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Streetcars in Savannah

A streetcar turns the corner on Broughton Street in downtown Savannah.

Old postcard view of downtown Savannah.

Beginnings

Savannah's streetcar history began in July 1868 with the groundbreaking for the Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard Railroad, a suburban route that would run from the edge of town to the Skidaway River at Isle of Hope. Soon after the ceremony ended, contractor Daniel Callahan had his crews grading the route and constructing the necessary bridges and trestles, and by early 1869 the first horse-drawn cars were in operation.

In the city, a one-mile line on Whitaker Street connected the SS&S terminal to Bay Street. Also built by Callahan, it was completed in twenty days during January 1869. By the end of 1869, cars were also traveling on Bay Street and on West Broad Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.) to the Central of Georgia station.

Along with its Isle of Hope route, the SS&S constructed lines to White Bluff and Montgomery. The latter opened in 1871. Located on the coastal Vernon River, both places offered waterside recreational opportunities similar to those at Isle of Hope. (See 1875 map).

The SS&S also intended to built a line east from the city to Thunderbolt on the Wilmington River, but the arrival of a competitor, the Savannah and Thunderbolt Railroad, complicated those plans. Incorporated in December 1871, the S&T ended up merging with the SS&S in early 1874.

Meanwhile, a more durable competitor was coming onto the scene, the Coast Line Railroad Company. Originally incorporated in 1868 as the Wilmington Railroad Company, the Coast Line opened its first section in 1874 and began operating to Thunderbolt in mid-1875. (See 1875 map).

Back in the city proper, the Barnard & Anderson Street Railroad Company initiated service in 1877, traveling from the city market at Ellis Square to Laurel Grove cemetery, about one and a half miles to the south. It followed Barnard Street south, passing through Telfair Square and Orleans Square before zigzagging over to West Broad Street and taking that route down to Anderson Street and the cemetery.

This Barnard/West Broad line is shown on a map by Rand, Avery & Co. that was published in an 1877 tourist guide (online at Internet Archive). The map also shows north-south streetcar lines on Barnard, Whitaker, Abercorn, and Habersham streets, an east-west line on Broughton Street, and a line on Bay Street between Whitaker and Abercorn, among others. Whether all of these were actually in operation or merely projected is not clear.

In 1881 the Barnard & Anderson also opened a branch line on Liberty Street to the Savannah, Florida & Western (previously Atlantic & Gulf) depot at East Broad Street.

In the image above, from "The Industries of Savannah," (1886), a horsecar traveling east on Bay Street is barely visible. The same publication included a view of a horsecar on Whitaker Street (below).

In 1882 the Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard was sold at public outcry and reorganized as the City & Suburban Railway. In April of the same year, the City & Suburban merged with the Barnard & Anderson.

A horsecar passes by the Morning News Building in this image from "Savannah and Its Surroundings," 1890.

Thus, in 1882, there were two major street railway companies, the City & Suburban and the Coast Line. But yet another was aborning, the Savannah Street & Rural Resort Railroad, popularly known as the Belt Line. Incorporated in 1882-83; it started operations in early 1888.

More would soon follow: the Savannah & Isle of Hope in 1889, the Suburban & West End Railway in 1890, and the Vernon Park Railway in the same year.

The Suburban & West End was authorized to run west to Jasper Spring and Lincoln Park by way of Augusta Road or Louisville Road or both, as the directors saw fit. The Vernon Park Railway was seeking a connection from the south side of town to Vernonburg, along with routes to White Bluff, Montgomery, and Rose Dew. The Savannah & Isle of Hope was, of course, to run between those two places.

The Streetcar System in 1890

Both Poors 1890 manual and Whipples 1890 directory listed three street railway companies then operating in Savannah. These were the City & Suburban, the Coast Line, and the Savannah Street & Rural Resort Railroad.

Poors reported the City & Suburban as having 18.5-miles of main line, consisting of 12.5 miles using steam power and 6 miles using horses. The gauge was reported to be 5 feet; rail was listed at 35, 38, and 42 pounds. 130 horses and 3 steam engines provided motive power. The 52 cars consisted of 12 steam and 40 street.

For the Coast Line, Poors reported 5 miles of main line with 2 miles of branch lines. The gauge was 5 feet; rail was 40 pounds; motive power was 40 horses and 1 dummy engine; and equipment was 22 cars and 3 other vehicles.

