The Mysterious Case of the Missing Streetcar Lines

I’ve finally gotten around to reading a book that’s been on my shelf waiting for a while, Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth T. Jackson. Not a traditional architectural history, the book does explain alot about how American cities and suburbs came to be and to function the way they do.

Cooper Postcard Collection, MDAH

The chapter on streetcars “The Time of the Trolley” especially struck me. I know about streetcars of course, and have heard of various streetcar lines in Jackson, but only in a vague way. I never really thought about all the implications of a trolley line, but Jackson walks us through the workings of these early engines of suburban development:

No invention, however, had a greater impact on the American city between the Civil War and World War I than the visible and noisy streetcar and the tracks that snaked down the broad avenues into undeveloped land. (p. 103)

As with the omnibus and the horsecar, the exclusive right to operate an electric railway line along particular city streets was typically granted by municipal government to private companies in return for certain guarantees of service. (p. 109)

Ok, so now I get how they worked and how they influenced the development of suburban neighborhoods, but how do I figure out where exactly they ran in our Mississippi towns? It seems like it would be easy to find a map showing the lines, but so far, that has been elusive. I know that in Jackson there was a line up North State Street, ending in the small suburb of Fondren, either at the old Asylum (what is now UMC hospital) or at Council Circle, depending on who you talk to. And I suspect there was one going out West Capitol Street toward the Jackson Zoo. Other than that, I have no clues other than the existence of neighborhoods from the early 20th century.

A little internet research tells me at least what cities to focus on. Poor’s Manual documented the various street railroad companies from the 1860s through at least the early 20th century. The 1901 Poor’s Manual gives us this list for Mississippi (click on the image to go to a slightly larger version on GoogleBooks):

Cooper Postcard Collection, MDAH

In addition to Biloxi, Natchez, Jackson, Vicksburg, Meridian, and Greenville, we know from the 1890 Poor’s Manual that the little town of Enterprise had 1.35 miles of track during its heyday. We also know from postcards like these from Gulfport that other cities around the state boasted their own tracks: at least Hattiesburg and Pascagoula. As far as I know, no tracks still exist anywhere. The paper record seems to have also gone underground. Does anyone out there know a good source to tell exactly where the various lines ran, or where the lines in your town were?



Categories: Architectural Research, Books, Urban/Rural Issues

21 replies

  1. Some of the tracks are still visible in Vicksburg. A Riverfront Mural also depicts the trolley line. See photos here:

    http://martykittrellphotos.blogspot.com/search/label/trolley

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  2. Wow, I had no idea there were any still visible, Marty! Thanks for taking and sharing those pictures. Vicksburg, according to the Poor’s Manual above, had over 10 miles of track, so it was a pretty well-developed system there.

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  3. Here’s a link to some early 20th centry census data on street railways in Mississippi. As for Gulfport, I know the Gulfport and Mississippi Coast Traction Company (the predecessor of the Mississippi Power Company) had a track along the coastline form at least Gulfport to Biloxi. http://books.google.com/books?id=5lYpAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA350&dq=%22gulfport+and+mississippi+coast+traction%22&hl=en&ei=lh7QTKjzHsL-8AbuwLyQBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22gulfport%20and%20mississippi%20coast%20traction%22&f=false

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    • Jim, do you know whether that line ran along what is now Beach Blvd or if it was further inland along the railroad track?

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      • The line ran right along the waterfront, beside the original shell road, south of all the houses and what little commercial development existed in the early years of the 20th century. I have also learned that the line eventually was extended west to Pass Christian. In downtown Gulfport, as shown in your postcards, the line ran along 13th Street, north of the Great Southern Hotel. The tracks were still exposed as recently as 20 years ago on the western portions of 13th Street.

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  4. It seems like I remember that some of the lines were still visible on State St. and Capital St. when I was a kid in the ’70s. (I also remember when you could drive on State St. around the curves in Fondren at 40 mph without bouncing from ditch to ditch or popping a tire in a pothole, though I, of course, never did drive so fast!)

    What I’ve always wondered is why streetcar lines are still highly used in so many places, such as European cities, but they disappeared here?

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  5. Some say it was a conspiracy between auto (bus) manufacturers, oil companies, and rubber companies that drove the streetcar to near extinction.

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  6. Another book you might want to examine as you look at how transportation affects city growth is Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900 by Sam Bass Warner.

