Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
William D. Metz
Street railway transportation developed as an innovation from horse drawn public vehicles. The horse railroad, introduced into Rhode Island at the time of the Civil War, was the first successful attempt to cope with urban transportation burdens. The horse car developed slowly in Rhode Island, centering for the most part in Providence and its environs. Originating with many small independent lines, horse-car lines in Providence and Pawtucket were consolidated under the name of the Union Railroad Company. By 1890, the Union Railroad owned and operated evert horse-car line in the state, save the Woonsocket line. Its holdings included the Providence Cable Tramway Company, a cable car road which operated on College Hill and the East Side of Providence.
An improvement on the horse-car, the electric street railway provided transportation facilities in almost every part of the state. While helping socially to urbanize rural Rhode Island, street railways also proved to be highly profitable. Manipulators and financiers bought out control of one company after another and made street railways “big business.” By the end of the century, one holding company, the United Traction and Electric Company, was running the entire public transit system in central Rhode Island.
Consolidation continued on into the twentieth century and resulted in the formation of the Rhode Island Company and the Shore Line Electric Railway Company. The Rhode Island Company, a product of the United Traction Company, was purchased by the New Haven Railroad during the winter of 1906-1907 and controlled by that company until 1914. During this period the company prospered and expanded its operations to their fullest extent. The Shore Line system was one of several owners in the Westerly area, none of which was able to operate profitably. Newport operations, which had their base in Massachusetts, showed the small profit which was typical of interurban lines.
In 1915 several forces presented the street railways with their first major challenge. The automobile considered a luxury item, became more available to the general public through mass production. Numerous cars, called jitneys, began competing with the street cars for passengers. Besides creating a social revolution, the automobile developed suburbia, thereby depriving the street car lines of some of their most lucrative business, the short-haul, city rider.
Unable to meet the challenge suffering from chronic corporate problems, the Rhode Island Company was forced into receivership. Reorganized as the United Electric Railways Company after financial and political maneuvers, the new company began to rely on the newly developed bus, an offspring of the jitney. Busses continued to be more economical than street cars, and, as a result, all lines in the state switched entirely to busses or trackless trolleys.
Newport, Westerly, and south Rhode Island were served wholly, by busses by 1930, while street cars continued to run in Providence until 1948.
Street cars or trolleys were more than conveyances of public transportation. Before the arrival of the automobile, the street car reduced congestion in city streets, provided the first orderly mass transportation system, aided in urbanizing rural areas, provided freight and mail delivery and brightened the lives of many by offering a form of relaxed and leisurely transportation for a Sunday picnic.
Rosenberg, Samuel Henry, "A History of Street Railways in Rhode Island" (1962). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 1963.