Streetcar City A Moving Places Presentation

What happened to Cleveland’s electric streetcars? Were rails too confining? Buses more flexible? Automobiles too tempting?
Did the fall of the streetcars mark progress for Cleveland’s transportation system?
Was it a change for the better?

By the 1920's, Cleveland hosted one of the largest electric rail networks in America. But this all changed by 1953 as a Parade of Progress down Euclid Avenue marked the end of Cleveland’s Streetcar era. Like a funeral procession, an eighty year lineage of Cleveland streetcars with their squealing wheels and shaky frames ambled one last time down the rail tracks in the center of Euclid Avenue.

The parade begins with a horse drawn rail car, marking the early years of Cleveland's streetcars before electrification in 1888.

The earliest horse-drawn rail cars were followed by sleek electric trolleys baring the signature design of famed Cleveland transportation commissioner Peter Witt.

A Peter Witt trolley developed in Cleveland and used across the world marks the end of the parade.

A line of shiny buses brought up the end of the parade, the taste of diesel smoke on the lips of over 400,000 observers signaled the coming of a new era.

With their flexibility, diesel buses replaced the fixed rails of streetcars.

The internal combustion engine finally achieved supremacy after several decades of battle for their place on the streets.

Streetcars travel to an underground west-side line off of Public Square

By the mid-1950s, streetcars not shipped off to Toronto’s growing city rail system met the welding torch in scrap yards around the city.

Few streetcars were preserved- they were disassembled for scrap.

Streetcar City is the first of three episodes for the Moving Places series which investigates three transportation epochs (streetcars, highways, and bikes) that have shaped the course of Cleveland life in dramatically different ways.

The Streetcar City combined conveneint pubic transit and walking.

Streetcar City takes you through the epic rise and fall of Cleveland’s streetcars and how those ghost rails lingering under Cleveland's roads and medians still subtly direct life today.

Public ire over safety and affordability led to on-going streetcar riots that crippled the city’s streetcar sytem during the summer of 1899

The Streetcar City rose in tandem with the explosive industrialization of the city which began in the late 1800s. Streetcar magnate Tom L. Johnson traded in aspiring monopoly aspirations to become a noted progressive politician- earning strong support among the city’s working class and largely immigrant residents. Campaigning for a more equitable public streetcar system, Johnson quelled the ire that spread through Cleveland in one of its most violent episodes- the 1899 Streetcar Strikes.

Mayor Tom L. Johnson: "Some men like to leave monuments… some build hospitals, libraries, or universities. I want to see that there is a street railroad that is built that will be run in the interests of the people."
Tom Johnson conducts the first 3 cent fare streetcar line in 1906.
Streetcars are mostly replaced by diesel buses by the mid 1950's.

Even though the once formidable electrical currents coursing through the millions of feet of Cleveland’s electric streetcar wires have long puttered out, we can still find relics of the Streetcar City throughout the city. Historic streetcar districts, like Cleveland Height’s Coventry Village, still bare some of the hallmarks of the Streetcar city- walkable, dynamic, and compact.

Old Streetcar rails go down the center of Coventry Boulevard.
Coventry Road in the 1970s from American Splendor comic.

What was life in the Streetcar City like? Enter a ghost streetcar district depicted through the comics of Harvey Pekar, who pioneered the auto-biographical comic in the 1970’s. Many of his comics depict the chance encounters and slow conversations that accompany the pedestrian life of a streetcar suburb- a contrast from the far-flung motorcar suburbs of today.

Streetcar City immerses you in an entirely different Cleveland than we know today through a unique blend of archival footage, historic photographs, and illustrations by Gary Dumm and J.T. Waldman- two comic artists that worked with Harvey Pekar.

Illustrations from Gary Dumm and J.T. Waldman

Travel with writer-director Brad Masi as he wanders through unnoticed relics of the streetcar city which offer a portal into a city once ruled by rail.

An old streetcar corridor along Fairmont Boulevard in Cleveland Heights.

Understanding the history of public transit in the city provides an important context as residents struggle with rising fares, reduced services, and governmental neglect that have plagued Cleveland’s transit system since the 1960s.

Clevelanders for Public Transit Rally in Public Square in downtown Cleveland in 2018.

Learn the history and become involved with the effort to keep Cleveland’s public transit working for all who live, work, and play in the city.

The Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) line along Euclid Avenue mimics the patterns of the original streetcars.

Streetcar City is a part of the Moving Places series, a project of Blue Heron Productions, based in Cleveland Heights. Writer-director Brad Masi provides a unique blend of natural history and engagement with sustainability issues facing the city today.

Writer Director Brad Masi with Blue Heron Productions.

Click here for more information about Blue Heron Productions.

This program is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support generously provided by Joe and JoAnne Masi.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Photos courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project of Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Public Library, and Brad Masi

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