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History


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.


The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.


Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.


An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.


This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.

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Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 77

On Tuesday, we posted our seventy-seventh photo challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 18 guesses. Only three got all five. Great work, AlexC, Stephen C, and We Will Crush Peter K!


Image 1: Wiehle Avenue

The first image shows the bus loop entrance at Wiehle Avenue's northern entrance. The greenhouse-like glass structure is a unique architectural feature in the system, unique even among its sister Silver Line stations. We've featured it before in week 21.

Ten knew this one.


Image 2: West Hyattsville

The second image shows the southbound platform at West Hyattsville from one of Metro's new trains (on its first day on the Green Line). The three distinguishing attributes here are the side platforms, the fence, and the roof over the escalator bank.

Side platforms, especially at outdoor stations, are very rare, which narrows the possibilities. This fence is unique and distinctive (and was featured in week 70). One final clue is the escalator canopy, visible at far left.

Fifteen got this one right.


Image 3: Cleveland Park

This picture shows the pair of street entrances to Cleveland Park station stradling Connecticut Avenue. Cleveland Park station, like its neighbors to the north, Van Ness and Tenleytown, has entrances on either side of the street. But unlike at Van Ness, where they both face north, at Cleveland Park, one faces north and the other faces south. This is the only place with that arrangement.

The retail corridor here is also very distinctive, and if you've used the station, you might have recognized some of the buildings. Seventeen were correct.


Image 4: White Flint

The fourth photo shows the underpass below Route 355 at White Flint station. The opposite direction-facing escalator canopies should have helped you narrow this down, as it's a fairly rare arrangement. The actual station entrance is visible at center left. Other clues include the stone wall median on Marinelli Street and a barely-visible Maryland highway sign behind one of the escalator canopy supports.

Fourteen guessed the right answer.


Image 5: Metro Center

The last image proved to be quite hard—harder than I anticipated. However, it should have been possible to deduce as Metro Center given the information provided.

The most distinctive element shown in the picture is the "thanks for riding Metro" sign, which is present in only a few major "gateway" stations. In this case, the sign sits above the 12th and G entrance to the station.

As Peter K noted in his comments, the wall here is without coffer tiles and much more vertical than you'd normally see from a mezzanine. That's because the vault is taller at Metro Center and also because this entrance is at the same level as the Red Line (it's accessed from the Shady Grove platform), as opposed to being one level up, as the 11th and G and 13th and G entrances are, above the Red Line.

The signage also indicates an elevator to street, and given the attributes described in the paragraph above, this has to be a station where the elevator comes straight to the platform, without stopping at a mezzanine (otherwise, the vault would be more horizontal). Rosslyn and Pentagon meet that criteria, but don't have this signage. Wheaton and Forest Glen also have direct platform-to-street elevators, but aren't "waffle" style.

That leaves the three downtown transfer stations. L'Enfant is out because the street elevator lands at the 7th and Maryland mezzanine above the Green/Yellow Line. That leaves a tough choice between Gallery Place and Metro Center. At Gallery Place, the street elevator (actually a pair of them) land at their own fare control area in an alcove off the Glenmont platform. The entry, though, is not as wide as the featured entrance here.

At Metro Center, the street elevator shares this opening with a pair of escalators and a staircase leading to the northeast corner of 12th & G NW, very nearly atop the center of the crossvault (which is under the intersection itself).

Kudos to the six people who correctly deduced that this was Metro Center. Great work, Eric P, AlexC, Paul in SS, Stephen C, and We Will Crush Peter K!

Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with our next quiz.

The whichWMATA quiz generally runs on the second and fourth weeks of the month, with quizzes on Tuesdays and answers on Thursdays. Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

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Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 77

After a winter hiatus, it's (finally!) time for the seventy-seventh installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Transit


Did Metro handle buses correctly in this mostly-non-storm?

On Monday afternoon, WMATA announced that Metrobuses would only run on a "moderate" snow plan, which cancels or reroutes a large number of buses. But when snow didn't materialize on much of the region, the agency restored service at dawn Tuesday. Did it make the right calls?


