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Streetcars of Columbus

A streetcar passes the 1871 Springer Opera House in Columbus.

Although chartered in 1866, the Columbus Railroad did not open its first section of street railway tracks until May 1, 1885, nearly two decades later. The first cars were pulled by horses and mules, but electric and steam-powered vehicles would soon arrive on the scene.

An 1886 map* shows Broad Street as the north-south hub of the early system, with branches leading off at three intersections. One of these ran east on 12th Street to the Central of Georgia Railway depot on 6th Avenue. Another ran east on 7th Street to the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad depot, also on 6th Avenue, six blocks south of the Central depot. A third ran east from Broad on 14th Street, turned left onto 2nd Avenue, right on 17th Street, and left at a fork to Hamilton Road, where it ended at Rose Hill Park (around 25th Street).

In 1887 the company was purchased by John F. Flournoy and Louis F. Garrard and extended east to Wynnton the following year. Flournoy built this line to connect with property he was developing on the hills east of the city.

In 1890, Poors Manual described the Columbus Railroad as a standard-gauge line with 12 miles of track, 54 horses and mules, 16 cars, 2 dummy engines, 4 steam passenger cars, and 2 flat cars.

A second street railway, the North Highlands Railroad Company, was incorporated June 27, 1890. Its cars were powered not by horses or steam dummies, but by electricity.

Its line began at the intersection of Broad and 11th streets, where a landmark fire-lookout tower called the Bell Tower had been built some years earlier. From there it ran east on 11th to 2nd Avenue, where it turned left and ran north to the North Highland Casino (today the site of the Comer Auditorium at Bibb City).

In 1892, Poors reported the North Highland as a 3-mile, standard-gauge line operated by the Thomson-Houston system of electricity.

A Porter steam dummy of the type used in Columbus.

Thus, for a few years Columbus had streetcars powered by horses, electric motors, and steam engines.

At least one of the steam dummies came from H. K. Porter & Co. of Pittsburg. An 1888 report published in a Porter catalog the following year indicated that the engine had 12-inch diameter cylinders with an 18-inch stroke. Speed was 15 to 25 miles per hour. The engines would run 72 to 98 miles, burning 1,500 pounds of coke fuel, and using 8 tanks of water per day of 12 hours. Coke was used instead of coal to reduce smoke emissions.

In 1892, Poors reported the Columbus Railroad as a 16.5 mile line with 48 horses and mules, 166 cars, 3 dummy engines, 7 steam passenger cars, and 2 flat cars. In 1893, the Manual of Statistics reported the Columbus Railroad as a 17-mile line with 27 cars. This suggests that the 116 cars reported by Poors was an error. Another possibility is that the most of the 116 were freight cars. The Columbus Railroad was authorized to serve as a freight terminal road, transferring cars from the long-distance railroads over its lines to various customers in town. The Porter steam dummies were capable of pulling a 7-car, 161-ton train, so motive power for freight car transfers was certainly available.

The freight handling abilities of the system were viewed as a selling point for the city, as exemplified by this endorsement from an 1892 marketing booklet:

Connecting with all the railroads entering the city is a Belt Dummy Line, owned by the Columbus Railway Company. It extends through the city and suburbs, and is used for passenger trafic (sic), and for delivering car-load lots of freight direct to and from the stores and mills of the city. The value of this line to the wholesale and manufacturing interests can scarcely be estimated, as it facilitates the handling of freights, and saves a large bill of expense for extra handling and hauling. The Company are so accommodating that they agree to put in side tracks in any portion of the city, into the yards or warehouses of any firm desiring them.
(From: Columbus, Her Trade, Commerce, and Industries, 1892. Online at Internet Archive here.)

In 1894, the Street Railway Journal reported the Columbus Railroad as a 17-mile line "of which 5 are horse and 12 steam." It had 9 dummy cars and 18 horse cars. The latter were pulled by 10 horses and 50 mules.