For the Savannah Street & Rural Resort Railway, Poors reported 6.75 miles of main line and a quarter-mile of branches. Gauge was standard, and rail was 40 pound. Motive power was 100 horses and mules. The company owned 20 cars and 3 other vehicles.

Whipples directory generally agreed with these figures, although mileage for the Coast Line was indicated as 2 miles of horsecar line and 8 miles of steam suburban line, totalling 3 miles more than reported by Poors.

An 1890 publication, Savannah and Its Surroundings, by G. A. Gregory, included a map of the intown streetcar routes, a map of the suburban railway lines, and a guide for the streetcar traveler. (The entire publication is online at Internet Archive here.)

Steam Dummies

Electric streetcars, introduced in the late 1880s and early 1890s, quickly gained acceptance in cities large enough to pay for the considerable investment required. As a replacement for horse-drawn vehicles, however, they were not the first. A number of street railways used steam power to pull one or more passsenger cars, usually employing small steam locomotives built especially for the purpose.

Because some were cloaked to look like passenger cars (supposedly to avoid frightening horses), they came to be called "dummies," and lines that used these engines were called "dummy lines."

While faster than horse-drawn vehicles, they were not always well-received by the public due to the smoke, cinders, and noise that the engines produced. Some manufacturers tried to develop quieter models and encouraged the use of anthracite to reduce smoke. Even so, many citizens opposed their use on city and neighborhood streets, calling for their limitation to "suburban" routes outside of town.

Below is an illustration of a "light locomotive" built by H.K. Porter & Co. of Pittsburgh, PA for Savannah's Coast Line Railroad.

Porter "Double-Ender" tank engine used on the Coast Line's suburban route.

An 1875 report on this engine provided the following data:

Cylinder size 9 in. diameter x16 in. stroke
Track gauge 60 inches
Rail weight 30 pound
Length of road 4 miles
Radius of sharpest curve 1150 ft.
Grade in feet per mile 42 ft.
No. of cars hauled at one time 6
Weight of train in tons 120 tons
Remarks one-half cord pine wood, 3 tanks
water, 56 miles per day

Engine description: This style is especially adapted for suburban passenger roads of wide or narrow gauge, where a compact, fast engine is desired, which, by running equally well forward or back, requires no turn-table or Y. Sharp curves are admissible. On easy grades and straight track these engines are capable of a speed of 30 to 40 miles per hour. These engines are not intended for very heavy loads of excessive grades. Their motion is very easy, as both pairs of driving wheels are equalized and the weight is well distributed.

(From: Light Locomotives. H.K. Porter Company, Pittsburgh, PA, Sixth edition, 1889. Online at Google Books.)

Electrification

The first run of an electric streetcar in Savannah took place in November of 1890 on the Savannah Street & Rural Resort Railroad (the Belt Line), which would within a year change its name to Savannah Street Railroad.

Shortly after the SS&RR (Belt Line) initiated its electric operation, a new competitor entered the scene. The Electric Railway Company of Savannah, incorporated in December of 1890, leased the Savannah & Isle of Hope and began work on its own plans for transit in the city.

Savannah's evolving streetcar system was the subject of an article in the December 15, 1891 issue of Street Railway Review:

The principal thoroughfare, which is Bull street, will be completed in sheet asphalt, which will make it, so Savannah claims, the handsomest street in the world with two exceptions. The avenue is 100 feet wide and leads through the city from north to south, beginning at the City Hall which stands at the head of the street, and running through five beautiful squares (four with monuments, and one with pool and fountain) through the park, through the parade ground, in the center of which there is a magnificent monument, erected to the memory of the Confederate soldiers.

With such a city it is no matter of surprise that the three systems of street railway should be up to the standard in every particular.

The road possessing the largest stretch of track is the City & Suburban Railroad. This line has 12 ½ miles of steam line, using three engines and 12 cars, 6 miles of horse line 5-foot gauge, using 130 horses and 40 cars.

The road is manned by: President, J. H. Johnston; secretary, E. G. Thomas; treasurer, E. Smith and superintendent, G. W. Alley.

The only exclusive horse line is the Coast Line & Barnard Street Railway with 7 miles of horse line and five miles of suburban steam road. The line is controlled by the City & Suburban people.

As a matter of course so progressive a city would not be without electric traction, and the rapid transit problem is solved by two well equipped electric lines.