Not what happened. Photo by tadfad on Flickr.

Ned Russell wasn't so enthusiastic about the original decision. On Monday, he wrote,

This seems a bit much for what is forecast to be rain to an inch dusting in the city. NYC buses don't change at all for this little snow. I live in Eckington and the three primary routes that serve the neighbourhood—D8, 80 and P6—are all detoured or cancelled with far fewer stops in and around the neighborhood.
Gray Kimbrough felt some whiplash from the decisions:
I understand that there's a lot of uncertainty here and it's impossible to please everyone, but keeping transit service running is important to the region. Preemptively announcing significantly limited service only to switch back to regular service early this morning was disruptive to a lot of people.

I guess this could be the new normal strategy, which could be okay if we're clear on what it means. "WMATA plans to curtail bus service tomorrow but will reevaluate at 4 AM; check back for updates" would have been a much more helpful communication to riders if that was their intended strategy all along.

I checked and the @metrobusinfo Twitter account did tweet the revision just before 4 am, though @wmata didn't until 6 am and it didn't really filter through the media until later in the morning.

Other contributors, however, defended Metro, saying this was a very tough situation.

Abigail Zenner felt that she'd rather Metro preemptively cancel service than try to run it and have buses get stuck, as she's experienced in her neighborhood of Glover Park.

Warmer temperatures mean no ice. It could have easily gone the other way. We are cursed to be on the snow line.

In the past, we would slide to the bus stop only to find out a bus was stuck on a slippery spot never to be heard from again and blocking the road.

Adam Froehlig explained the extremely difficult forecast:
Yesterday afternoon it looked tricky. The "cutoff line" was basically right on top of the region, aligned southwest to northeast. This is a difficult forecast, as Abigail mentioned earlier. In scenarios like this where you're close to the freezing point not just at the surface but at lower altitudes, all it takes is a difference of one or two degrees at the right altitude to make the difference between rain, snow, or some other form of freezing precipitation.

What looks like happened is temperatures stayed just warm enough at the right altitudes to keep the precip as mostly rain or rain/snow mix from the District south and east. It should be noted (and highlights the cutoff mentioned above) that Dulles and BWI have been all snow since 4am, while National has been oscillating between rain or a rain/snow mix.

So the change overnight is likely what prompted WMATA to change their plans this morning, and also played a factor in OPM's status decision.

Jonathan Neeley also gave Metro the benefit of the doubt:
The thought I keep coming back to is that the blizzard was a chance to not screw up royally, and Metro seized it. They agency didn't handle everything perfectly, but given its however-many-years' worth of poor decision making and customer service, I think it's OK to say things went well.

Obviously, yesterday's precautions wound up being unnecessary, but as others have said, that isn't always clear until pretty late in the game. I don't know exactly what factors went into making decisions about bus service, both yesterday and pre-blizzard. But I'm willing to consider that being a bit too trigger happy in that realm has been part of a tradeoff that meant a positive move for bus and rail service overall.


Also not what happened. Photo by Samir Luther on Flickr.

While contributors reached a consensus that the forecast was understandably uncertain (one model predicted no snow and then 10 inches on consecutive runs six hours apart), some were still not persuaded that going to the moderate plan was necessary in the first place. Kelli Raboy said:

Going to the moderate snow plan was an overreaction, even for the worst-case forecasts. The moderate plan cuts a significant number of routes. The light snow plan would have been more reasonable.

Many people in this region rely on WMATA to get to work. When they cut bus routes far in advance of potential snow, it sends the message that WMATA is not a reliable option for transportation. I'm lucky to be able to telework when WMATA overreacts like this. Many people, especially the underserved in our communities, do not have that luxury.

From an operational standpoint, I understand the need to have a plan ready several hours in advance (so that employees and buses are in the right place at the right time). But that reasoning went out the window when WMATA changed their minds at the last minute anyway.