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  7. Carunzel: I’ve heard that General Motors put the streetcar lines out of business by heavily discounting its passenger buses. I have no idea about the validity of that story.

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  8. Another piece of the puzzle that Kenneth Jackson notes several times in his book as he examines the change in cities through the 20th century is that while streetcar and railroad companies were required to build and maintain their own track, streets and roads were built at public expense, thus subsidizing automobile-based development at the expense of rail-based development. It’s something I never really thought enough about before.

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  9. for information on the demise of the streetcar, Google “National City Lines” and read the Wikipedia article. While it’s true that times were changing and a more prosperous nation wanted a vehicle for every citizen, and the roads to accommodate them, there was a very real conspiracy among the internal combustion promoters (GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, etc.), to see the end of streetcars.

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  10. Thanks everyone. I’m not sure I really wanted to know all that.

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  11. Another excellent book that discusses the auto and oil industry efforts to make other forms of transportation obsolete is The Political Economy of Urban Transportation (1977) by Delbert A. Taebel and James V. Cornehls of University of Texas at Arlington. I recently co-authored a policy analysis with Cornehls based on the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina, and he is still as “tell it like it is” as he was in 1977. I recommend the book if you are interested in the topic.

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  12. Carunzel, I too remember seeing the old tracks here and there in Jackson during the 70’s. Going back much further than that, my dad use to talk about how the kids in his era (20’s and 30’s) would put grease on the track going up the hill by the current Baptist Hospital, making it impossible for the tolleys to climb the hill. Just goes to show that teenagers of all eras are going to find a way to have their fun.

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  13. In the 70s when I worked on Monument street (that is High Street after it crosses Lamar st – headed west) you could see the streetcar tracks that came north along Mill street from Capitol, and turned and went under the IC elevated tracks on monument. The rails were visible on the curve as they turned from Mill onto Monument because the car and truck traffic wore away the pavement, exposing the tops of the rails. I don’t get down that way much any more, and I believe that thicker asphalt over-paving has obliterated any sign.

    Also, where the tracks were in the underpass, under the elevated IC tracks, they were visible – can’t put too much new paving there, because the clearance is pretty low already.

    My mother-in-law was a young girl in Jackson MS before the war (World War II) and she rode the streetcars from near downtown to the end of the line on State Street which was (she says) right in front of the old Capri theater. She lived just off of Council circle, and she would walk from the end of the streetcar tracks in Fondren to Council.

    Here is a spotting tip – look for parallel cracks in the pavement, 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart. That is your street car tracks, still there, under the asphalt. Use to be very prominent on Mill street.

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    • Thanks for those solid pieces of information, Jay! I had no idea that the line went up Mill Street, but I’m going to go down there this weekend and poke around for any signs of those parallel cracks.

      That’s also the first time I’ve heard that the Fondren line stopped in front of Capri. The theater was built around 1937 as I recall, but Duling School had been there since the 1920s, so that area was already the center of the neighborhood. Fascinating!

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  14. Columbus, MS also had a streetcar line. Take a look at this 1920s era postcard from the University of Mississippi archives:

    http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/rayburn&CISOPTR=345&CISOBOX=1&REC=6

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  15. As luck would have it, soon after this post appeared, I stumbled onto a book about Mississippi’s streetcar lines called Travelling by Trolley in Mississippi by Frank Brooks. I’ve now gotten Mr. Brooks permission to reprint his book here on MissPres, and I expect to begin running a chapter each Thursday, beginning next week. The first chapter is on Columbus! It’s amazing how many of our towns had streetcars, and even extensive systems, back in the day. I think you’ll be really excited to read this book–so much information and stories that would have been lost if Mr. Brooks hadn’t compiled it back in 1983.

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  16. I’ll definitely use this link when I run the post on Columbus, and feel free to post other links to images as you come across them. Once you start looking for them, they tend to pop up everywhere!

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  17. I can’t wait to read the book. I was driving through Columbus the other day and thought the streets were unusually wide and just happened to start Googling trolleys in Mississippi when I got home and stumbled onto this website. I’m glad I found it. I’m from the Oxford area and a huge history fan (especially railroad history) and will definitely be checking this site often and contributing as much as I can.

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  1. Round the Blogosphere 11-15-2010 | Preservation in Mississippi

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