanging out the window. This confused me at first, until I realized the photo was from 1938; it was showing the last run of the streetcar! This of course led me to do more research on why they stopped the streetcar system.

My first additional source deals directly with why the stopped the streetcar. The North Carolina Transportation Museum has a lot of great resources, and one of the things they talk about is the explosion of bussing. Once busses became mass produced, led by the increase in bussing students to school, they became a reliable and cheap way to transport people. Busses have advantages over streetcars because they can much more easily change routes, deal with delays and obstacles, and they flow with traffic better. This led Charlotte and many other cities to rethink their public transportation, and caused Charlotte to shut down its streetcar system in 1938.

My other additional source for this artifact comes from Piedmont and Northern Railway Company, whose records I found by doing an advanced search in the library database and specifying the date range that the Charlotte streetcar was active. Although most of these records were complicated stuff I have no hope of understanding, there was plenty of cool and interesting stuff in there as well. For example, there were many photographs in there. These photographs didn’t just cover the streetcars, but also showed trains, and other transportation systems. Most of these pictures were not actually that rare though, because a few of them actually show up on Google if you use the right terms. What WAS cool, however, was that these photos were all in one place. These documents also gave me another reason why the streetcar had to shut down, which is that they were quickly losing money! The system was already supported partially by taxpayers, but by the end of its life it was rapidly hemorrhaging money.

After all of that research, I really have to stop and think about where we are today. Charlotte is supported by a large bussing system, as is has been since the rapid fall of the streetcar, but we’re also moving beyond that. Charlotte has a fast-growing light rail system, which will be connected through UNC Charlotte very soon (and I’m very excited for that!). More importantly, however, is that as of this year, something remarkable has happened – the streetcar has been resurrected! This new streetcar is much more streamlined than the one in place a century ago, of course, and it’s already been a big hit. WCNC reports that the ridership is 67% above projections! This makes me wonder what the next crazy thing to return to Charlotte will be; horsecars coming in 2030, anyone?

Works Cited

Berkey, Rad. “Charlotte Streetcar Ridership 67% above Projections.” WCNC, 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Chamber of Commerce. “Map of Business Section and Portion of Residential Section, Charlotte, N.C.” Charlotte, 1917. Print.

City of Charlotte. Center City Study. Rep. Charlotte: City Of Charlotte Transit, 1902. Print.

City of Charlotte. “West Corridor Approach Options.” Charlotte, 1902. Print.

“George M. Ivey Papers.” 1900-1996. MS, George M. Ivey. University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte.

“Marker P-86.” Electric Streetcars. North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Piedmont and Northern Railway Company. Piedmont and Northern Railway Company Records. 1910-1968. Print.

Pound & Moore Company. “Charlotte Street Map.” Charlotte, 1928. Print.

“Public Busses.” North Carolina Transportation Museum. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Turner, Walter R. “Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina.” Web. 23 Sept. 2015.