Public Transportation in Dayton Ohio from 1870 to 2007

Harvey I. Hylton, P.E.    August 10, 2007

Horses, Mules, and Rails

Dayton Ohio, has a rich history of public transportation, which has its origins in an 1870 horse-drawn streetcar line that ran East-West across Third Street. The western terminus was at Western Avenue (now McGee) and the other end of rail was near Findlay Street in East Dayton. The proprietors of the Dayton Street Rail Road were both men of means, each having extensive undeveloped real estate at each end of the line. The main purpose of this new transportation wonder was to encourage the sale of residential lots for new homebuilders. It was an immediate success, and made fortunes for Huffman (East side) and Williams (West side).

Other investors saw the opportunities to profit by establishing new street railways, and soon new horsecar routes were running to lower Dayton View, up the Wayne Avenue Hill, out Valley Street, and across Fifth Street. A short-lived line was built that ran between the public bathhouse on North Main Street and thence South through downtown as far as the railroad station, located at Sixth and Ludlow St. This short line was soon abandoned, and a new line was constructed to run out Brown Street to what is today Five Points, where Far Hills Ave, Oakwood Ave and Thruston Blvd intersect. It was through-routed with the Dayton View line, and became known as the Oakwood and Dayton View Street Railway. Again, the driving force behind most of these early street railways was to augment the sale of new housing tracts. Much of today’s layout of the City of Dayton was established by these car lines. A nice side profit was also made by the sale of horse manure to local farmers, which was concomitantly fouling the streets, much to the unhappiness of residents living along the horse/mule streetcar routes.

The Electric Streetcar

These affairs continued unabated until the summer of 1888, when a new-fangled mode of public transport was introduced to Dayton. An entirely new streetcar line was built, extending from Fairview and North Main Street, southward to downtown, where it jogged over Third Street to Ludlow Street, ran south to Washington Street, thence west, crossing the river, out Germantown Street, and eventually terminated at the lake on Gettysburg Avenue, opposite the Soldier’s Home. What made this line so unique was the fact that it was propelled by electricity, taken from an overhead wire.

On opening day, August 8, 1888 (8/8/88), free rides were given to all comers. Several fistfights broke out among the crowds vying to get on one of the new electric cars. The owners of the White Line Electric Railway, as this line was known, soon were running to the bank with handsome profits from their operation. But like any new endeavor, there were teething problems that quickly surfaced.

Tap-dancing Mules and Smoking Switchboards

The White Line Electric traversed the Oakwood horse car rails for a few blocks on Main Street, between Third and Monument. The electric cars also used the rails for an electrical return path to the power house on Germantown Street, just beyond the grade crossing of the two steam railroads. But the Oakwood companies’ rails were not electrically bonded together (yet). Shortly after commencement of the electric line, Oakwood mules were often seen tap-dancing on Main Street, and occasionally sparks shot out of their tails.

Bonding the rails together cured that situation, but then the telephone company started to experience mysterious fires in their downtown switchboards. The streetcar company had to reimburse the telephone company for damages, and thereafter had to provide better insulation on the poles they shared with the telephone company. Then rumors surfaced that riding on the new electric cars would magnetize and damage the passenger’s priceless Hamilton watches. That eventually proved to be erroneous. Eventually the efficiency of the electric cars (and the mitigation of animal droppings) soon led to electrification of all the other existing horsecar routes, one-by-one. By 1895 all the horses and mules were happily turned out to pasture.

Unification Begins, Interurbans Arrive

Starting in 1894, street railway corporation mergers commenced, with City Railway, Peoples Railway, and the Oakwood Street Railway, emerging, and all soon electrified, if not already so. Each had their own coal-burning, steam-powered, electric power generating plant.

In the late 1890’s, Dayton was rapidly becoming the hub of another exciting mode of transportation, the electric interurban railway, that entered Dayton over private railway trackage. Two interurbans, the Dayton & Miamisburg Traction Co., and the Dayton-Xenia Traction Company, soon commenced offering local service over the city portions of their trackage as they entered Dayton. Thus by 1900 or shortly afterwards, counting the two interurbans carrying city passengers, there were twelve electric city railway lines radiating out from the Dayton Central Business District (CBD), offering public transportation within the city.

The interurban craze soon added five more interurban lines entering Dayton, but these were usually not considered as streetcar lines per se, albeit that they used street railway tracks to get in and out of the CBD.

Additional Electric Streetcar Lines

Additional electric car lines were soon introduced. Peoples Railway built their new Cincinnati Street and Leo Street lines in 1903; and extended the Valley Street line to Bickmore. City Railway built new lines on Broadway/Lexington, Kammer Avenue, and East First Street/Webb, in 1904, 1906 and 1911, respectively. These four City Railway lines all diverged off of the pioneer 3rd Street line, and thus all ran through Third and Main Streets.

