Rebirth of Charleston’s Trolleys?

In late 2014 Gabe Klein, a transportation consultant hired by the City of Charleston, released his recommendations for fixing the peninsula’s traffic and transportation woes. His top suggestion is stated simply: “Bring Back the Trolley System.”

The last run of the King Street line, 10 February 1938

The last run of the King Street line, 10 February 1938

“What trolley system?” you might ask. Unless you’re over the age of 77, ignorance of this part of Charleston’s transportation history can be excused. Few in our community remember the “grand celebration” on the 10th of February 1938 when a fleet of thirteen “modern” diesel buses rolled into service and the old electric trolleys, after seventy-one years of activity, were consigned to the scrapyard.

Can the return of the trolley system fix our congestion woes? That’s not for me to decide, but I’ve been asked to assemble a brief history of the old trolleys in an effort to help the community make informed decisions about this matter. In the coming weeks, I’ll be presenting a series of trolley (or streetcar) themed talks, and I hope you’ll join me for this colorful story. As a teaser, here’s a very brief overview of the topic:

The earliest conversations about beginning a “street railway” system of mass transit in Charleston commenced in 1859, and two private companies were chartered in early 1861. The war interrupted their plans, however, and a corporate reorganization took place in 1865. Service commenced in December 1866 with horse-drawn street cars riding on miles of track in the city’s principal streets, and it was a transportation revolution in our community. The street rail system was electrified and reorganized in 1897, and the new “trolleys” continued to be very successful into the new century. The advent of the automobile on Charleston’s streets brought competition and new standards of comfort, however, and by the 1920s the public was clamoring for a more “modern” mode of mass transit. After several years of declining profitability, the operator’s decision to switch from electric trolleys to diesel buses was greeted with bittersweet enthusiasm from the riding public.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, your first opportunity will a FREE public event be next week at the Charleston Museum, sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation:

“The Rise and Fall of

Charleston’s Trolleys, 1859–1938″

Monday, February 23rd 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston Museum Auditorium, 360 Meeting Street, 29403.