The 1917 Packard omnibus (Detroit Public Library)
Friday, May 31, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Electric streetcars or trolleys dominated the streets of Charleston at the turn of the twentieth century, but their long reign came to an ignominious end in 1938. Although the rise of the automobile certainly contributed to their demise, the resurgence of the humble omnibus, in a new, mechanized form, played a significant role in transforming the history of mass transit in the Lowcountry.

Starting in the spring of 1899, all streetcar and ferry service in the Charleston metro area was under the control of a private corporation called the Charleston Consolidated Railway, Gas, and Electric Company. That company’s fleet of electric streetcars operated a robust network of urban and suburban routes that stretched from the southern tip of the peninsula at the Battery to Chicora Park at the new U.S. Navy Yard to the north, from Rutledge Avenue on the west to the Isle of Palms on the east. It was profitable and popular service. People of all walks of life rode the streetcars because it was a valuable and efficient form of mass transit.

As I mentioned last week, African American citizens gained the right to integrate Charleston’s streetcars in May of 1867. Details of the precise seating arrangements within those early cars is now difficult to find, but some unregulated form of segregation existed. In the late nineteenth century, the local streetcar companies apparently followed a practice of seating white passengers on one side of a car and the African-American passengers on the other. If the car was crowded, and the racial proportions onboard were not equal, people were allowed to sit wherever they could as long as there were no persons of different color sitting on the same seat.[1]

In 1898, our state legislature followed the lead of other Southern states by adopting a “separate coach” law that mandated the physical separation of the races on South Carolina railroads. That law did not apply to street railways, but Governor Cole Blease, a notorious bigot, wished it did. Bowing to pressure from the governor, Charleston’s City Council passed “An Ordinance for the Separation of the Races on Street Cars in the City of Charleston” in October 1912. The city’s new law reserved the back two rows of seats in each street car for black passengers. If additional seating was necessary (and available), black passengers could fill in additional rows, beginning from the back, or simply stand in the back.[2]

I think it’s significant that the city’s 1912 ordinance reserved only two rows of seats in each streetcar for the use of black passengers. Although the number of seats in any given streetcar varied according to its overall size, the specification of just two rows definitely indicates a minority of the total seating. From this fact, we can deduce that African-American passengers formed a minority of the streetcar clientele in 1912. Conversely, the local Consolidated streetcar company made the bulk of its profits from the receipts of white customers.

The demographics of the local streetcar population is an important part of this story, as we’ll see in just a moment. From the inauguration of Charleston’s streetcar system in December of 1866 through the end of 1921, the number of local riders increased every year. Then, in 1922, the Charleston Consolidated Railway & Lighting Company (as it was renamed in 1910) recorded its first decline in ridership.[3] This fact proved to be a significant tipping point in the history of vehicular transportation on the streets of Charleston. The market had changed, not just in the Palmetto City, but across the nation and around the world. Customers—specifically  affluent white customers—were abandoning the nearly century-old concept of mass transit in favor of the new-fangled automobile.


The Rise of Automobiles:

The earliest experiments to construct a wheeled vehicle powered by mechanical means commenced in Europe in the eighteenth century, and the concept reached practical maturity in the 1880s. Retail sales of commercial automobiles commenced in the United States the late 1890s. At the turn of the twentieth century, customers wishing to purchase an expensive, custom-built “horseless carriage,” as the machine was sometimes called, could choose among vehicles powered by steam, gasoline, or electric batteries. These were novelty machines in the early years of automobiling, more play-things for wealthy men and women than a practical means of regular transportation.

The first “horseless carriage” seen on the streets of Charleston made its appearance here on the ninth day of July, 1900. It was a small, one-seater, steam-powered contraption built by the Locomobile Company of America, sent here for a few weeks by the Colgate corporation to promote one of their products, Octagon soap. The “first large automobile ever seen in Charleston” appeared two months later, on September 4th, 1900. In January of 1901, George Lanneau began retailing Locomobiles from his bicycle shop at 399 King Street.[4] In the subsequent months and years, more varieties of automobiles appeared on the streets of the Palmetto City, and people grew accustomed to seeing the curious machine dart among the mix of urban horse carts and carriages, pedestrians, bicycles, and streetcars.

As with other vehicles plying the streets of Charleston, the city government (and later, the state) required the operators of automobiles to obtain an annual license for their machines. This practice created a bit of a paper trail that allows us to track the rising number of automobiles operating in the city after their debut in 1900. By August of 1907, there were one hundred of the “horseless carriages” registered on the peninsula. By the spring of 1912, there were approximately 500. By the conclusion of World War I in November of 1918, there were approximately 1,000 automobiles registered on the peninsula. Immediately after the war, their numbers increased dramatically. In 1922, the year that trolley profits first began to decline, there were approximately 4,500 automobiles operating in the city of Charleston, and the numbers just kept on growing.[5]

The decline of Charleston’s trolley system wasn’t simply the result of competition with the automobile, however. The inherent inflexibility of the street rail infrastructure also contributed to its demise. By rolling along a network of steel rails, streetcars offered a luxuriously smooth ride in the days before the advent of modern street paving materials. As the use of asphalt became widespread in the early twentieth century, that advantage disappeared. As the streets became more crowded with automobiles, Charleston and other cities also experienced the inevitable clashes between the highly-mobile machines and streetcars following their fixed paths. Autos could (and did) dart in front of the trolleys and pass around them indiscriminately, but auto parking proved to be a more significant problem. Motorists in urban Charleston and elsewhere frequently parked willy-nilly in front of shops and residences, often blocking the street rails. Trolley conductors were then obliged to stop their bulky machines and call for assistance, thereby causing a domino series of delays in the rigid streetcar schedule. As result of such problems, trolley riders became unhappy with the service, retailers became frustrated with the loss of customers, and the streetcar company suffered a loss of money and reputation. The solution to this predicament was both obvious and unanimous as early as the spring of 1918, when the people of Charleston began clamoring for the return of an old, familiar friend dressed in a modern garb: the motorized omnibus.


The Return of the Omnibus:

Horse-drawn omnibuses, the original form of urban mass-transit, first appeared in Charleston in 1833 and flourished here for more than three decades (see Episode No. 29). That slow, bumpy service was eclipsed by the advent of the horse-drawn street rail cars in December 1866, but omnibuses didn’t entirely disappear from the city. Hotels regularly used private omnibuses to convey guests to and from the city’s railway depot and steamboat landings. On special occasions, privately-owned omnibuses were hired to carry passengers from the city to specific destinations in the suburbs, like picnics at Magnolia Cemetery or the Schuetzenplatz.

In this reduced, niche market, the horse-drawn omnibus business survived into the early twentieth century and eventually had its revenge. The ally of the antebellum omnibus during this era was the latest transportation phenomenon, the gasoline-powered automobile. As early as 1905, the owners of electric trolleys in London began experimenting with what they called the “motor omnibus,” to see if the new vehicles would prove more flexible and comfortable than the street rail system. The paying public soon grew to prefer the motorized “bus,” as it was sometimes called, and the owners of trolley franchises around the world took notice. Motor omnibuses began running on Fifth Avenue in New York in the summer of 1907, for example, and other American cities adopted the new trend in the following years.[6]

Technological improvements in the automotive world appeared at a lightning pace during the early years of the twentieth century, and Charleston was not left behind. In August of 1917, the Charleston Transport Company, a private firm specializing in transporting baggage and passengers around town, announced that they had sold their horses and purchased a “motor omnibus.” This move, said a spokesman for the business, was “in line with the company’s policy of keeping abreast of the demands of the traveling public.”[7] Looking back at this moment in Charleston history, we can see that the arrival of the first motorized omnibus, or “bus,” in the autumn of 1917 was the beginning of the end for the city’s streetcar system.

Six months later, in February of 1918, the members of King Street’s Retail Merchants Association were fed up with the problem of trolley streetcars and automobiles competing for space on the city’s principal retail strip. They called for an audience with Charleston’s mayor, Tristram Hyde, and laid out their complaints. Movement along the narrow street was dominated by the trolleys that rolled down the track in the middle of two-way traffic, which discouraged customers from driving  automobiles to their shops. Automobile parking in the heart of the business community was impractical and frequently blocked the flow of streetcars. None of these were, strictly speaking, municipal issues, so the mayor was unsure of how to respond.

The retail merchants collectively told the mayor that they stood united “in favor of having the Consolidated Company tear up its [trolley] tracks in King street between Broad and Calhoun streets.” Did they want to dispense completely with public transportation in the city? Not at all. They simply wanted the mayor to convince the trolley company to abandon the electric railway in favor of motorized omnibuses. The free-range bus, free of a fixed track in the center of the street, “would solve a serious problem” in the heart of Charleston’s business district. “The efficiency of motor omnibuses has been wholly demonstrated,” they claimed, by experiences in other cities and in Charleston as well.[8]

In response to these complaints from the business community, Mayor Hyde offered a less radical solution that was accepted and immediately put into action. In late February 1918, King Street, between Broad and Calhoun Streets, became a one-way thoroughfare, with traffic heading northward. Automobiles were permitted to park only on the east side of the street. Although this change succeeded in quieting some of the traffic complaints along the heart of Charleston’s retail district, it didn’t address the root of the problem. As the number of automobiles and delivery trucks increased in the ensuing years, the tension between the streetcars and the autos festered and grew to a breaking point.


The End of the Trolleys:

In the years after that initial discussion with Mayor Hyde in February 1918, the business leaders of Charleston continued to debate the pros and cons of the slow, street-hogging electric trolley and the faster, more agile motorized omnibus. The streetcars remained popular and profitable through 1921, thanks in large part to the great number of sailors and soldiers passing through Charleston during World War I and its aftermath. From 1922 onward, however, the city’s trolley system became a losing concern. The prosperous post-war economy fostered upward mobility, and automobile ownership became the new status symbol for the rapidly-expanding, mostly white, increasingly suburban middle class.

The urban streetcar business in Charleston and across the nation experienced a difficult period of transition during the roaring twenties. As ridership declined, market forces obliged corporate leaders to act. In early 1927, the Charleston Consolidated Railway & Lighting Company was absorbed by the newly-formed South Carolina Power Company. As an experiment in 1934, the South Carolina Power Company replaced the trolleys on its suburban line, running along Meeting Street between the city and the Navy Yard (now North Charleston), with a small number of diesel buses. The new vehicles proved to be sufficiently popular to attract new riders, and so the profit-driven company ordered more buses.[9] From that moment, the complete replacement of the trolley system with buses became an inevitable prospect.

The final chapter in the history of Charleston’s trolley system began in summer of 1937. As in the spring of 1918, the plot was driven by the Charleston Retail Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce, who complained of obstacles along the King Street business district. On July 13th, the city’s business leaders asked Charleston’s City Council to consider a proposal to replace the current trolley system with motor omnibuses, now simply called buses. The city responded by convening a public meeting on July 21st, with Mayor Burnet Maybank presiding. At the opening of that meeting, Ernest Godschalk, the president of the South Carolina Power Company, asked permission to amend its franchise agreement with the city to implement various changes in its trolley service. The proposed changes concerned both equipment and schedules.

At that time in 1937, trolley cars moved around the city on various routes on a schedule of twelve-and-a-half minutes between each streetcar. The one exception to this rule was the “suburban line” between the city and the Navy Yard, which ran on a thirty-minute schedule. Mr. Godschalk proposed to replace this service with a new fleet of diesel buses that would follow a ten-minute schedule on all city routes, and a fifteen-minute schedule on the suburban route to the Navy Yard. He explained to the audience of business leaders that the diesel buses were “faster, more comfortable, and easily adjustable to emergencies” than the old-fashioned electric trolley. Trolley concerns around the world were switching to buses, he said, because the new machines were more efficient, more profitable, and “provide luxurious travel.”[10]

Mayor Maybank responded by advising the trolley company to submit a formal proposal to City Council, which it did on August 10th, 1937. At the Council meeting of September 14th, the city acknowledged that public “sentiment in Charleston seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of a change from street cars to buses.” In response, Council adopted a resolution authorizing the South Carolina Power Company to substitute buses for trolleys, on condition that they remove the rails and ties from the city’s street within twelve years and repave the voids with good quality asphalt. This resolution was confirmed and adopted by the board of the Power Company in January 1938, and the countdown for the switch began.[11]

On February 10th, 1938, the South Carolina Power Company organized a bittersweet “funeral procession” to mark the final run of Charleston’s electric trolleys. At mid-day, the new fleet of twenty-seven buses began a procession down Meeting Street with a brass band playing the hot tunes of the day to crowds of cheering spectators on the sidewalks. After a celebratory luncheon at the Francis Marion Hotel, city leaders, distinguished guests, and scores of private citizens took a final free ride on the old streetcars around the town and back to the 1897 trolley barn (now the home of the American College of the Building Arts). It was the end of an era, but few expressed grief at the passing of the cumbersome trolleys.[12]

Later in the spring of 1938, Mayor Burnet Maybank described the advent of the buses and the retirement of the trolleys as “a great improvement in traffic conditions” in Charleston. “Not only has this change expedited the flow of traffic, on express and other arterial streets,” he said, “but it has eliminated the frequent traffic jams caused by automobiles parked too close to street car tracks, and made general parking easier and safer. Dangerous overhead trolley wires were done away with.”[13]

Boosters of the South Carolina Power Company were even more enthusiastic about the evolution of Charleston’s mass transit. “The time has come when the sight of a trolley car will be a novelty in this section,” opined a company newsletter. “For some years a few old cars may be used for lunch stands, or small beach houses, but they will become in a few weeks a relic of bygone days. The motor bus is here! The finest, most luxurious transportation that money can buy is being provided [to] the people of America’s Most Historic City.”[14]


Bring Back the Trolleys?

In last week’s introduction to this topic, I began by citing Gabe Klein’s 2014 recommendation to Charleston’s City Council. In an effort to tackle the city’s growing problems with traffic and parking, he recommended that Charleston “bring back the trolleys.”[15] Considering the fact that the people of Charleston, and the rest of the nation, turned their collective backs on the trolley system more than eighty years ago, that might seem like a silly, nostalgic piece of advice. If you think about it, however, the trolleys, in some respects, never went away. The streetcar technology and infrastructure morphed, like a chrysalis, into a new form in 1938, but kept on rolling. The routes and fares have evolved over the years, but the legacy and the spirit of the old trolley system continues rolling today under the mantle of the Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority, or CARTA.

When transportation consultant Gabe Klein advised the City of Charleston to “bring back the trolleys,” he wasn’t suggesting that we should invest in replacing the expensive infrastructure of steel rails and overhead trolley wires. Instead, he was advocating for kind of super-bus system known as bus rapid transit (or BRT). BRT uses energy-efficient vehicles with traditional rubber wheels that operate on a more robust schedule that what we currently enjoy. In short, Gabe Klein was urging the City of Charleston, and the greater metro area in general, to embrace the existing but struggling public transportation network and strive to make it bigger and better.

