CINCINNATI — Anyone in Over-the-Rhine or Downtown Sunday saw something no one in the city had seen for more than six decades: Officials ran the first local, on-road test of Cincinnati's newest streetcar vehicle along its recently completed 3.6-mile starter loop.
It was a new sight for many, but a century ago streetcars were commonplace on Queen City streets.
In a collection of anecdotes and newspaper clippings — from which the foreword of this story comes — David McNeil called the streetcars "absolutely essential," and a central part of residents' everyday lives.
Throughout the nearly 300-page volume, McNeil compiled stories of youngsters going fishing, orphans being trolleyed to the Cincinnati Zoo — the president of the Cincinnati Traction Company had a soft spot for the struggle of parentless children (and also happened to own the zoo at the time) — couples falling in love (and sometimes out of it), political battles, bar brawls, stories of faith, conflict, loss, romance, politics, crime and more.
And whether they were in the backdrop or forefront, Cincinnati's streetcars were a part of each story.
They were everywhere. For nearly a century -- from the 1850s through the 1940s -- streetcars were the most common way for Cincinnatians to get where they were going.
According to a report to common council in 1887, Cincinnati City Clerk Edwin Henderson said council had filed more than 70 ordinances relating to "street railroads" to date, and Henderson's report detailed 25 routes in service at the time.
At their peak, Cincinnati's railway companies offered commuters dozens of streetcar routes with nearly 250 miles of track.
Two hundred. Fifty. Miles. That's the distance from here to Cleveland.
While that sinks in, let's go back in time...
'Boxes on Wheels'
Historian Allen Singer, who has written multiple books on the history of Cincinnati transit, said horse-powered street railroad cars started to emerge as early as the 1850s, as the city was becoming too large for many residents to walk casually to and from work.
Prior to the streetcars, Singer said, workers commuted by omnibus — a covered, horse-drawn wagon — which often meant uncomfortable, slow rides (that is, when the roads weren't too wet for the bus to move at all).
Early riders called these first horsecar lines "boxes on wheels," Singer said. By 1860, five privately-owned horsecar lines operated in the city limits. In the 15 years to follow, service grew to 14 lines and 45 miles of track "that criss-crossed the city, employing 550 men and 1,000 horses," according to Singer. The cars were painted unique colors to differentiate between lines.
In what might be the most comprehensive look at Cincinnati's history with streetcars, Richard Wagner and Roy Wright described how these horse-drawn rail lines were a far cry from how we think of streetcars today:
The efficiency, convenience and safety of the street railway system as we remember it presents a strong contrast to conditions in early horsecar days. Prior to 1879, the business of hauling passengers over city streets was mostly an experimental project conducted on a trial and error basis.
- "Cincinnati Streetcars" No. 1, Wagner/White
One particular challenge was the city's hilly terrain, which caused the horses to struggle when attempting to haul a car full of passengers. This gave rise to one of the nation's only systems of rail inclines, and it wasn't long before the city boasted an inclined rail serving Mount Auburn, Price Hill, Fairfax, Clifton Heights and Mount Adams.
Singer described the inclines as "sociological icons within Cincinnati [symbolizing] technological achievement for the city" with a "near-perfect" safety record. The only incline incident to involve deaths happened on the Mount Auburn incline in October 1889, when a car crashed at the foot of Jackson Hill on Main Street, killing six people, Singer said.
By the 1880s, more than 200 horse-drawn streetcars were in operation, and this was around the same time Cincinnati rail operators ceased the use of horse-drawn cars in favor of newer technologies: first steam, then cable cars, then electric-powered cars.
In 1888, the Mt. Adams & Eden Park Inclined Railway Company introduced the city's first electric streetcar.
The next two decades marked what historians described as a period of rapid growth along Cincinnati's street railway corridors, by this point dominated by the Cincinnati Street Railway Company (although a few competitors remained). By 1911, the city boasted more than 40 streetcar lines and more than 200 miles of track. That mileage would grow closer to 250 miles by the next decade.