And in 1909, another entirely new electric city streetcar line was built by latecomer Dayton Street Railway (not to be confused with the pioneering company, Dayton Street Rail Road). The Oakwood Street Railway was extended out Far Hills Avenue to Monteray. Thus by 1915, Dayton was well served in every quarter by a multitude of electric rail service. Extensions continued:

- The East Fifth Street line was extended from Jersey Street up the Huffman hill to Overlook Avenue (now Smithville Road);

- City Railway made a short extension north on Elmhurst, into Residence Park, from Third Street;

- In 1927, Peoples extended their North Main Street line by acquiring the abandoned Dayton Covington and Piqua interurban track from Maplewood out as far as Forest Park, near Siebenthaler.

- The final Dayton streetcar extension was made in 1937 when City Railway bought about 3 miles of abandoned Dayton & Western interurban trackage on West Third Street between Elmhurst and Miller Road, and created the Drexel Transit Company, thus providing Drexel with direct streetcar service into downtown Dayton.

(Ironically, this final extension was also the final streetcar operation in Dayton in 1947)

It also should be noted that Peoples Railway also owned and operated two successful public amusement parks: Fairview Park on North Main Street, and Lakeside at the terminus of the Lakeview line. A big attraction every Sunday at Fairview was an elk that jumped into the lake from a platform—a real crowd pleaser. Peoples Railway had to haul trailer cars to handle the crowds. Long after the roller coaster at Lakeside was demolished, Lakeside continued as the Lakeside Palladium, which was the largest public dance pavilion in West-Central Ohio. Big name bands were featured.

For many years a unique operation was conducted by Peoples at their Lakeside terminus; the beautiful waiting station there also served as a transfer facility for rural mail carriers. Peoples Railway brought mail out from the central Dayton post office, and the Postmen for Western Montgomery County took the mail further west in horse-drawn buggies. Nice little piece of business for the Peoples.

Counting the in-city operations of two interurbans, Dayton had six separately owned streetcar operating companies, surely a record of anywhere in the US.

Here Comes the Trolleybus: Orange, Brown, Red, Yellow, and Green

In 1932, the Dayton Street Railway (DStRy) had a disastrous fire in their car barn on Lorain Avenue, destroying almost all of their streetcars. With their tracks also in bad shape, and the depression in full sway, the Dayton Street had little money to rebuild the infrastructure of their street railway system. A solution was found by stringing one additional trolley wire, and introducing a fairly new transportation mode, the rubber-tired electric trolley bus, now known as the ETB. Twelve of the famous Brill T-40 model ETBs sallied forth on the 23rd of April 1933. They were an immediate success, and residents all over the city clamored for the other railcar operators to convert to the fast and quiet vehicles that loaded passengers at the curb.

One-by-one all but one of the other companies did convert to ETB, and the final rail car ran its last mile on 27 September 1947. Thus for a short period in 1941 Dayton had five separate ETB operating companies, again a situation not found anywhere else. This fact alone garnered for Dayton a very unique legacy among transit operations. Starting in 1941, the largest company, City Railway, began to acquire the other, smaller, companies. Not until late 1956 did Dayton have one unified transit operating company. At that time, since rail cars had been long gone, the resulting merged company was renamed City Transit Company.

Glory Days for City Transit Company

After the merger was completed, City Transit Co. embarked upon a re-routing of several lines, something that had been espoused by Dayton city officials for years, but practically impossible under diversified operators. In the sixties, City Transit even extended trolleybus routes into the growing fringes of the city, and implemented a few motorbus feeder routes into low-ridership areas, thus providing a comprehensive public transportation service throughout the Dayton area. City Transit routes, with very few exceptions, rarely ventured beyond Dayton, Oakwood, and Kettering. Under the leadership of W. W. (Bill) Owen, one of the nation’s most dynamic advocate of public transit as opposed to private automobile commuting, the durable trolleybus was the mainstay of the City Transit Company. The trolleybus was always perceived as environmentally friendly, which in later years brought about an unexpected public support for retention of trolleybuses, rather than follow the hundreds of other cities that replaced them with diesel-powered motorbuses.

Suburban motorbus service was provided by smaller, independent, bus operators, often operating only during the AM and PM rush-hours.

Ridership on most City Transit Co. routes remained profitable through the early nineteen sixties, but trouble was on the horizon.

Glory Days at City Transit Company Screech to a Halt

In the later 1960’s, public transit ridership drastically declined in most US cities. Dayton was no exception. Revenue collection by the City Transit Company dwindled to a point where service cuts had to be made; evening and Sunday service were the first to go. Bill Owen, President of City Transit lobbied hard and long for a local operating subsidy, but that did not materialize. Instead, a new publicly-owned entity was formed in 1970, the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA). This new agency was controlled by trustees representing Dayton, Oakwood, and Kettering, the three cities that City Transit operated in.