I also think they did a poor job communicating the changes. There was never any suggestion yesterday that the plan could change in the morning.

Matt Johnson agreed:
I think Metro is being overly cautious, and too much so in this case. The forecast was very uncertain (0-10" forecast), but Capital Weather Gang favored the "nuisance" end heavily, meaning that they thought the best chances were for very little snow.

Metro announced that they were going to "moderate" snow plan, which cuts service to many residents and businesses throughout the region long before forecasts were nailed down. And I suspect strongly that they were simply managing expectations. "Oh, look everybody, we're doing more than we promised!" That's not acceptable in this case, because as has been pointed out, the cancellation of much service was the last word anyone heard about it.

It would have been much more prudent for the agency to have said Monday night, "Given the uncertain forecast, Metrobus service and routes may be affected in the morning. Please check the website for up to date information in the morning. An announcement about service will be made no later than 5:00 am."

Ned Russell added, "Residents should not have to check their transit options every morning of their commute. I imagine a lot of people are not in the habit of repeatedly checking WMATA's status round-the-clock."

What do you think?

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Links


Worldwide links: Cheap(ish) houses

Cheaper housing is doable, but it's about way more than just construction costs, strict rules are killing Sydney's night life, and a potential light rail line from Brooklyn to Queens. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Hans Drexler on Flickr.

A house, on the cheap: Auburn architecture students have developed a house that costs $20k to build and that, by conventional standards, is very nice. But building costs are only one challenge to affordability; remaining hurdles include formidable zoning codes, trouble securing mortgages, and finding a knowledgable contractor. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Say goodnight, Sydney: Regulations that restrict alcohol servings and bar hours in some key entertainment districts are killing Sydney's night life. From 2012 to 2015, foot traffic dropped by 84%, and 42 businesses in the night life industry shut down. (Linked In Pulse)

Big Apple transit: New York City is considering a 16-mile light rail line that'd run between Queens and Brooklyn. The Mayor hopes that it will connect places on the waterfront but the idea is getting mixed reviews from residents and pundits. And those on Staten Island wonder when their time for investments will come. (New York Times)

Even on trains, voices carry: Thanks to new technology, it's now less likely that a train operator or bus driver makes an announcement on a transit system, and more likely that it comes from a pre-recorded or even non-human voice. That can mean more consistency, but matters like pronunciation have left some riders unhappy. (Guardian Cities)

Consider the flip side:Do the usual anti-transit suspects make you want to pull your hair out? Jarrett Walker, the author of Human Transit, says its worth considering the good points they make even if they're buried in bad ones. (Human Transit)

Alley cats: Hong Kong's alleyways can be cluttered, messy, smelly... and beautiful. Cleaning them up, says photographer Michael Wolf, can lead to a feeling of "sterilization" that dismisses character and charm. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Quote of the week: "Soon enough, the park could be growing trees from trash and rats would no longer have a buffet of garbage to feast on every night." - Cole Rosengren writing about a future in which vacuum tubes take our compost away. (Fusion)

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Roads


Use this map to share your ideas for better east-west travel across DC

Is it frustrating to try to travel from Columbia Heights to Brookland on foot, bike, bus, or car? The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it easier to travel east-west in this area, and a new interactive map lets you point out problems.


Map by DDOT. map. Click for an interactive version.

This WikiMap is part of DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study, the goal of which is to improve all modes of travel between 16th Street NW and South Dakota Avenue NE. It lets users identify problems with and suggest solutions for
walking, riding a bike, driving, transit, public space, parking, and intersections, and is a user-friendly way to participate in DDOT's search for long-term solutions.

People who frequently commute by foot, bike, bus, car, or other means through the corridor have firsthand knowledge on the area's congestion, safety, and streetscape issues. They're also likely to have ideas on how these issues can be addressed to improve transportation mobility and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beyond the crowdsourced map, DDOT recently kicked off the first in a series of public meetings for the project aimed at gathering feedback.


A map of the study area.

The interactive map will be available on DDOT's website (just click the first image in this post) for several months.

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