A history of Richmond’s trolleys

02/16/2006 5:40 PM by

Early undated photo of the Church Hill & New Reservoir Park car (pre-1900)

I recently picked up Carlton McKenney’s Rails in Richmond (Interurban Press, 1986). Having always been fascinated that there used to be trolley lines all over the city, I couldn’t pass up this history of Richmond’s horse-drawn and electric trolleys.

Oakwood-bound car on Main Street in front of Main Street Station (1939)

The book goes into great detail explaining the beginning of Richmond’s trolleys and the various changes over the 62 year life-span of this unique part of the city’s past. There are contemporary newspaper articles (Father of the Trolley [Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec.29, 1935] and You’ve Missed the Last Trolley [Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov.27, 1949]) that give the story if you want a shorter version than the book provides.

Rails in Richmond has some wonderful pictures and maps. Unfortunately, with the exception of one photo from Marshall and 21st Streets from 1892, there aren’t any pictures from Church Hill in a currently-identifiable setting. This is surprising given how many photos of the trolley cars themselves have Church Hill or Chimborazo on the marquee.

The maps are fascinating in their own right. The dark lines running up Jefferson Avenue and Venable Street are enticing. Especially mysterious is the ‘discontinued’ line on 23rd Street on the 1930 map. This line, set up by the Fairmount Traction Company (incorporated in 1896), ran parallel to a 22nd Street line but went much farther north. This explains why 23rd Street north of Carrington is so wide, I guess.

Having both lived in New Orleans and recently visited San Francisco, I’ve known working trolley lines being used by people on a daily basis. The experience is definitely different than riding the bus… I can’t imagine how the trolley lines would have held up over the city’s more trying years, but I so wish that Richmond had been able to to preserve some of this.

Richmond street railway map circa 1900 (partial)

Richmond street railway map circa 1930 (partial)

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