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What happened to the streetcars?

July 15, 2018

Rowell Stanton, once editor of the Rome Tribune-Herald, wrote in his memoirs in 1908, “I returned from a business trip on the night of July 31st, 1885. As I left the train at the East Rome Depot I saw Rome’s first street cars all lined up, ready to make their first run the next morning. They were little yellow cars, trimmed in blue, with five windows each.”

And on Aug. 1, 1885 they did in fact make their maiden voyage, up Second Avenue, turning onto Broad Street and traveling to Sixth Avenue, stopping at the Buena Vista Hotel.

They were pulled by a pair of mules with bells strung around them, resembling a circus act. Crossties had been laid with runners along them, covered with metal strips for rails.

Crowds of boys and some adults followed them up and down the street.

The early cars were popular from the start. “It was grand,” Stanton wrote, “to whirl around Curry’s corner, 200 Broad St., in such a conveyance, with crowds standing by to watch.” It was a boom time in Rome real estate and business expansion, and nearly everybody would pay a nickel to ride just a block or two.

Once the cars reached the end of the line, the driver would simply unhitch the mules and move them to the other end of the car and hitch them to that end, and off they’d go. At noon time they stopped at Douglas Livery Stable, 306-308 Broad St., and changed mules.

Contributing to the instant popularity of the new rail cars was the deplorable condition of the city streets, which remained unpaved until 1908 when Broad Street, Second Avenue and a few blocks of others were surfaced with bricks.

During rainy weather, it wasn’t uncommon for wagons to sink axle deep in the muddy street. Broad was a river of mud that could be forded only where wooden planking had been laid at various intersections. To ride from First to Sixth under such conditions was well worth the five cents to shopping housewives.

In June of 1884, we find the first mention of the coming street cars in the Rome council meeting minutes. They approved the first electric fire alarm system, whose battery-powered wires were strung on Western Union Telegraph Co. poles through the center of town, at the same meeting. They were installed in November of that year.

During discussion, the streetcar line was proposed to cross the Oostanaula River and run all the way to the town of DeSoto. There was even talk of using “dummy” steam engines (small steam engines with passenger cars mounted upon them and often pulling a second car) for propulsion instead of mule power, an innovation that seemed to be limited to the South’s larger cities.

I’m sure that after this meeting, councilmen left with their heads spinning. It was a day of civic expansion and technological progress. Things were happening fast.

Actual approval by the city was given in April 1885 to Daniel Lowery and Associates to place one mile of track on Broad and Second Avenue, intersecting at the old Rome railroad (today’s Glenn Milner Boulevard) and having at least 54 feet from the center of the tracks to the buildings on either side.

The streetcar company was tasked with macadamizing their rail bed to keep it out of the mud and for sanitary conditions. Still, after a year the rail bed was unsanitary (several trips of mules daily), and the city ordered the company to clean the rail beds or surrender its franchise.

In 1887, the powerful Rome Land Co. (another future column) purchased the Rome street railway, and petitioned to operate “dummy” steam engines as well as mule-drawn cars. Coming before the City Council was J.W. Branham and L.A. Dean, attorneys for the Rome Land Co.

Another petition was made a year later, on May 14, 1888, by G.W. Lamkin, J.D. Daily, P.M. Shelby, John C. Printup, J.A. Stansbury and others for the construction of a new streetcar system to be known as the North & South Street Railroad and to run from the new iron bridge at the foot of Broad Street to the northernmost city limits.

The City Council was learning. They approved the railway, laying out exactly which side of the street it would be on and that it would have a macadamized bed to start with for sanitary reasons. It would be powered with mules, horses, steam, electricity, underground cables or any other means that may be invented in the future. The council was trying to keep abreast of technology.

Both systems were extended gradually to keep pace with the city’s growth.

A trend toward electric power was soon to render the little dummy steam engines as obsolete as the mule-drawn cars. Rome’s first electric generating plant was set up in 1887 by the Rome Gas Co., a concern founded in 1856.

Pointing up the intense commercial competition of the day, a rival gas company headed by J. King and associates in 1887 was also granted a franchise to run gas lines through the city streets and to “coexist” with other pipes all ready there. Kings Co. was also authorized to erect an electric power plant. And the fun begins.

On May 1, 1888 the council (Ain’t they having fun?) granted to I. and G.H. Hawkins “the right to erect an electric light plant to serve hotels, stores, factories, etc.”

The lighting of these businesses was immensely popular. Now the city joins in the push for electric power. A proposal to the city in October of 1888 was to change the town’s street lighting from gas to electric, a decision encouraged by the Tribune of Rome, as they traced the lighting system in our country from candle and whale oil, kerosene, oil and gas and now to electricity.

In February 1889 the city council authorized Rome Gas Co. President R.T. Coverdale to furnish street lighting by both arc and incandescent lamps “during all dark hours.” The contract called for 22 arc lights at 2,000 candlepower each and for 37 much less powerful incandescent lights.

How do the rapid rise of electrical power and the order from council to raise Broad Street change our street car system? All coming next week.

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.

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