The Savannah Street Railroad, prior to October 6, 1891, called the Savannah Street & Rural Resort Railroad Company is a belt road of 61⁄2 miles, of which 2 miles are double tracked, with prospects for more. The belt encircles the entire city and passes to the depots and through the down town districts. Two miles of new road pass through the residence portion of the town. The old rail is 42-pound center-bearing, but all new track is laid with 40-pound T.

The equipment consists of 16 cars; 2 cars of double motor, single reduction, Thomson-Houston type; 6 single motors of the same kind; 2 double motors 30-horse-power Thomson-Houston, and 6 single of the same type and make. The closed cars are 16-foot, of the celebrated John Stephenson make, and 4 of Pullman's strong and artistic pattern. Two Phoenix Iron Works 150-horse-power engines and boilers furnish the power which is converted by 2 Edison generators of 80,000 watts.

The officers of this company are: President, W. G. Cooper; general manager and treasurer; Clement Saussy and S. C. Cunningham secretary.

The Electric Railway of Savannah, owned by the Savannah Real Estate Loan & Building Company, of which organization J. S. Collins is president and W. K. Wilkinson secretary and treasurer.

The road is still young but has all the necessary marks of long life and great extension in that pluck and energy are large constituents in the characters of the managers. Although 4 miles are already in operation, the president is instructed to begin procedure towards the building of 4 miles of extension. The route takes the cars the full length of South Broad street, which, as mentioned, is one of the most beautiful streets in the city. [The author apparently meant to say south Bull Street.] The new track will pass all depots, hotels, wharves, and the city market, besides the greater number of churches and places of amusement.

This company has just closed a contract whereby it gains connections with the Savannah & Isle of Hope Railway, a suburban, which runs to Thunderbolt and is projected to the Isle of Hope which is perhaps the loveliest spot on this part of the coast.

Consolidation, a Rate War, and Jim Crow

After several years of financial struggle, the Coast Line was sold in 1892 to Henry Parsons of New York, who with his father George Parsons owned the City & Suburban. The same year the Parsons formed the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope Railroad, which absorbed the Coast Line.

Also in 1892, the Electric Railway Company gained control of the Savannah Street Railroad (the Belt Line) and absorbed it the following year.

A streetcar in front of Union Station in Savannah.

Streetcar on West Broad Street in front of Union Station.

By the middle of 1892, all of the street railways in Savannah were operated by electricity, according to the September 10, 1892 issue of Western Electrician:

The electric railway has made rapid progress in the South, and although some of the cities were slow in introducing the new system, they soon appreciated its advantages and adopted it on an extensive scale. This appears to be particularly true of Savannah, Ga., where the slow going mule car has been superceded entirely by the electric motor. Sandtown (sic) has an electric system comprising 40 miles of electrically equipped roads, and the people are well satisfied with the service.

According to the Morning News of Savannah, that city is to have the most powerful electric street car motor in the United States running at a speed equal to that of the average railroad passenger train and drawing enough cars to accommodate about 300 passengers. It will be used on the Thunderbolt branch of the system of the Electric Railway company, and will effectually prevent the overcrowding of cars running to that popular resort. The motor will be equal to sixty horse power, and will be placed on the largest and heaviest car owned by the company. Three or four trailers will be added to the motor car as business demands.

"Experts who have been here recently," says the News, "state that Savannah has the best electric street car lines in the world. This is now also one of the leading cities in regard to mileage of electric roads, and is probably the only city of any size where electricity has entirely superseded all other motor power."

The 1894 edition of Johnston's Electrical and Street Railway Directory listed three Savannah street railway companies:

City & Suburban Railroad (steam). J. H. Johnson, Pres.; J. E. Lewis, Supt.; 15 miles, 25 cars, 12 T. H.

The Electric Railway Company of Savannah, J. S. Collins, Pres. and Gen. Man., Pur. Agt.; J. W. McFarland, Supt., Elec.; $600,000; 25 miles, 54 cars, Edison, T. H., Westinghouse.

Savannah, Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope Railway Co., H. Parson, V.P.; E. J. Thomas, Sec.; 8 miles, 12 cars, T. H.

The "T. H." referred to the Thomson-Houston company, which was the leading supplier of street railway electrical equipment at the time. Note that all three Savannah operations used Thomson-Houston products.

Streetcar and early automobile on Bay Street. City Hall on right.

