A History of Streetcars in Brooklyn

by Ami Fields-Meyer

“I would sit by my grandfather’s window and watch with wonder and hear the great cars bang over the crossing of the Union Avenue and DeKalb Avenue lines. On the ride to Aunt Millie’s in a Ridgewood-bound car I would pass the great shops of DeKalb and for a moment see the various other types of trolley that ran elsewhere far away in Brooklyn. All too soon these lines near my home would be gone and the huge DeKalb shops left alone without their attending fleet. Still there was just a little time left once more to ride…”
– Stan Fischler, The Trolley Dodger

Commotion characterized the Brooklyn of Stan Fischler’s early youth: Endless lines of men seeking wages in the depths of the Great Depression, laborers greeting shipments at the docks, the Dodgers maintaining a long and dynamic baseball rivalry with the cross-town Giants, a new wave of Puerto Rican and southern African American immigrants settling in the borough. But lacing together the patchwork of Fischler’s childhood memories—of family and friends, leisure and business—was one vital thread: The Brooklyn streetcar.

Long before today’s congestion of cars and buses on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the lengthy cross-borough commute times, and the debilitating shortage of public transit options within this borough, Brooklyn was home to the most expansive and comprehensive city transportation system in the world–and was deeply connected to the neighboring borough of Queens.

Until the mid-twentieth century, to know Brooklyn was to know and use a system of streetcars that, for generations of Brooklynites after the turn of the century, was at once intricate and intimate. Streetcars were the vital link between the people and their shops, their jobs, the families, and their recreational life. Without the many iterations of the streetcar, there was no Brooklyn.
From the advent of the horsecar in the mid-nineteenth century until the ascent of the automobile after World War II, streetcars—in both nascent and more developed forms—have shaped Brooklyn’s streetscape, stimulating commerce, economic growth, and neighborhood development. The streetcar was not a footnote on the borough’s past; it was essential force in creating today’s Brooklyn.

Horsecars

On July 3, 1854, Brooklyn’s first horsecar line opened along Myrtle Avenue, inaugurating a form of transit that would become an essential force in the day-to-day lives of nearly a century of borough residents. The mode, which used horses to drag a trolley of passengers along a pair of rails, began afforded Brooklynites access to the favored transit option of the day.

Over time, the Brooklyn horsecar evolved from “a crude affair of a stage coach set on cast iron wheels” to a double-platform car with eight windows and stoves for heat. Between 1859 and 1875, railroad companies opened horsecar lines that stretched throughout the borough and beyond, reaching as far as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and East New York in Brooklyn, and Flushing and Ridgewood in Queens. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Brooklyn companies owned 2,500 horsecars throughout the borough, laying the broad and essential foundations of an exhaustive transit network.

Cable cars

In the years following the Civil War, a new transit option replaced the horse-drawn system. Cable cars, pulled by an engine-powered wire, became the favored mode of American cities—but Brooklynites never wholly warmed to the mode.

While cable cars were faster and cleaner than their immediate forerunners, their maintenance and operation was comparatively costly and their speed caused a disproportionate number of accidents and derailments. Though Brooklyn companies built two cable lines during this period, executives deemed the mode too expensive and ultimately unviable. The cable car was short-lived in Brooklyn.

Elevated lines

The 1880s also ushered in the development of several Brooklyn steam elevated railroad systems, colloquially referred to as “el” lines. The first el was the Brooklyn Union Elevated System (BUES), which included the Lexington Avenue line between Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway Ferry, the Myrtle Avenue line, and the Fifth Avenue line, which ran all the way to 36th Street. Further inland, the Kings County Elevated Railroad Company operated the Fulton Street Line through Brooklyn to East New York, eventually winding its way to Queens County.

Activists—some funded by private automobile interests—ultimately called for the removal of the noisy and clattering elevated lines. As a result, in the late 1920s New York City invested public funds in its first independent subways. By the system’s opening in 1933, commuters could travel from Bed-Stuy to Harlem and the Fulton el had been rendered extraneous. These new investments, coupled with the efforts of the automobile industry, would soon deal similar blows to the remaining elevated lines.

 

 

 

 

Streetcars

The years between 1880 and 1900 brought the transit innovation that would change the United States—and Brooklyn—forever: Electrified streetcars on solid lines. In the late 1880s, the City of Richmond, Virginia leveraged the rapidly expanding power of the electric generator to mount and electrify a carriage. Around the same time, New York City undertook a similar project, bringing power to a Brooklyn-Queens electrified streetcar that extended from Queens’s Jamaica Avenue to Brooklyn’s East New York. Next would be the Coney Island Avenue line.

Streetcars ran on steel rails, without an underground cable, and were powered by electric motor and overhead wire. By 1918, the United States was home to 100,000 streetcar vehicles that ran along 45,000 miles of solid track.