In 1894, the Street Railway Journal reported the North Highlands Railroad Company as having slightly over 3 miles of railroad with 3 motor cars and 3 trailing cars. The cars were built by Brill and Ellis, and the engines were made by Armington and Simms.

In December 1894, the North Highlands Railroad Company was consolidated with the Columbus Railroad.

The principal commercial street in downtown Columbus is Broad Street, now called Broadway. Streetcars ran on each side of the median here, maintaining that arrangement into the residential district south of 9th Street. Eventually the cars operated on Broad from 5th to 15th streets.

A 1978 article by Ralph Willingham in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer described the dummy line to Wynnton:

There was also a dummy line for passengers called the "Belt Line." Two small engines, the Wildwood and John Hill, ran on a seven-mile loop....The route went down Broad Street past the old red brick Transfer Station, then on to Tenth Street, along Wynnton Road to the Wynnton School, past the Flournoy place, left across Seventeenth Street, north to Wildwood Park Station. It traveled where St. Elmo School now stands, back In a southwesterly direction, then due west through East Highlands and back into town via Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street to the Transfer Station.

The transfer station was a 2-story building in the median of Broad Street at 12th Street. The structure was built in 1895 and demolished in 1941.

(Black-and-white photos above are from Seaboard Air Line Railway Shippers Guide, 1914. Online at Internet Archive.)

In 1899, Poors reported the Columbus Railroad as a 24.5-mile operation with 4 miles of dummy line and 20.5 miles of electric line. It had 19 motor cars and 5 trailing cars. Also 2 steam dummies and 2 freight cars.

Willingham indicated where some of this expansion occurred: "By 1900 east-west trolley lines ran on Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Streets. Lines stretched to all suburban areas...."

While the street railroad was extending its reach, local politicians were busy passing segregation ordinances. The August 4, 1900 issue of Railway & Engineering Review reported that Columbus had passed an ordinance "requiring that whites and blacks shall be separated in the same car, the former to be carried in the front half of the car and the latter in the rear half." Noting that "inconvenience is bound to occur," the Review gave an example:

"Suppose, for instance, that the seats in the white compartment become filled while seats still remain vacant in the black compartment. The dignified white citizen will then be compelled to witness the spectacle of passengers of his own color hanging to the straps, while all the colored individuals present in the car are comfortably seated."

Columbus was hardly unique, however. State and local governments in the South passed hundreds of such "Jim Crow" laws and were able to enforce them for over a half-century.

The transfer station stood in the median of Broad Street at 12th Street.

Columbus, Georgia, streetcar transfer station

Another view of the station.

In 1901 a new 14th street bridge capable of handling the city's electric streetcars opened. The earlier bridge at this crossing was limited to horse cars. Now electric cars could travel to Phenix City and Girard.

In 1902, Poors reported only 16 miles of track, but the number of motor cars, dummies, and other rolling stock was unchanged from the 1899 figures (19 motor cars, 5 trailing cars, 2 steam dummies, 2 freight cars). Poors also remarked: "This company owns and operates the entire street railroads in Columbus, Ga., and the only electric light system in the city. The Seaboard Air-Line Ry. leases the freight lines during the term of the existing franchises of the Columbus RR. Co."

In 1903, Poors reported 17 miles of track with 30 passenger cars.

In 1908, the Electric Railway Directory reported a 20-mile system with 39 motor cars. It noted that the Columbus Railroad connected Columbus, Phoenix City, and Girard. Power was purchased from the Columbus Power Company. The company's repair shop was at 17th Street and 2nd Avenue and it controlled Wildwood Park.

In 1908, the McGraw Electric Railway Directory reported 26.7 miles of track including 5.5 miles of steam track leased to Seaboard Air Line. Also noted were 38 motor passenger cars, 3 passenger trail cars, and 3 miscellaneous cars. Some of the cars were identified as manufactured by Jackson & Sharp.