In the years to come, Cincinnati would see a variety of electric streetcar makes and models, culminating with the city's final order of 25 new vehicles in 1947, which Wagner and Wright described as "new, streamlined streetcars with deep slanted windshields and standee windows."
'Relentless Transition' from Streetcars to Buses
By the turn of the century, competition over control of Cincinnati's streetcar system was at a fever pitch among several railway companies, each bringing new and improved cars and offering new routes to commuters.
Here's what the Cincinnati Traction Company had to offer as far as streetcar service throughout the city in 1911:
Look at all those routes. Just look at them.
Reaching as far west as Anderson Ferry and Westwood, as far east as Mount Washington and as far north as College Hill, the streetcar routes were integrated with canals and interurban trains that connected to other cities across the region.
But the prosperity of Cincinnati's streetcar fleets did not come without problems. Streetcars sharing the road with horse-drawn carriages, and later automobiles, made the city's streets congested and commutes slow, Singer explained.
Although they were faster than horsecars, [electric streetcars] still were relatively slow and often packed with passengers jammed inside, hanging on the edges and sitting on roofs, resulting in many confrontations and fistfights in the tight quarters.
- "The Cincinnati Subway: History of Rapid Transit," Singer
The combination of streetcars and motorists also spelled trouble for pedestrians who, in the early years of cable and electric cars, were not accustomed to vehicles moving so quickly down the road.
Singer wrote: "Impatient motorists occasionally would drive between a streetcar and its passenger-loading platform and accidentally run over someone stepping off the platform to board the streetcar."
Crashes between automobiles and streetcars were a daily occurrence.
It didn't help that, in the early 20th century, virtually no road laws had been written yet.
As the years passed and the prevalence of automobiles continued to rise, Cincinnati witnessed what Wagner and Wright described as "the relentless transition away from streetcars on rails to rubber tired vehicles." Between 1936 and 1951, the remaining 29 streetcar lines, one by one, switched to trolley buses.
By 1950, only 10 streetcar lines remained in service.
In 1951, Enquirer columnist James Ratliff described Cincinnati as a city "no longer tolerant of streetcars," and on April 29 of that year, Route 78 - Lockland made its final run on Cincinnati's rails.
A City 'Built by Streetcars'
In an interview with WCPO, Singer called the emergence of rail transport a "game changer," both within the city and — with the popular interurban rail lines connecting Cincinnati to other Midwestern cities — on a regional scale.
"Suddenly, you were just an hour away from family or friends (in Middletown or Dayton, say) rather than a day or more," Singer said. "In the beginning, even with the horsecar lines, development started happening along those lines. That also happened later with the steam dummies.
"[The streetcar] was such a necessity to allow the city to grow. Cincinnati was practically built by the streetcars."
Singer credits the rapid turn-of-the-century growth of the Mill Creek Valley and surrounding west side neighborhoods chiefly to the streetcar. The quickly growing suburbs owed the same due to the interurban lines, Singer said, like those depicted in this map:
If this refrain sounds familiar, it should. When city leaders first began considering a return to light rail transit several years ago, then-City Manager Milton Dohoney called the proposed streetcar a "solution to a problem" — namely, urban flight and the decline of businesses in the city's central neighborhoods.
In a presentation to the Budget & Finance Committee in 2013, Dohoney outlined the findings of the 2008 GO Cincinnati Growth and Opportunities Study, which found:
At present, Cincinnati and the region's one size fits all transportation systems undermine continued economic growth and the creation of livable communities. In addition, the inadequate public transportation system puts Cincinnati and the region at a very serious competitive disadvantage.
- Presentation to Budget & Finance Committee, April 29, 2013, Dohoney
For Dohoney, it was "no small coincidence" that the dismantling of the streetcar seemed to precede the very problems of urban flight and business decline the city had observed in the decades since the streetcar's final run in 1951.
In other words, so the logic went, the way to address the problems seen in the wake of the streetcars' disappearance is simple: bring back the streetcar. Dohoney and other supporters since have been more detailed and nuanced in their characterization of this logic (see the following video).