The new MVRTA entered into negotiations with City Transit about purchasing the privately-owned system and its properties, infrastructure, and vehicle fleet, which were mostly elderly trolleybuses. The RTA had plans to completely operate the bus system with new diesel-powered motorbuses, and not buy any of City Transit property or equipment. Bill Owen would have to remove all of his trolleybus infrastructure, and dispose of the trolley fleet. A strong argument set forth by the MVRTA trustees was that “trolleybuses had not been in manufactured in twenty years”. Owen soon mounted a public campaign to retain the trolleybus as the primary mode, albeit under the forthcoming new public management. Bill used scarce money to buy a new trolleybus made in Canada, brought it to Dayton, where it had a sign painted on it declaring “New Trolleybus”. During the prolonged negotiations, City Transit struggled to provide a modicum of public service. After very tenuous negotiations, City Transit agreed to sell their property to the MVRTA for less than $3 million. On November 2nd, 1972, the RTA slapped their stick-on logos over the City Transit logos on the sides of the buses, and took over operations. With the exception of Bill Owen, City Transit employees instantaneously became new MVRTA employees.

MVRTA Takes Over

As soon as the new public agency became responsible for public transportation in the three cities, service was partially restored to former levels. But the RTA soon learned that the farebox revenue didn’t come near to what it needed to conduct operations at a level even close to what the private company had been doing for many years before the crunch came. What to do? Meanwhile, remember, suburban transport was provided by small independent bus companies, giving limited service to residents living outside the boundaries of the three MVRTA cities. Obviously, a form of subsidized support was quickly needed, or the MVRTA would face the same dilemma, as had the City Transit Company. How can subsidy be obtained? The US government may have been willing to grant monies for new equipment, etc., but no money for operations.

County-Wide Service?

An idea surfaced whereby if the MVRTA expanded its service throughout Montgomery County, perhaps the citizens would support the expanded service via a sales tax imposed upon most retail sales in the county. Put up for referendum by the voters, it was defeated the first time, in 1978. The MVRTA persisted with this plan, and in 1980 it was finally passed by the voters, who thereby agreed to tax themselves ½% on retail sales in the county. The MVRTA commenced negotiations with the several small bus lines that had been providing limited suburban service. Some sold their operation to RTA, others got out of the business. The RTA soon bought several second hand diesel transit buses, and started service out into the county over new routes, many of which had never seen public transit. On a few trolley lines, which had been cut back to the city limits, once again ventured out beyond city boundaries. Concomitantly with the County-Wide service, the RTA Board of Trustees was expanded to include representation from the County at large. Also, new diesel buses were bought, allowing the badly deteriorating used buses to be retired. Then the old issue about the trolleybus system came forth once again.

Shall We Dump The Trolleybus?

The Board continued to be overwhelmingly against renewal of the trolleybus system. But public support for retention of the trolleybuses became exceptionally vocal, driven by the Citizens for Clean Air, League of Women Voters, and a new consortium, the Save Our Trolleys Coalition (SOTC). These groups, largely led by a private citizen, one W. W. Owen, forced the Trustees to rethink the matter; soon 64 new Flyer trolleybuses were ordered, just in time to replace the decrepit old Marmon-Herringtons and Pullman-Standard trolleys, then approaching 30 years old.

Guess Who Gets Appointed to the MVRTA Trustee Board?

After the County-Wide referendum was passed, the Board of Trustees was greatly expanded. Former City Transit President W. W. (Bill) Owen, a nationally respected transit expert, with some 50 years experience in the field, continued, as a private citizen, to often deeply criticize the management of the MVRTA.

Surprise! In the early 1980’s, the Montgomery County Commissioners appointed Bill as one of their trustees on the MVRTA Board. During his last year on the Board, his fellow Trustees elected him President of the MVRTA Board. During his tenure on the Board, his penetrating questions often made the RTA staff squirm, to say the least.

Another Trolley Fight?

After barely eight years of County-Wide operation, it became apparent that for the County-Wide motorbuses to get in and out of the central city, they had to travel on the same streets that also have trolleybus routes on them, thus causing duplication of service in many cases. So, in 1988, with the Flyer trolleybus fleet just over 10 years old, (1/2 of their life expectancy) the Trustees became enamored with the dual-mode bus concept, wherein the bus has both a diesel engine and electric trolley propulsion. A demonstration vehicle was brought to Dayton, but since it was an articulated bus, and such long buses where then illegal in Ohio, nothing came of it. But soon a new Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued for new trolleybuses. In late 1988 cost proposals were received; the Board thought the price was outrageous, and cancelled the action. Shortly thereafter, some of the trolley overhead was dismantled, causing many observers to perceive the trolley system was doomed. During this same period, RTA had on contract the manufacture of several small “packaged” substations. When it was revealed publically that RTA’s management was quietly trying to find a some other buyer for the subs, getting out of the contract, an uproar was made by the pro-trolley coalitions. Almost immediately upper management was changed, and the Trustee Board directed that “the trolley issue be revisited.” But Bill Owen had already gone to his grave, at age 89, assuming his beloved trolleys would soon follow.

