Streetcars define Pittsburgh’s transportation history

Before cars, buses, and bicycles but after feet and horses, the main modes of transportation were the streetcar and trolley.

Pittsburgh once had hundreds of trolleys — electric-powered vehicles that run on tracks — and even though they have mostly disappeared from the city, their effects and physical artifacts still linger.

Pittsburgh, at the confluence of three rivers, was a flourishing trade city in 1850. In an essay written in 1978 for the Public Works Historical Society titled Transportation Innovation and Changing Spatial Patterns in Pittsburgh, 1850-1934, Carnegie Mellon professor of history and policy Joel Tarr wrote that “[Pittsburgh’s] 46,601 people lived in an area of 1130 acres. Densities ranged from 66.9 persons per acre to 24.1 persons per acre in the outlying and fastest growing wards.”

New forms of transportation allowed Pittsburgh to expand and become less crowded. The most important new mode of transportation, the streetcar, made its first appearance in 1859. Tarr wrote, “powered initially by horses and mules, then by cable, and ultimately by electricity, the streetcar dominated urban transport until World War I.” Pittsburgh’s first electric trolley line was built in 1890.

Throughout the 19th century, more and more people rode trolleys. According to Tarr, Pittsburgh’s population increased from 46,601 to 238,617 by 1890. At the same time, the number of people per acre decreased as the city continued to expand outward, in large part due to the trolley. The trolley was a relatively quick and easy mode of transportation that allowed people to live farther from the center of the city.

Trolleys similarly transformed downtown Pittsburgh. Formerly a mixed commercial and residential area, people started living outside the city and commuting to work. According to Tarr, the density of population downtown decreased from 45 persons per acre to 29.1 between 1890 and 1900.

It was during the last two decades of the 19th century that many of Pittsburgh’s office buildings were built. Land downtown started to become scarcer, so rather than build outward horizontally, businesses started building vertically. At this point in history, people were not commuting 15–20 miles to work; most 19th century commuters lived one to five miles away from downtown.

If the trolley allowed people to live outside of the city, it may seem odd that so many people still lived near downtown. However, the reason for this is simple: Trolley fares became too expensive and the ride took too much time for steel workers. Tarr wrote that “in the more outlying mill areas, as high as 80 to 90 percent of the work force walked to work.”

By 1910, the trolley industry was already experiencing difficulties. The construction of the rail and overhead cables that carried electricity to trolleys was quite costly. Ironically, the trolley infrastructure wore out before the bonds that financed it were paid off. Edward Lybarger, archivist at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, said, “The trolley industry was capital-intensive. They financed 20- to 30-year infrastructure with 50-year bonds.”

The trolley industry began its struggle with debt, and things would only get worse with World War I and the Great Depression. Trolley companies had a poor relationship with city government — World War I caused major inflation in prices, but the city government prohibited fare increases. The Pittsburgh Railways Company (PRCo) was in receivership from 1918 to 1924. Despite this, the trolley system was at its pinnacle. According to Lybarger, PRCo had 598 miles of track as of 1924. To put Pittsburgh’s system in perspective, Philadelphia had 710 miles, and Chicago (the largest) had 1100 miles of track. Ridership peaked in 1923.

After World War I, the trolley industry faced the Great Depression. Lybarger said, “People weren’t traveling — no jobs. Ridership decreased one-half in three years.” However, World War II came and rejuvenated the trolley industry. Oil and tires were needed for the war effort, so cars and buses had to be used less. Trolleys, reliant on electricity, became the necessary mode of transportation for workers.

The PRCo was in bankruptcy from 1938 to 1951. During those years, when the company did not have to pay off debt, it generated huge sums of money. PRCo had the opportunity to buy new cars, including 465 PCC cars. These trolleys had been designed at a conference called by the presidents of trolley companies (PCC stands for the Presidents’ Conference Committee) in 1929 to make trolley travel preferable to car and bus travel. At one point, PRCo owned 666 PCC cars. According to Lybarger’s article Quick Overview of Public Transit in Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Engineer’s Fall 2005 edition, “The PCC car’s riding qualities, seating comfort, and acceleration characteristics (faster than most autos of the day) made it an effective competitor.”

After World War II ended and America’s economy was booming, things took a turn for the worse for the trolley industry. PRCo came out of bankruptcy in 1951, but the profits from the war dissipated immediately. It was also after World War II that the automobile conquered the trolley. Before, people couldn’t afford cars, and even those who could had to deal with manufacturing time, as manufacturers could not meet demands for the automobile. According to Lybarger, cars were readily available by 1949, and he described trolley ridership as taking a “nosedive.” On top of that, labor problems, including a 56-day strike in 1954, alienated a large number of riders.

Pittsburgh’s city government also played a part in the demise of trolleys. Since 1902, there had been a company called the Philadelphia Company, which included PRCo, Equitable Gas, and Duquesne Light (an electric company still in existence today), which was dissolved by city government into separate parts in the late 1940s. In 1964, the Port Authority of Allegheny County took over operation of the trolley systems in Allegheny County, including PRCo.

Although you won’t see a streetcar running down Forbes Avenue anymore, artifacts of the streetcar era remain. The cast iron poles used to suspend the electric wires, now stripped of purpose, still dot the streetscape past campus, and the rusting rails streetcars used to run from downtown to Squirrel Hill remain in place, buried under the asphalt and making occasional appearances during street resurfacing.

Trolleys have not wholly disappeared. Some cities still have small systems that actually use PCC cars. Much more common, however, is the light rail system. Pittsburgh’s system, the T, has stations downtown. Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs), essentially trolleys with a few modifications, cross over the river and stop at Station Square, and then travel outside of Pittsburgh.

According to the Port Authority’s website, the 25-mile T (which has four overlapping routes) has a daily weekday ridership of 27,000. The system has 25 high-platform stops, 43 low-platform stops, and three subway stations (including one downtown called Steel Plaza, near the USX Tower). Commuters can leave their cars at parking lots by T stations and ride the trolley to Pittsburgh. One-way fare at peak time is $2.75. The Port Authority plans to extend the T through downtown to the North Shore, near the Carnegie Science Center. According to a September 9 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the goal is a “$435 million North Shore Connector project, a twin-tunnel extension of the Light Rail Transit system under the Allegheny River. It will take an estimated 4 1/2 years to complete the construction.”

Riding the T can be entertaining. Starting from the Steel Plaza downtown, the LRV takes you above the Monongahela River on a bridge. From there, the LRV negotiates awkward curves in the track and the ups and downs of Pittsburgh topography. Several bridges take you high above the surrounding area. It’s beautiful in the winter time, with all the snow and barren trees.

The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum (PTM), in Washington, Pa., is about 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh. The museum offers a wealth of archival material and photos, tours, and a photo exhibit of Pittsburgh’s trolley system. PTM has on display about 40 trolleys and rail vehicles from all eras, including 10 to 12 trolleys that are restored and operational for four-mile rides. The museum also holds the streetcar Desire, which was featured in Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name.

Though trolleys and streetcars are virtually extinct as a mode of transportation in Pittsburgh, their presence remains strong in some countries — Hungary, for instance, boasts the busiest system, while Japan boasts one of the most complex and oft-used systems in the world. Despite these, most trolley systems throughout the world have gone the way of the PRCo and vanished. Trolleys and streetcars will, however, live on in the hearts of many, at least in the form of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Trolley.