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Here's How Atlanta Streetcars were Once a Roaring Success

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With the Atlanta Streetcar open for business, has a new chapter in Atlanta's transportation annals begun? Or is it really just a sequel to a long saga with roots stretching all the way back to post-bellum Atlanta? Hint: it's the latter. The streetcar's story in Atlanta involves horses, entrepreneurship, competition and ultimately a monopoly, so this new 2.7-mile line has a lot to live up to.

The bureaucratic gridlock that delayed the latest streetcar project isn't new. In fact, while the first streetcars in Atlanta were approved as the city began to rebuild following the Civil War, a debate about taxes and paving requirements resulted in a whole lot of nothing. It wasn't until two former Georgia Railroad employees who had a penchant for real estate got involved that the first line opened in the city. The line was proposed, constructed and opened in 1871 — and while that makes our current process seem rather protracted, consider: The first streetcars were horse-powered, which means no moving utilities; they weren't forced to share the road with today's stellar Atlanta drivers, and safety standards weren't quite what they are today.

After just a year, and with the success of the first route (which serviced Five Points southward to present-day Spelman College), many more lines were opened, serving the Marietta Street corridor, Oakland Cemetery via Decatur Street and Peachtree Street as far north as Pine Street. Strong demand over the decade facilitated the construction of many more lines, and in 1883 and 1884, two more companies began constructing lines to cash in on the booming business. With the growth of each system, service expanded from downtown, running out to suburbs of the time.

The 1880s saw the replacement of horse-drawn service with steam-powered transportation. The transition was slow, and not all companies adopted the technology, which was ultimately usurped by electric power in the 1890s. With electrification came consolidation under the aptly named Atlanta Consolidated Street Railway Company, which was led by Joel Hurt, the developer of Inman Park and the Hurt Building on Edgewood Avenue just east of Five Points. Only 20 years after the first streetcar opened, Atlanta had more than 50 miles of streetcar service operating.

Despite the consolidation of operations, new competitors quickly sprang up before the turn of the century. By 1900, the front-runners had taken over, providing not only streetcar service, but selling surplus electricity to power the city. By 1901, Hurt had divested himself from business, and Henry M. Atkinson combined the streetcar operations and electric service under the guise of the Georgia Railway & Electric Company (the precursor to Georgia Power). While state law prohibited electricity companies from operating streetcars, as with today, money can convince laws to be changed.

The new century brought service to the far reaches of the metro area, at that time their own cities far removed from downtown. Interurban lines ran from downtown to Marietta, Hapeville and Stone Mountain. The company, seeing passenger ridership near 100 million per year by the mid-1920s, invested in newer, faster streetcars to replace an aging fleet along the more than 100 miles of lines traversing the city. But by the 1940s things were changing quickly. The rise of the bus and private automobile in the years following World War II resulted in the replacement of the aging streetcar system with trolleybuses in 1949.

Sixty-five years later, Atlanta opened the first 2.7 miles of a network that may one day expand across the city. It's a far cry from the robust system the city once boasted, but times are once again rapidly changing. Will this incarnation of Atlanta's age-old transit method enjoy the rapid success of the systems that preceded it? Time will tell.

· Streetcars in Atlanta [Rail GA]