30 Oct 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Getting the Street Railway Started

With the extension of the H Street streetcar line now looking more likely again, and with people pontificating – as usual – about the unacceptable amount of time it has taken to get to this point, it seems appropriate to look at the past and see whether there are any parallels to be found there.

The original public transportation in Washington D.C. was a stagecoach that connected Capitol Hill with Georgetown. This was eventually replaced by horse-drawn omnibuses, which were not much of an improvement, as they ran over the same awful roads as the stagecoach had. The only advantage was that the line began at the Navy Yard, and that more people could be transported at once.

The obvious change that needed to happen was the laying of tracks, which would vastly improve the ride for all concerned, and reduce the number of horses needed to move the carriages. And so, in 1854, George W. Yerbey, Horace M. Dewey, Ephraim Schutt, and John L. Brown petitioned Congress for the right to build a street railway from the Navy Yard to Georgetown. According to the Daily National Era of January 17:

They express belief that a cheap, easy, and commodious mode of travelling from one extremity of the city to the other and into Georgetown, is indispensably necessary to our growth and development; that by laying the new style of grooved rail, similar to that used in Northern cities, and by the use of light, neat, and well-finished cars, which move noiselessly and steadily, the Avenue will be improved both in utility and appearance, and no obstruction will be caused to vehicles, either crossing or running parallel with the rails, which in fact are nothing more than so much iron pavement lying even with the surface of the stone pavement alongside.

The time it took to get from the Navy Yard to Georgetown would be reduced to a half hour, and all this for the low price of six cents.

The precursors to the street car: A New York City horsecar and an omnibus from civil war era. (LOC)

For the next couple of months, things looked good. On January 30, the House accepted a petition from the same quartet, as well as another signed by some 1,400 D.C. citizens, both requesting the passage of a bill to build the railroad. A charter was approved in April of that year, creating the Washington and Georgetown railroad company, though with a very different set of commissioners, including John T. Tower (pic), a member of the Know-Nothing party who would become mayor of Washington later that year.

Unfortunately, this high-powered group (which also included a lawyer, the proprietor of the Globe, and a justice of the peace) did not have much luck getting the railway operational, and the record goes dark for some years. Only in 1859 is there a brief mention in the Alexandria Gazette that sales of stock in the Washington and Georgetown railroad were almost completed.

This seems to have been premature, as it is another two years before there was a brief mention of another Washington and Georgetown Railroad bill before Congress. On January 20, 1861, it was formally introduced and referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia before it, too, disappeared into the void.

Thus, seven years after the first attempt at a street railway, the city was right back where it started.

Next week: A bill finally passes.


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