When Streetcars Roamed Fort Worth

This was the refrain from a little bit of doggerel titled The Crowed Car, written in 1901 by a Dallas lamenting the way passengers were forced to ride streetcars crammed in like cattle

It ran in newspapers on both sides of the Trinity because many Fort Worth residents could identify with the author’s complaint.

There was a time in our city’s dim past when streetcars roamed all the major streets. Hopping on a streetcar to get about was easy and cheap: they came by every few minutes day and night, served nearly every neighborhood and fares were only 5¢ one way. Of course, there was a downside, too. The cars could rattle your teeth; the old wagon-style brakes were useless in an emergency; they were hot and stuffy in the summer, cold and drafty in the winter; you had to wade through mud (or dust depending on the season) to scramble aboard; and accidents were frequent.

Fort Worth’s first street car line was built in late 1876 after the Texas & Pacific Railroad had stormed into town that summer. The immediate impetus for the line was the god-awful traffic jams on the main thoroughfares that came with “boom town” status. And there was the simple need to get from the train depot on the extreme south end of town to the public square and courthouse on the far north end. The distance was almost exactly one measured mile.

That year the legislature issued a charter of incorporation for 99 years to a group of investors that included Col. Morgan Jones, Maj. K.M. Van Zandt, Jesse Zane-Cetti and Walter Huffman. As Zane-Cetti recalled those early days many years later, “It was a very, very lively town, money was plenty [sic], trade was good … everybody was prosperous … and it was easy to get charters from the legislature in those days.” Jones and Van Zandt took the lead not because they were smarter or richer than the rest but because this was not that long after the Civil War and military titles still determined status.

The Fort Worth Street Railway Co. (FWSR), as they called themselves, started with $50,000 in capital. They hurriedly laid a single-track line that ran the length of Main Street. They generally cut corners in every way possible, such as by not bothering to grade the route but just laying the ties on top of the ground. Power was provided by a single mule, “and not a very large mule either,” old-timers would recall later. That would begin to change when electricity arrived in Fort Worth in 1890.

The FWSR was the city’s only public transportation until 1884, but the system grew rapidly after that. By the time deep-pocketed Eastern investors bought the company after the turn of the century, it had “upwards of 12 miles of track” crisscrossing the city.

In the 1880s, Fort Worth’s newest neighborhood (“addition”) was Rosedale on the east side of the town. It was so new it was considered “away [sic] out in the country” (about three miles). To sell lots, the proprietors had to promise a streetcar connection into town. A group of local businessmen raised the necessary capital and secured a charter from the legislature. The leaders were “Tuck” Boaz, W.J. Morphy, John F. Tierney, and Theodore Vogel. They got their charter easily enough and persuaded the City Council to let them build the connecting line on Throckmorton. The street’s residents objected strenuously, and the line moved one block east to Houston where residents were no more thrilled than those on Throckmorton and brought legal action to stop construction. The company won in the courts and completed construction in a few months. Eventually, this line also traversed Jones Street, Samuels Avenue and Front Street as far as the train station. As the line expanded, it went through several name changes, becoming the Queen City line, then in 1891 the City Street Railway.

The third entry in the field was the Park Line, connecting Mistletoe Heights to the business district. It began at Main and 7th and followed a route west on 7th to Ballinger where it headed south. Then in 1887, the North Side Street Railway Co. (NSSR) began serving the scattered community on the north side of the Trinity, bringing its line into downtown on Rusk Street and terminating at the train station.  The man who made the NSSR’s case to the city council for the franchise was Capt. Will McLaury, a respected lawyer and the only surviving brother of the two McLaurys killed in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881. By 1890, the North Side line was in severe financial straits. The city’s fifth line was built in the early 1890s by a group of investors headed by Humphrey Chamberlin of Denver to connect his Arlington Heights addition to the business district.

The 1890s was the golden age of Fort Worth street cars, with expanding service and new lines springing up all over the city, at least until the bottom dropped out of the local economy in 1897.

At that time, the two major lines were the Fort Worth Street Railway and City Street Railway (CSR), the latter growing out of the old Rosedale line.  The CSR, capitalized at $100,000, was owned almost entirely by investors in Philadelphia and Detroit. In 1899, the FWSR tried to purchase the CSR in a hostile take-over for $23,000 plus stock in the larger company. The case wound up in 48th District Court where the sale was upheld, resulting in a new company, the Fort Worth City Consolidated Street Railroad.

After the Polytechnic Addition opened on the east side, a new line serving it started at Boaz Street and went up Jones. It was chartered as the Glenwood and Polytechnic Heights line and expanded aggressively on the way to becoming one of the most successful lines in the city. The CEO was Col. J.T. Voss who remained the guiding vision behind the line for years. The Glenwood and Polytechnic line was the only line serving the Opera House at Third and Jones, which was good for business, but its greatest accomplishment was building a nine-mile “belt” around the south side of town.