In 1894, streetcar passengers enjoyed a temporary benefit as a rate war sprung up between the City & Suburban and the Electric Railway Company. Fares were cut to 1 cent, 2 cents, and 3 cents a mile, according to distance. Meanwhile, as one publication observed, "both roads lose money and nobody walks anywhere." The battle was ended by U. S. Judge Speer, who ordered the Electric Railway Company to charge five or three cents, as it saw fit. The ruling held that where ruinously low fares would destroy a chartered public servant company, the court could intervene.

In 1897, the Electric Railway Company was sold to George Parsons' Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope Railway. Parsons also owned the City & Suburban, which gave him control of most of the streetcar and interurban railway business in the city and county. (See 1897 map).

In 1902, Savannah Electric Company, which had been formed the previous year, bought from Parsons the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope, the Savannah & Isle of Hope, and the City & Suburban. Established for the purpose of combining the city's street railway and electric lighting systems, the SEC was headed by George J. Baldwin, a native Savannahian and an investor in numerous business ventures (including, in 1904, the Gainesville Midland Railroad). Parsons received well over a million dollars from the sale.

Collinsville streetcar on Broughton Street, early 1900s. (Library of Congress).
Note: Heavily cropped image. Complete photo is online here at Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
.

On September 12, 1906, the city government passed an ordinance requiring "the separation of white and colored passengers on street cars." Street railway companies were told to provide either separate cars or separate divisions within the same car. If the latter option was chosen, the front part of the car had to be designated for white passengers. Signs designating the separate cars or sections had to be placed conspicuously with plain lettering not less than two inches high indicating "white" or "colored." Conductors, motormen, and other company employees were required to notify the police if any passenger refused to sit in the assigned section, and the police were required to arrest that passenger for disorderly conduct.

In her book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, historian Blair Kelley tells of the early efforts to organize against Savannah's streetcar segregation law and similar laws in Richmond and New Orleans.

On a separate page is a 1911 map of the Savannah Electric Company lines to Thunderbolt, Isle of Hope, Sandfly, and Montgomery.

Consolidation Under SEPCO

Eventually all of the city's streetcar lines came under the ownership of Savannah Electric Company successor Savannah Electric & Power Company (SEPCO), established in 1921. It continued to operate the system and occasionally upgraded its equipment, but the growing use of automobiles and buses and the Depression of the 1930s caused a gradual decline in street railway profitability. Savannah's last streetcar run was in 1946.

The casino at Thunderbolt. (From: A description of Savannah and its Surroundings. Online at Internet Archive here.)

Savannah's Streetcar Parks

Most cities with streetcar systems had so-called streetcar parks offering a variety of amusements and recreational opportunities. Often company-owned, these parks generated additional fare income by encouraging ridership during non-business hours. Savannah could offer a particular resource not available in most Georgia cities, its close proximity to coastal rivers and marshes, which attracted city residents and tourists alike.

To boost its revenues from tourism, the Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard published in 1875 a booklet, Pleasure Guide for Northern Tourists and Invalids; Sketch of the Resorts on Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard Railroad and its Branches (online at Internet Archive here). The booklet lauded the diversions available at Isle of Hope, including bathing and fishing, enjoying the salt air, and communing with nature. The resort also offered the visitor indoor attractions such as a bowling alley, a billiard saloon, and a dancing hall. A few miles further by rail was Montgomery, which had yacht racing, boat excursions, and a dancing platform.

Bathing at Isle of Hope. One of Savannah's Nearby Resorts.
(From: Savannah, 1904. Online at Internet Archive here.)

Thunderbolt, the terminus of the Coast Line, also stood "on the salts," as the marshland riverbanks were termed. It was popular for bathing, fishing, oystering, yachting, and enjoying the sea breezes and shade of the oaks. Later a casino was built which offered theatrical performances and various amusements.

On the Coast Line's Thunderbolt route, about a half-mile south of Bonaventure Cemetery, was the Scheutzen Platz, also called Greenwich Park. The property of the Savannah Scheutzen Society, it was the site of a popular annual spring festival according to an 1875 guidebook. Upriver, Augusta's streetcar system had a similar Scheutzen Platz on its Summerville route.

Lincoln Park, a segregated park for the city's African American residents, offered music and a variety of events and attractions but did not have the water-related activities. It was on Augusta Road about 2.5 miles west of City Market, in the vicinity of the present-day Jasper Spring. (Nearby was the Ten Broeck race course site where the slave sale remembered as "The Weeping Time" took place in 1859.)

In 1908, under the heading Parks, Pleasure Resorts, and Summer Gardens, The Billboard magazine listed Thunderbolt Casino, Isle of Hope Park, and Lincoln Park as Savannah Electric Company locations. According to the listing, Vaudeville was played at Thunderbolt Casino, while bands played at Isle of Hope and Lincoln parks.

