A streetcar on the Guilford Avenue elevated in Baltimore, which ran along Guilford Avenue from Chase Street to just north of Lexington Street from 1893 to 1950. Image by Maryland Transit Administration.

Last week I wrote about Baltimore's Guilford Avenue el, which opened to electric streetcars in May 1893. It's sometimes described as the country's first electrified el and its first elevated trolley, but that isn't strictly true. However, it was electrified before the better-known New York and Chicago elevated lines.

New York and Chicago had steam elevateds long before Baltimore, but they electrified later

The first elevated line in New York opened in 1868 using cable-pulled cars, and it was quickly converted to steam operation. The additional elevated lines that opened in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 1870s and 1880s and in Chicago starting in 1892 used steam locomotives diguised as passenger cars (called “dummy locomotives”) to pull their trains.

New York's Third Avenue Elevated in the Bowery in the 1890's.  A train pulled by a “dummy” steam locomotive is visible in the distance. Image by Photo from Wikipedia (public domain photo).

The first Chicago elevated line to use electric power (the Metropolitan and West Side Elevated Railway) opened in 1895 and the Brooklyn and Manhatten els electrified a few years later. Boston's first elevated line opened with electric trains in 1901 and Philadelphia's Market Street el opened in 1907. This means the Guilford Avenue el, which opened using electric trolley cars in 1893, preceded these better-known systems by several years.

Other early electric elevateds

Along with the well-known systems in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago, there were several short, less-well-known elevated systems operating in the 1890s that electrified at roughly the same time as the Guilford Avenue el opened.

In Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the North Hudson County Railway opened in 1886 as a cable-hauled elevated line connecting the business district near the city's ferry docks on the river with residential areas on the New Jersey palisades. By the end of 1892, however, the whole line had been electrified and, until 1949, it served—like the Baltimore elevated—as part of the city's streetcar system.

The three other elevated systems operating in the 1890s were lines built to connect Midwestern cities' downtowns to new housing developments across river valleys.

The Sioux City Elevated Railroad, also called the Sioux City Rapid Transit, in Iowa was originally built for steam trains, but was electrified in 1892. That made it the country's first electrified, elevated, and operated conventional trolley cars until 1899 (or 1901, sources vary), when it was demolished. This map shows its route and likely station locations.

A photo from the 1890's of a station on the Kansas City elevated. Image by Photo from Kansas Historical Society (public domain photo).

The Inter-State Consolidated Rapid Transit Company line connecting Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas was built to be served by a more complicated combination of cable cars and steam trains. However, by March 1, 1893—two months before Baltimore's Guilford Avenue el opened—it was converted to electric streetcars and operated as part of the city's streetcar network for decades.

Finally, Louisville's Kentucky & Indiana Bridge Company line, originally built for steam trains, was electrified in August 1893. It appears to have been demolished in 1908, although sources vary on the details. This map shows its route and station locations.

While the Guilford Avenue el does appear to have been the first elevated line built for electric trolley cars, it was not the first elevated line with stations. It missed being the first electrified el by about a year, coming in fourth after the Sioux City, Hoboken, and Kansas City systems, and just before the Louisville one.

Why were so many els electrified in such a short time?

The series of el electrifications that occured in the 1890s was not isolated to elevated railroads. The Guilford Avenue el was built only a few years after Frank Sprague installed the first successful rail electrification in the world on the Richmond streetcar network in 1888. Electric streetcar lines opened in Boston in 1889 and by 1895, when the first of Chicago's electrified els opened, over 900 streetcar systems across the country had electrified.

A photo of Boston's Tremont Street Tunnel, the first streetcar subway tunnel in the US. Image by Photo from Wikipedia (public domain photo).

The development of practical electric trains also led to a number of subway systems being constructed. Although the London Underground opened in the 1860s using steam trains, its tunnels were so smoke-filled that only a few other cities built subways for steam trains.

In 1890, only two years after Sprague's electrified system opened in Richmond, the first electrified subway line opened in London. It was followed in 1896 by the electric Budapest Metro and in 1897 by Boston's first subway line for electric streetcars.

 

Sources:

While the Guilford Avenue el and most of the other short elevated railways I discussed do not have their own entries on Wikipedia, there are a number of references to them online. I also consulted several books while writing this article.

Who Made All Our Streetcars Go?, by Michael R. Farrell is a detailed history of Baltimore's streetcars, and seems to be the best source on the Guilford Avenue el. It was later republished as The History of Baltimore's Streetcars, and may be easier to find under that title.

The Cable Car in America, Revised Edition, by George W. Hilton discusses the Kansas City and Hoboken systems, both of which originated as cable cars, in some detail.

Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America, by Brian Cudahy discusses the “prairie els” in Kansas City and Sioux City as a side note in a chapter on the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago els.

In addition, I'd like to thank Alexander Rapp, creator of this series of rapid transit timeline maps for creating the maps I linked to of the elevated lines in Louisville, Kansas City, and Sioux City.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.