In 1914, McGraw reported 25.9 miles of track, including 5 miles of steam track leased to Seaboard Air Line, 44 motor passenger cars, 6 passenger trail cars, and 4 miscellaneous cars. The report indicated that two steam locomotives were leased to SAL.

A northbound streetcar on Broad Street passes alongside its competition.

Most cities with streetcar systems had company-owned "streetcar parks," which added to ridership on Sunday afternoons and warm-weather evenings. They typically featured picnicking, boating, dancing, and strolling among the recreational pursuits offered. Concerts and live entertainment could often be enjoyed, and a few parks also had recreational casinos and rides such as roller coasters.

In Columbus, the primary streetcar park was Wildwood Park, about 2 miles northeast of downtown. Controlled by the Columbus Railroad Company, it had a lake, bath-house, water slide, and rental boats. Visitors could also enjoy a dancing pavilion, a children's zoo, and a network of woodland paths around the lake. Today it is better known as Lakebottom Park and Weracoba Park.

Other parks accessible by streetcar were North Highland Park and Lincoln Park. The latter, a segregated park for African Americans, was in the Rose Hill area on the north side of the city.

A corner of the lake at Wildwood Park. (From Columbus, Her Trade, Commerce, and Industries (1892. Online at Internet Archive here.)

Picnic grounds at North Highland Park. (From Columbus, Her Trade, Commerce, and Industries (1892).

Street railways also had repair shops, often called car barns. Columbus's repair shop was on the west side of 2nd Avenue at 17th Street, between 17th and the railroad tracks.

The 1913 Columbus streetcar barn before its demolition. This photo and other photos of the building are online at Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Earlier buildings at the site. Note the separate structure for steam dummies.
(From: 1900 Sanborn map. Online at Digital Library of Georgia.)

The 1920s brought major changes to the system. In 1922, the properties of the Columbus Railroad were merged with the local gas light and power companies to form the Columbus Electric and Power Company. Operations on several streetcar lines ended. "By 1927 only two electric car lines remained in operation, because buses were more versatile," wrote Ralph Willingham.

On June 26, 1930, Columbus Electric & Power Company was consolidated into Georgia Power Company. Willingham again: "The Georgia Power Co., which by now owned the street car lines, operated a street railway in Columbus until 1936, when the bus system took over completely."

In several ways the streetcar system of Columbus was a mirror image of Augusta's system. Both began a conversion from horses to electricity in 1890. Both had a hub on the major commercial thoroughfare, each of which was named Broad Street. Both developed streetcar suburbs on the hills above downtown, to the east in Columbus's case, and to the west in Augusta. In both cases, these hills were the sites of antebellum estates that were subdivided for more dense residential development. Both street railway systems crossed a river into another state. Both provided freight delivery in addition to passenger service.

On a side note, the two cities are also geographically similar in that both are located on the fall line and both have large military bases at the city edge.

Today, besides the streetcar suburbs, there is little physical evidence of the street railway system in each city. In that regard, Columbus and Augusta have plenty of company.

Suggested Reading:

Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2001. Includes images of Columbus streetcars in various locations around the city, as well as places served by the system.

Historic American Engineering Record. Columbus Railroad Power Station at the City Mills Dam, 1894. HAER GA-27. Online at Library of Congress here. Provides a history of the power station, a brief history of the streetcar system's ownership, and related information.

See Also:

Columbus Railroad car no. 402 at newdavesrailpix.com.

Columbus Railroad, Birney no. 81 at newdavesrailpix.com.

Columbus Railroad Power Station at the City Mills Dam. (HAER)

Source for Ralph Willingham quotations above:

"Transportion Progress Keeps Columbus Moving," by Ralph Willingham, Ledger staff writer. In: Special Sesquicentennial Supplement II, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, April 23, 1978, S-31, as reprinted at http://www.usgwarchives.net/ga/gafiles.htm

* Perspective map of Columbus, Ga. by H. Wellge, 1886. Online at Library of Congress, American Memory, Map Collections.


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