Streetcar Era

Beginning in the late 1870s Tennessee’s four major metropolitan areas entered the so-called streetcar era. At first these interurban railways were powered by mules, and ran a very short distance, usually in the downtown area. Soon, because of the availability of cheap transportation beyond the city limits, “street-car suburbs” developed for middle- and working-class Tennesseans. Located in wholesome and clean environments out of the city, suburban home places were now more removed from their residents’ urban workplaces, factories, and offices.

The streetcar companies were private enterprises over which municipal governments exercised little control. That the horse-drawn trolley was immediately accepted as the mass transit solution of choice is evident from the trolleymen’s strike in Memphis in August 1885. This successful twenty-day strike for higher wages and involving militant unionism versus corporate and legal power set the pace for other such strikes in Tennessee’s cities. The strike also indicated just how dependent urbanites were upon horse drawn public transportation. Streetcar workers first formed local unions but soon formed chapters of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America (AASREA).

The first applications of electricity as a streetcar power source, in Montgomery, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, in 1886, ushered in the era of the electric streetcar. Nashville began its conversion to electric power in 1888, followed by Chattanooga in 1899 and Memphis and Knoxville in the 1890s. Competition was stiff and chaotic, sometimes resulting in actual combat between companies. For example, two competing companies in Knoxville rioted, and armed police were sent to quell the disturbance in March 1897.

Because these new trolleys required electric power, appropriate production facilities had to be developed and were followed by the growth of public utility monopolies. In Chattanooga, for example, the Electric Light Company, Chattanooga Electric Railway Company, and Chattanooga Rapid Transit Company evolved inevitably into a local monopoly, the Chattanooga Railway and Light Company. This, in turn, would ultimately become the statewide monopoly known as TEPCO, the Tennessee Power and Light Company. In Nashville the Nashville Railway and Light Company became the local public transportation monopoly by 1902; TEPCO later subsumed it.

Until the more substantial development of hydroelectric plants in East Tennessee, small, local steam powered generators provided electricity for streetcar systems. Small hydroelectric plants had been in operation in the Volunteer State in isolated settings since 1901, and in 1912 the Chattanooga Railway and Light Company initiated the state’s first major hydroelectric plant, Ocoee No. 1, on the river by the same name. Streetcar and electrical generating plants were soon purchased by larger in- and out-of-state conglomerates. For example, by 1917 the E. W. Clark Company, a regional municipal mass transit holding company, owned properties in Chattanooga, Nashville, East St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other cities.

A series of strikes in Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville in the first two decades of the twentieth century and the development of internal-combustion-engine-powered urban mass transit systems led to the replacing of streetcars by buses. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, however, the streetcar, by contributing to the development of suburbs, electrical power, industry, and strong labor unions, had a major impact on the state’s urban centers.

Suggested Reading

James B. Jones Jr., “Class Consciousness and Worker Solidarity in Urban Tennessee: The Example of the Chattanooga Carmens Strikes of 1899-1917,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 52 (1993): 98-112; David H. Steinberg, And To Think It Only Cost a Nickel! The Development of Public Transportation on the Chattanooga Area (1975)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Streetcar Era
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018