Trolley System cut-backs

In 1987 the MVRTA eliminated two trolley routes, and essentially replaced them with diesel buses running duplicative service. On March 24th, Route 2W (Home Avenue) which ran into the VA Home loop, was dismantled due to US 35 expressway construction over much of the route. Diesel route 22W replaced 2W by running on nearby streets. Lightly used route 8N (Leo) was discontinued on September 24th; diesel route 22N covers portions of the old trolley route.

From 4/27/93 until August 2000 route 8W (Lakeview) no longer went around the lake, but instead terminated at a loop just short of the lake near Bowie Avenue. This again was due to US 35 expressway construction.

New Trolleybuses, Once Again

In 1994, a contract was given to Electric Transit Incorporated (ETI) for a fleet of new trolleybuses. ETI was a wholly-owned subsidiary of SKODA in the Czech Republic (CZ), and AAI in Baltimore, Maryland. The new Dayton trolleys were close relatives to the SKODA 14TR, which is widely used in Eastern Europe. Modified to meet US safety standards, the frame and propulsion system are made in Ostrav, CZ., then shipped to Baltimore where AAI put on the exterior skin. These “shells” were then trucked to Dayton, where at an ETI facility the final assembly was done. The first of the ETI/SKODA trolleys arrived in late 1995; the final, 57th bus, was accepted in September 1999. These trolleys are fitted with wheelchair lifts, powerful air conditioning, and other passenger-friendly amenities. An auxiliary battery (APU) system allows limited off-wire travel, often needed to circumvent a detour.

Hubs and Extensions to the Trolley Routes

Starting in 1996, the MVRTA embarked upon a plan to extend trolleybus service, with new routes and extensions to existing ETB lines being made. Additionally, hubs were built in outlying neighborhoods, where inter-route transfers could be made without going all the way into the CBD hub, at Third and Main.

In June of 1996 the Radio Road extension was made to Route 1E. A new, long, route was opened in August 1999 from the new Westown Hub on Elmhurst to Hoover and Miller Road in Trotwood.

In August of 2000 several major ETB route extensions were opened, serving the new Hubs. On the East side, both routes 3E and 4E were extended out Linden Avenue to the Eastown Hub, making connection with several diesel routes. Route 8 was extended on both ends, to the new Hubs. Once again traversing around the lake, 8W ran via Gettysburg and W. 3rd to the Westown Hub, connecting with several other ETB and diesel routes. Route 8N was extended out Salem Avenue to the new NorthWest Hub.

Diesel Buses

Motorbuses have operated in Dayton since about 1924, but these were initially feeder-bus routes to extend service beyond the electrically-operated main line vehicles, both streetcar and trolleybus. City Transit operated one or two lightly used routes that traversed the center city. These smaller buses were gasoline powered until the mid-sixties, when diesel became the dominant engine choice.

After the commencement of County-Wide service, large diesel buses were bought to service those long routes. Wheelchair lifts were installed on all buses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. The MVRTA was one of the first transit properties in the US to be fully ADA compliant. In 2001, the MVRTA was renamed the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (GDRTA).

Changes thru mid-2007

In February 2007 the GDRTA made significant route and service changes, reflecting a desire to contain operational costs within a tighter budget. As a result, only routes 7 and 8 are now full-time ETB-operated. The Nicholas Road branch of 8W has been eliminated, as has the Redwood loop on 7N. Route 4 is ETB daytime only. Route 3 has daytime ETB service on the west end, with only a few trips running through to the east end of the line. Both ends of routes 1, 2, and 5 see only one ETB run each weekday AM and PM. These routes have duplicative diesel routes over most of their territory. Extensive changes to the all-diesel routes were also made at the same time.

In Summary

The history of public transportation in Dayton in one of extreme interest to transit historians, largely because of the retention of electric trolleybuses in such a relatively small city. Also, the late-in-the-game final consolidation of the several separate transit properties provided a variety of transit equipment never operated concomitantly anywhere else. It is hoped this brief discussion covers most of the salient points.

Dayton Transit History in Photographs

PS: There are literally thousands of great photographs of Dayton’s transit vehicles available for viewing on the Internet.

For Dayton streetcars, see Dave's Electric Railroads

For Dayton trolleybuses, see Tom's Trolleybuses Dayton page and Dayton Trolley Transit

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