Although none of the street railways traveled to Tybee Island, the system did connect with Randolph Street depot of the Savannah & Tybee Railroad, an 18-mile steam railroad that ran to the island.

Cemeteries

The streetcar era was also a time when garden cemeteries were popular places for strolls and quiet contemplation. The Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard ran its cars to Laurel Grove Cemetery, describing the place this way:

Laurel Grove Cemetery, although not as grandly magnificent as the famous Bonaventure Cemetery, four miles from the city, is well worth a visit....Many of the private lots are adorned with handsome monuments, and tastefully and beautifully laid off. The avenues are all well shaded. Comfortable seats will be found throughout the grounds, and as, from some unexplained cause, the desire appears universal among strangers, to inspect the cemeteries of the cities they visit, they can rest assured, that a trip to Laurel Grove, over the street line of the Savannah, Skidaway and Seaboard Railroad Company, and a stroll through the beautiful grounds, will be well repaid in what they see to interest them.

The Coast Line took visitors to Bonaventure Cemetery by way of its Thunderbolt route. In 1875, the SS&S described the place as grandly magnificent. In 2013, CNN Travel agreed, including it in an article on the world's most beautiful cemeteries.

Bonaventure Cemetery. (From Savannah and Its Surroundings, 1890.)

Streetcar Suburbs in Savannah

Today we think of the automobile as the creator of the suburbs, but suburban development goes back further than any gasoline-powered contraption. When the Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard was sold to become the City & Suburban Railway in 1882, no automobiles existed in the city or the nation. It was not until a decade later that Charles and Frank Duryea's horseless buggy became the first practical gasoline automobile built in the United States.

The horsecar was the vehicle that allowed increasing numbers of Savannahians to live in homes built on the former farm lots at the edges of the city. One of the early suburban expansions took place south of Gwinnett Street, in the neighborhood today known as the Victorian Historic District. The first houses there were built in the 1870s, followed by many more in the 1880s and 1890s.

An expansion to the west along Louisville and Augusta Roads began in the early 1890s, while development south and east of the Victorian district was spurred by the new electric streetcar. It quickly replaced the horsecars and steam dummies, which were gone by the middle of that decade.

While the Duryea brothers' 1893 vehicle was the first practical gasoline automobile in the nation, it was the Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, that was the first affordable auto for the middle class. The dawn of the automobile age in Savannah, therefore, might not be when a few wealthy families bought Oldsmobiles or Wintons, but when the Tin Lizzie became available to the masses.

On a separate page is this 1910 map of Savannah which shows the status of land development in the city 40 years after the first horsecar and at the beginning of the boom in automobile use.

A Heritage Streetcar on River Street

In 2009, sixty-three years after the last streetcar run in Savannah, another made its debut along the city's waterfront. "Dottie," the River Street streetcar, is a 1938 double-truck streamlined vehicle used at one time in Melbourne, Australia. Converted from electric to biodiesel operation, it travels on former freight tracks as a tourist attraction and people mover. The car was stored at the Georgia State Railroad Museum for a time before being moved to Pennsylvania in 2007 for restoration.
Note: Dottie had to be taken out of service in early 2013 for wheel replacement. She returned to River Street in late March 2014 and will soon be back in operation.

More Information:

Three photos of Savannah streetcars are online at newdavesrailpix.com:

• A 1922 Birney, passing by the Odeon Theater which stood at 136 E. Broughton Street.

Car no. 620.

Car no. 637.

Suggested Reading:

Mary Beth D'Alonzo. Streetcars of Chatham County; Photographs from the Collection of the Georgia Historical Society. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing. 1999.

Ruben A. Acosta. The Rise of Suburbia: Streetcars and Vernacular Architecture in Savannah. Online at rubenacostahistorian.com.

Two streetcars in the Roundhouse Railroad Museum in Savannah. The streetcar on the right side of the photo is now in service on River Street.

Behind this single-truck open car at the Georgia State Railroad Museum is the Melbourne streetcar now operating on River Street. The photo was made sometime before 2007.

From: Pleasure Guide for Northern Tourists and Invalids; Sketch of the Resorts on Savannah, Skidaway & Seaboard Railroad and its Branches. Online at Internet Archive here.

From: Guide to Southern Georgia and Florida, 1879.
Online at Internet Archive here.


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