But Singer attributes Cincinnati's urban flight to more than just the streetcar's demise. He includes it with a number of other factors, like post-World War I anti-German sentiments and other cultural and racial tensions, all of which began to pitch well before the streetcar's final run.
In 21st century Cincinnati, Singer sees the new streetcar as more of a tourist attraction than a transportation tool, describing what he called the streetcar's "novelty" value for younger generations and "nostalgia" appeal for those old enough to remember the old streetcars.
"It's going to attract a lot of people to those areas," Singer said — acknowledging what others have said and what the city has observed about increased development along the streetcar line — but also that, while he's hopeful, he remains unsure how strongly the streetcar will catch on in the long term as a transportation tool.
The difference between now and a century ago, he said, is an issue of necessity. "Cincinnati has their automobiles, which wasn't the case 100 years ago, and there's already a good public transportation system in place (Cincinnati Metro)," Singer said.
Derek Bauman, southwest Ohio regional director for rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, said this perception of the streetcar in Cincinnati has been common as the project gained momentum, and — at this stage — it's not illogical, especially when comparing it to what Cincinnati used to have.
"[The 3.6-mile loop] is just a small portion that just goes downtown, compared to what we used to have, which was an extensive grid," he said.
Bauman said for the streetcar to catch on and achieve healthy growth, it's crucial people view the starter loop as just that — a start. Despite the celebrations and fanfare that have accompanied the recent track completion and arrival of the first vehicle, the loop itself should not be thought of as a complete project, he said.
"What we've created is a spine through the center of town," Bauman said. "We've created a spine to add to, to create a future light rail system."
The Track Ahead
When Cincinnati's newest streetcar vehicle arrived in town last month, it signaled a strategic and vision-based continuation of what, a century ago, had arisen out of pure necessity combined with limited technologies.
And the legacy of Cincinnati's once-great streetcar system is literally written on the new vehicle's walls: The streetcar is numbered car 1175, the next in line after the No. 1174, the last streetcar to be built for Cincinnati in 1947.
Click here to see an interactive comparison of No. 1174 and No. 1175.
For that legacy to keep moving forward, Bauman said, a critical decision was made to build the streetcar to specifications that would allow it to grow to other Cincinnati neighborhoods, as well as become integrated with future interurban lines. Those lines could someday run to more outlying cities like Mason, Oxford, Hamilton or Dayton.
"The sort of train that would run on lines like those could also run on the OTR-Downtown loop," Bauman said. "Today it might seem to folks like it's just from The Banks to OTR, but this system was designed to build upon."
The concept of integration is also how Bauman sees the streetcar moving forward alongside the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's other transit system, the Cincinnati Metro, considered among peer cities to be one of the most efficiently run bus systems in the country.
"They need to be complementary," he said. "I should be able to make transfers just like I do from one bus to another." SORTA has been clear about their intentions to integrate fare systems between the bus and the streetcar as the project has progressed.
But where Bauman sees the streetcar providing the most potential for growing Cincinnati's public transit footprint is ensuring its ease of use.
"Especially for folks unfamiliar with public transit, if you're not familiar with the buses, you're not riding because you might not know where the bus goes," he said. "But there's an ease of use, especially for the new transit rider, that the streetcar is going to introduce to people. You can see the overhead wires; you can see the rails in the ground without having to look at a map. It's going to introduce to the concept of public transportation to people that might not have otherwise used it.
"It will bring new people to the transit world," he said.
Along for the Ride
Ultimately, only time will tell how far Cincinnati's streetcar will reach a century later, but the train is literally pulling into the station as we speak.
Will the streetcar weave itself into the fabric of the Queen City's everyday, as it did once before? Maybe, but probably not for a while: If history is any indicator, that sort of prevalence took decades, and that was without competition from the now ubiquitous automobile.
But movement in that direction began with Sunday's first on-road test, and now Cincinnati is along for the ride.
In the meantime, here's one last tale from Cincinnati's long lost romance with its street railroads, from the Cincinnati Post in 1903:
This story is part of WCPO Web Editor Pat LaFleur’s continuing coverage of living car-free in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, as the offerings for alternative and public transportation continue to grow throughout the region. Follow Pat on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).