In 1891, the Common Council of Brooklyn approved the requests of three companies to convert from horse to electrical power. By 1895, Brooklyn had electrified nearly all its remaining horsecar lines and entered the golden era of streetcars.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company—a locally-owned syndicate of steam, elevated, and trolley businesses—operated more than 125 streetcar and elevated lines along 600 miles of track in Brooklyn and Queens. The streetcars connected residents within and beyond the boroughs. This transit infrastructure required extensive upkeep and helped sustain and grow Brooklyn’s economy and labor market. By 1920, BRT maintained seven power stations, twenty carbarns and storage yards, six terminals, and four repair shops. The company also owned a hotel, an amusement park, office buildings, and a club house. In Brooklyn, transit wasn’t just a commodity; it was an industry.

 

The elaborate streetcar network connected the borough’s many neighborhoods. The Lorimer Street Line, which ran along Nostrand Avenue, connected Brooklynites to the McCarren Park swimming pool in Greenpoint, the Navy Yard, and the Wallabout Market. It was a “Peter Witt Car,” designed in the early 1920s by engineers in Cleveland. Along with the Brighton and Tompkins Avenue trolleys, the Lorimer Line dropped patrons off near Ebbets Fields to watch Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games.

Coney Island was home to two east-west trolley lines, one along Surf Avenueand another on Gravesend Avenue. The Surf Avenue line allowed patrons to easily reach the famous recreation activities of Coney Island’s breaches, touching destinations from the handball courts beside Ocean Parkway to Nathan’s Hotdogs, Faber’s, and the Steeplechase amusement park.

Streetcars also connected Brooklyn to the other boroughs of New York City, forging particularly robust transit connections with Queens, to the north.

The DeKalb Line ran between Ridgewood, Queens and Brooklyn, bringing commuters all the way into Downtown along DeKalb and Seneca Avenues. Riding the DeKalb Line into Downtown Brooklyn, one would pass the East Brooklyn Savings Bank on Bedford Avenue, the State Theater at Franklin Avenue, the Pratt Institute, and the bigger Paramount Theater.

The Bushwick Avenue Line ran between Williamsburg and Ridgewood, along Bushwick and Myrtle Avenues. The Flushing Avenue Line cycled commuters between Brooklyn and Maspeth. The Jamaica Line connected the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with Jamaica, along Fulton Street and Jamaica Avenue. The Bergen Street Line ran from Red Hook to Ozone Park, along Sackett and Bergen Streets and Liberty Avenue. The Putnam Avenue Line and the Green and Gates Avenue Linesran from Downtown Brooklyn to Ridgewood, along Fulton and Hasley Streets and Putnam Avenue. The Metropolitan Avenue Line ran from Williamsburg to Jamaica, along Grand Street and Metropolitan Avenue. The Union Avenue Line ran from Ridgewood to Greenpoint, along Knickerbocker, Flusher, and Union Avenues.

As of 2017, every one of these streetcar lines has either been replaced by a bus route, or no longer exists.

 

The end of the road

In the mid-1920s, this comprehensive streetcar network began to unravel. Threatening to temper the dominance of the ever-growing automobile industry, streetcars in the United States became the victims of a conglomerate known as National City Lines (NCL). Over the course of two decades, NCL took control of more than forty streetcar companies nationwide. In each instance, the auto-industry companies sought to weaken and destabilize the streetcar system from within. While NCL was ultimately indicted for conspiring to overtake several transit companies, the suit would come too late. The failure of streetcars would create a new need for an expanded automobile and bus infrastructure.

National City Lines began its work in New York City, bribing elected officials and buying out NY Railways and other the profitable electric streetcar companies that operated in Manhattan.

“(NCL) immediately ripped out the tracks, wires, and streetcars, replacing them with GM busses,” says Brooklyn transit advocate activist Bob Diamond. “They replaced them with (General Motors) buses.” The group would eventually replicate this process in 25 other cities across the United States.

The motives of NCL were straightforward: Streetcars ran on electricity and a permanent metal infrastructure; buses required enormous quantities of gasoline, constant tire changes, and costly maintenance. The end of the streetcar meant the start of a new cash flow into the coffers of General Motors, Nova Bus, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Firestone Tires.

By the late 1920s, the City had invested heavily in rapid transit and had begun work on early subway routes. The first subway, under Fulton Street, linked Bedford-Stuyvesant with uptown neighborhoods and made the elevated rail line obsolete. The city’s major effort to add bus routes where there had once been streetcar tracks began in earnest around September 1930. By 1940, most of the els had been razed. New subway system projects compounded the effects of the NCL campaign. On October 21, 1956, the last of Brooklyn’s streetcars pulled into the station for good.

 

 

 

Written by Coro ’17 Fellow, Ami Fields-Meyer. To learn more about the Coro Fellowship, visit coronewyork.org

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