In our Special Collections Center, we have hanging on our wall an enormous double photograph showing the southern view from the corner of Third Street and Brady in 1938 and in 1952.
The two photographs, separated by only 14 years, are quite similar. The cars are slightly different in the newer image, and the huge RKO Orpheum sign has shrunk to a tasteful marquee, and the remainder of the bricked street has been smoothed over. And, of course, all those rails and electric cables for the streetcars have all disappeared—
What? Oh, yes, Davenport had streetcars. In fact, the city depended on them for the better part of a century.
The first streetcars appeared in the 1860’s, each route controlled by a different company. Ambrose Fulton operated the Third Street Route, taking residents around the downtown area for work or shopping, and Judge James Grant’s Brady Street line ran to the fairgrounds north of the city.* The standard fare was a nickel.
These early streetcars were open trolleys and literally horse-powered, which was troublesome in the winter. The wooden cars couldn’t be heated without causing fire hazards, and snow made for slow-going, especially up Brady Street hill, which was probably no treat for the horses on a dry road in the summer.
Steam cars made their debut in 1878, which made the hills easier on all concerned, though the contraption apparently smelled of smoke and made quite the racket. Even with the extra power, horses were needed to help the “Brady Street Brute” on its way.
The Tri-City Railway Company, owned by the Holmes Syndicate of Chicago, formed in 1888 out of many of the smaller railway systems. Dr. D. W. Allen, owner of the Davenport Central Railway, resisted the merger, and electrified his line the same year. This made Davenport the first city west of the Mississippi to have an electrically-powered street railway—and the second city in the entire country.
By 1890, all the railways were united under Tri-City, and all were electrically powered, though several routes to less populated areas or ‘occasional routes,’ including Oakdale Cemetery, were dropped out of necessity. Soon, Davenport was festooned with cables and lined with rails and remained so for forty-odd years.
The advent of bicycles and the growing ownership of personal automobiles took a large bite of the streetcar business throughout the decades, but it was the introduction of motorbuses to Davenport, in 1926, that signaled the end. Buses were cost effective, comfortable, and required no special equipment; routes could be modified, or added, without major investment. Despite an extensive advertising campaign by the Tri-City Lines, using the tagline, “The Accepted Way,” ** it was clear that the streetcar’s time had passed.
The dismantling of the railways began in the early 1930s, and by 1936, only the Bridge line, running out to Arsenal Island, was still in operation. By 1940, Davenport’s streetcar system was gone. Many of the old streetcars were purchased by A. D. Harris, a Rock Island entrepreneur, who sold them as chicken coops, sheds, diners, or even as a different kind of ‘mobile home.
There are a few residents who might still remember childhood rides on the streetcars with their parents, but mostly this chapter of Davenport transportation history is recorded only in the history books or in photographs, like the one hanging on our wall.
You really should come down to see it. Just hop on the nearest stree—oh, wait. Well, there’s plenty of metered parking, bike racks out front, and a bus stop just around the corner.
*Present day Vander Veer Park.
**Davenport Democrat and Leader, March 24, 1929, p. 25, col. 1.
“Autos Force Economy by Streetcars,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, June 3, 1925, p. 2.
“Busses for Davenport,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, July 15, 1926, p. 6.
“Local Legislation in a Short Time,” Davenport Tribune, July 21, 1892, p. 2. (About electrifying the railway route along 15th Street)
Svendsen, Marlys. Davenport: A Pictorial History (1986)
Wundram, Bill. A Time We Remember (1999)
(Posted by Sarah)