Today, let's ride the Houston trolley. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
You may not realize it, but
Houston was once a national capital. In 1837, when
Houston was only a year old, it served briefly as
capital of the new Republic of Texas. We soon lost
that role, but we kept up our rapid growth along
Buffalo Bayou nevertheless.
During the Civil War, a rail spur on San Jacinto
Street fell into disuse. After the war, someone
realized this fifteen-block length of track could
be used as a trolley line. For two years, a
mule-drawn trolley took passengers up and down the
Steven Baron tells the history of trolley service
here. It's the story of a wild west town hurriedly
catching up with American industrialization. Our
major western seaport, San Francisco, developed
much faster. By the 1870s it had the first
cable-driven public transportation. The cable car
was created because mules and horses had trouble on
San Francisco's steep hills.
But flat Houston was another matter. Two new
horsecar systems fought it out with each other
during the 1870s and '80s.
The German electrical engineer Werner Siemens
meanwhile built a small electric rail system for
the 1879 Berlin Industrial Exhibition. Edison, who
created the first public electric-power system a
few years later, took no interest in rail. But
other American engineers worked on all kinds of
electric railways -- battery-powered,
third-rail-powered. Frank Sprague finally perfected
the overhead trolley. Sprague had a good trolley
system running in Richmond, Virginia, by 1888. It
took only a year for most American cities to
replace their horsecars with trolleys. The one in
Portland, Oregon, ran all the way down to Salem,
fifty miles south.
But Houston was still a frontier town, and we came
late to electric trolleys. It took three years for
trolleys to reach us. When they did, we became a
trolley town for the next 23 years.
Then, one day in 1914, a primitive automobile
pulled up to a trolley stop and offered to take the
passengers for a nickel each. A year later, two
hundred automobile jitneys were hauling
passengers. The jitney evolved into the autobus.
Trolleys began feeling the pressure after WW-I. The
last one went out of business in 1940.
By then automobiles had made Houston into a very
spread-out city. Despite a huge population, our
population density was low. Public transportation
in Houston needed more branches than use seemed to
justify, so we gave ourselves over to the personal
That's why I think back to a childhood in St. Paul,
Minnesota, where I rode trolleys until I left in
1946. After that, I never again got to ride a
public trolley in America. I miss the lost smell of
ozone formed by sparks as the trolley skipped over
joints in the overhead line. When I came here, I
could still see where the last trolleys had run on
Heights Boulevard. But that's all they were - only
tracks of a lost technological epoch. Today we find
our population density rising very rapidly. And we
might well look back with something more than
nostalgia at those wonderful old electric trolleys.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds