The clang of the trolley’s bell once was ingrained in the urban mosaic, sharper than a car horn, louder than the cry of boys hawking newspapers, distinct above the rumble of life in Washington.
And then one day it was gone: Jan. 28, 1962 — 50 years ago today.
Doug Trainer remembers the day well.
“I was a little guy, and my dad took me down,” he said. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s a funny-looking sorta thing.’ ”
That a father would drive his 4-year-old son in from Silver Spring on a windy, cold Sunday morning to witness the city’s final streetcar trip speaks to the sense that it was the noteworthy end of an era and a moment to be mourned.
“There were a lot of people, and a lot of kids,” said Trainer, 54, who now lives in Springfield.
The last ride cost adults 15 cents, but kids took that one for free.
“Afterwards, we’d go downtown from time to time and you’d see the buses, and they had the same paint scheme — D.C. Transit — and I remember feeling a sense of disappointment,” Trainer said. “It was just a smelly old bus, and not a trolley.”
The streetcars of old were big machines that lumbered with awkward jerks around corners and then glided smooth-as-silk along straightaways. The tracks made them less nimble than buses, so a double-parked car or delivery van could require a disgruntled motorman — and occasionally an annoyed passenger — to dash into a shop with a demand that the driver move that vehicle so the trolley could get going again.
The rare blizzard caused headaches for streetcars. On the plus side, they were stable and reliable once the tracks were cleared. A trolley wouldn’t skid sideways or lose traction, so long as there was enough sand in the devices they carried that deposited it onto the tracks.
But a wise operator carried an old coal shovel in case snowplow operators left mounds too close to pass. And when people dug their cars out from under, they tended to leave them parked a little too far out into the streets for the trolleys to get by. Groups of passengers were known to get out and rock the parked car sideways to get it out of the way.
The Washington trolley system is fondly remembered by white Washingtonians born in the first half of the 20th century for carrying them out to the Glen Echo Amusement Park. That potential joy ride carries a different memory for black people of that age, who were not allowed in the park until 1961, a year before the city’s streetcar system shut down.
The demise of the streetcars that once were a part of America’s urban fabric carried a colorful historical footnote that has become obscure to all but trolley buffs and conspiracy theorists.
The story is known by two names, the National City Lines conspiracy or the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, and it is the latter that best gets to the quick of it.
Beginning in 1936, National City Lines operated as a holding company that bought transit systems “where streetcars were no longer practicable” and converted them into bus lines. National City grew and absorbed similarly minded companies. By 1950 it had converted systems in 45 cities, including Baltimore, Newark, New York, and Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, Calif.
The investors in National City included Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors and Mack Trucks.
When gasoline suddenly became scarce and expensive during the 1973 oil crisis, a U.S. Senate committee looked into the demise of the streetcar system and heard testimony of a GM-led conspiracy.
D.C. Transit steered clear of that controversy, but by the time the Senate took an interest, all that remained of the city’s streetcar system were tracks that had yet to be removed.
Now the tracks are back, and soon the streetcars will make their return, too.
The District has laid out a plan for 37 miles of streetcar lines across the city, a $100 million commitment. Tracks were installed on H Street during a recent overhaul, and the first trolley cars are to run down them in the summer of 2013.
The trolley system that died 50 years ago had a mix of overhead wires and underground third-rail lines in downtown areas that Congress thought should be kept pristine. There will be overhead wires on H Street, but the city is exploring new technology that may use battery power to propel the streetcars through intersections or stretches of up to about a mile.
When streetcars make a comeback — the city owns three and is buying two more — Doug Trainer says he plans to ride one.
“I’m definitely thinking of that, and of bringing my son, who is 9 years old now,” Trainer said.