Looking back at the legacy of Charleston’s mass-transit history, one can think of the omnibus, the streetcar, and the trolley as a sort of democratic microcosm into which step people of all ages, races, religions, languages, cultures, and economic conditions. If our street-rail system had appeared before the Civil War, the highly stratified nature of Charleston society might have dampened its success. After the war, when the city’s economy was in a shambles and its traditional social order had been dismantled, however, the streetcar found a ready market here. One could even say that the public streetcar, and its diverse clientele, formed an integral part of Charleston’s transition into the modern age.



[1] Charleston Evening Post, 23 October 1912, page 9, "Separating Races on Cars.”

[2] South Carolina, Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina Passed at the Regular Session of 1905 (Columbia, S.C.: Gonzales and Bryan, 1898), 777–78; City Council of Charleston, Year Book 1912 (Charleston, S.C.: Daggett Printing Company, 1913), 405–6.

[3] The Powerlog [published by and for South Carolina Power Company Employees], volume 9, No. 1 (January, 1938).

[4] Charleston Evening Post, 9 July 1900, page 4, “A Horseless Carriage”; Evening Post, 4 September 1900, page 2; Evening Post, 8 January 1901, page 7, “The Locomobiles.” In a “Do You Know Your Charleston?” column in the Charleston News and Courier, 27 May 1946, page 8, the unnamed author asserted that Ernest O. Patterson drove the first locomobile on the streets of Charleston in August 1899, and that its appearance caused such a stir as to be banned by the local police. I have found no documentary evidence to support this story, which was repeated by many later writers. Such an event was not mentioned in the local newspapers of August 1899, and the July 1900 press coverage of the Locomobile repeatedly described it as the first horseless carriages seen in the city.

[5] See local automobile license statistics in Charleston Evening Post, 29 August 1907, page 7, “Hundredth Auto License”; Charleston Evening Post, 12 March 1912, page 6, “Past 500 Autos for Charleston”; Charleston Evening Post, 6 January 1917, page 7; and in the 1922 annual report of the Chief of Police, in City Council of Charleston, Year Book 1922 (Charleston, S.C.: Daggett Printing Company, 1924), 309. The state of South Carolina also mandated the registration of automobiles. On 21 February 1906, the General Assembly ratified “An Act to Amend and Act Entitled ‘An Act to Regulate the Running of Motor Vehicles Upon the Public Highways of this State, and Fixing a Penalty for the Violation Thereof,’ Approved 7th of March, 1905, Prescribing Duties of Motor Operator, Increasing the Penalty for Violation thereof.” This law required operators to register their vehicles with the county clerk obtain a license tag. See Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina Passed at the Regular Session of 1906 (Columbia, S.C.: Gonzales and Bryan, 1906), 79–80.

[6] Charleston Evening Post, 12 August 1907, page 2, “Fifth Avenue Stages Gone.”

[7] Charleston News and Courier, 14 July 1917, page 8: “Motor Vehicles Ordered”; Charleston News and Courier, 10 August 1917, page 8: “Motor Vehicles Bought.”

[8] Charleston News and Courier, 22 February 1918, page 8, “New Traffic Laws for King Street.”

[9] The Powerlog, volume 9, No. 1 (January, 1938).

[10] See the proceedings of Charleston’s City Council, 1935–39, pages 349–50; Charleston News and Courier, 22 July 1937, page 14, “Buses will Run Each 10 Minutes.”

[11] See the proceedings of Charleston’s City Council, 1935–39, pages 365–68. The date of the S.C. Power Company’s ratification of this agreement is mentioned in the text of a City Council resolution adopted on 13 October 1942; see the proceedings of Charleston’s City Council, 1939–43, page 518.

[12] See the extensive press coverage of this event in the Charleston News and Courier, issues of 10 and 11 February 1938.

[13] City Council of Charleston, Year Book 1937, Mayor Maybank’s report, page 13–14.

[14] The Powerlog, volume 9, No. 1 (January, 1938).

[15] Gabe Klein, “Charleston, South Carolina, Peninsula Mobility Report,” November 2014, pages 6–9.


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