America’s first commercially operated electric streetcar ran in Baltimore on August 10, 1885 when inventor Leo Daft converted the Baltimore and Hampden line from horse-drawn cars to his third rail system. The pioneering technology used current from a middle rail as its power supply. Often attributed to Frank Sprague, Daft’s electric train was in service before Sprague electrified Richmond Virginia’s public transit system.
In 1891 an extensive cable car system was established by the Baltimore Traction Company, its first line running from Druid Hill Park to Patterson Park. The expensive technology used underground steel cables to pull streetcars along at 6-11 mph. Power was supplied by steam engines placed in warehouses. The cable car system was abandoned in 1899, the same year Baltimore’s numerous transit providers consolidated into the United Railways and Electric Company.
After consolidation a multitude of technical obstacles needed to be dealt with. The various types of streetcars, tracks and power sources were slowly standardized into one working unit. A massive coal-burning power plant was erected on Pratt Street near the center of the system, its four smokestacks reaching 190 feet into the air. Overhead lines were stitched throughout the city, and structures, large and small, were erected or altered in many neighborhoods and districts.
Baltimoreans used streetcars not only for vocation and recreation but to extend their territorial boundaries. As City Council annexed county land residents began to migrate. Electric streetcars enabled workers to live further from their jobs, facilitating the city’s growth in the first half of the 20th Century.
Enter the automobile. By 1914 Henry Ford was producing a new Tin Lizzie every fifteen minutes using improved assembly line techniques. The proliferation of cars created the need for better roads and highways, marking the beginning of the streetcar’s decline. WWI and WWII provided significant bumps in business, but it was too late. City engineers gradually removed trolley tracks to accommodate the influx of new automobiles. The United Railways and Electric Company was slowly taken over by out-of-state interests and eventually dismantled. The bus system was chosen and in November of 1963 the last electric streetcar to operate in Baltimore made its final run.
Several monuments to the city’s trolley system remain. North Baltimore has three waiting stations: Bedford Square, Overhill and Edgevale Road. Numerous communities have tracks still installed on or under the streets, especially in the Fells Point area. Old power stations and car barns are still standing. The Charles Street streetcar barn, built during the cable car experiment of the 1890s, is just north of Pennsylvania Station next to the Chesapeake Restaurant building. Park Terminal near Druid Hill Park and Bolton Hill’s Linden Avenue stop are further examples of local streetcar relics.
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers rides on restored historic cars. Located under the North Avenue bridge, the unique museum is open on Sundays year round. The facility also contains the Maryland Rail Heritage Library, a valuable resource to local history.