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Enter the Electric Street Car

Over in Germany, they were having the same problems related to animal-caused pollution. About 1878, in Berlin, electrical wizards Siemens and Halske demonstrated a passenger-carrying vehicle, powered Click to enlarge by an electric motor, running on rail tracks, and receiving electric power through the rails. Obviously, one of the world's greatest inventions was at hand! (They also "invented" the first Electric Trolley Bus (ETB), which they called the Electromote, in 1882. More about this later when we get to the main thrust of this saga.)

The electric street car took the entire world by storm. In the early 1880s, several experimental electric street car lines were built in the USA, such as were built in Cleveland and Lima, here in Ohio. These early systems failed because of their primitive current-collection methods (underground conduits or trollers on top of overhead wires. The word trolley comes from troller.)

The time had arrived for Dayton to electrify. Capitalists from Cincinnati engaged the Van DePoele Company in Chicago to construct an electric street car line in Dayton. This was to be an entirely new route, not an electrification of an existing horsecar line. Called the White Line Electric Railway, it ran south on Main Street from Riverdale, through downtown, south on Ludlow to Washington Street, and thence westward and out Germantown Street. A coal-burning power house was built at their carbarn just west of the B & O Railroad on Germantown. The high smokestack was the most noticeable landmark in Dayton.

The first electric cars in Dayton gave free rides on the 8th of August, 1888 (8/8/88.) They were a roaring success, and several fights broke out that night by people wanting to have a turn to ride the latest transit vehicle. By 1895 the horsecar companies had seen the light, and strung trolley wire, and put the horses and mules out to pasture. By 1910 there were five (5) separate electric streetcar companies running hundreds of electric cars all over Dayton.

A unique feature of the Dayton transit scene is that these five companies never merged or consolidated until much later, when they had all converted their rail lines to a new-fangled transit vehicle, called the trackless trolley, trolley coach, trolley bus, eventually called the Electric Trolley Bus (ETB.) The electric streetcar clanged its bell, ground its steel wheels on the steel track, threw sparks out of the trolley wire, and remained the primary mode of city transportation until the early 1930s.

But even this venerable transit workhorse would be put out to pasture by another upstart -- the rubber-tired electric trolley bus. Worn-out tracks needed replacing, but the overhead wires still had juice in them, so---

The economic depression starting in 1930 had drastically reduced ridership, and thus money to replace the worn out street railway infrastructure was scarce. Some other cities, such as Chicago and Indianapolis, had successfully replaced street-cars with the new ETB, thus retaining their investment in the still-viable trolley overhead and power-supply system. At this point, the gasoline motor bus was not perfected enough to assume the loads of heavy trunk lines still carried by the streetcars. In the case of Dayton, the conversion/replacement question weighed heavily on the minds of the several transit company managers, when an accident forced a solution.

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