Another group of investors in 1890 led by Walter Huffman and A.T. Byers built a line that crossed the Trinity connecting to the stockyards. This line was absorbed by the FWSR in one of the frequent consolidations taking place around the turn of the century. Other short and short-lived lines were built on Weatherford, Belknap, and Missouri Avenue. None had the financial resources or management to survive the decade; sooner or later bigger players gobbled them all up.

Until 1890, all Fort Worth street cars depended on mule power. The animal had a small brass bell attached to his harness that tinkled with every step, thus alerting those waiting at the next stop when the car was approaching. The cars had four or five open windows on each side. During cold and damp months, a thick carpet of hay was spread on the floor, which worked well enough for the first passengers of the day but by the end of the day was a filthy mess. Women were the most inconvenienced, trying to keep their skirts up without exposing too much leg.

When the cars got bigger and multiple cars were hooked together to carry more passengers, companies had to add a second mule. Even with two mules, on some routes, such as that to Arlington Heights, where the elevation climbed quickly, the grade was too steep for the animals with a full load, which meant somebody had to get out and walk.

The typical streetcar crew consisted of two men: a conductor who handled transfers and money and helped people getting on and off, and the motorman who drove the thing. Conductors made about $1.70 a day; motormen about $1.60.

In 1892 the North Side company passed into receivership, and two years later it was broken up by court order and sold off, the parts bringing a total of $34,250.

In 1900 a Northern syndicate, capitalized at $2 million and led by George T. Bishop of Cleveland, Ohio, bought out the biggest local company, Fort Worth City Consolidated Street Railway, plus several short lines. The franchise fee for the new company, operating under the familiar name Fort Worth Street Railway, was a very corporate-friendly $500.

The new owners appointed an Ohioan to manage the business and set up their headquarters in a three-story brick building at Third and Main. More to the point, they promised “considerable improvements” in service. What Fort Worthers got instead of new equipment and better service was cost-cutting measures and higher fares.

The FWSR was the proud owner of 20 miles of sub-standard track and 26 mostly worn-out cars, 18 of which were in operation at any given time. On the city’s main streets, the company could brag about reducing waiting time to 15 minutes, three minutes on Main Street.

The new investors had planned to spend up to  $100,000 on improvements but soon found that it would cost “a great deal more” to replace the old light rails with “heavy rails,” standardize the gauge of all their Fort Worth lines at 4 feet 8½ inches, and buy new, double-track cars. They decided they had bitten off more than they could chew and sold out a year later to another group of Eastern investors operating under the name Northern Texas Traction Co. (NTTC) who arrived in town with the usual promises of improvements and being committed to Fort Worth for the long haul.

Four years later, “controlling interest” in NTTC was bought by the Boston syndicate Stone & Webster that was already operating other lines in Texas. In their first press release, the Boston owners sought to reassure Fort Worth riders, “The company will continue to be as it always has been, distinctly a Fort Worth institution,” which it had never been.

NTTC pushed its only remaining competitor to the wall and crushed all challengers. The Glenwood and Polytechnic Co. after 10 years remained defiantly independent and locally owned, even taking over the old Arlington Heights route by 1901, but it was still a distant second to NTTC both in terms of track mileage and passengers carried. In November 1901, the Glenwood-Polytechnic investors gave up the fight. Buried under a debt load of $75,000, they filed for bankruptcy in 17th District Court. The court-appointed receiver vowed to keep the line operating, but it went down for good the next year, leaving a lot of angry creditors, a large hole in the city’s public transportation network, and a lot of rusting track on some of the city’s major streets.

In 1906 a new group of investors organized as the Citizens Railway and Light Co. (CRLC). Three of the principal investors were Fort Worthers, but the others, including the president, were Clevelanders. The CRLC was actually nothing but a merger of two older lines: the Arlington Heights Street Railway and the Rosen Heights Street Railway, neither of which had been able to make it on its own. The Cleveland group, like all their predecessors, eventually succumbed and was bought out in 1911 by its Boston-owned rival for a bargain-basement $400,000, leaving just one major player in Fort Worth public transportation.

Thanks to all the feverish construction over the years by various franchised companies, every neighborhood within a four-mile radius of the central business district was served by streetcar. After 1906, when new neighborhoods on the near south side and east side of Fort Worth started clamoring for service, start-up companies were not so quick to fill the need because they were afraid to challenge NTTC’s near-monopoly.

  The power of the NTTC’s stranglehold was demonstrated in more than one way. In 1904, when developer Sam Rosen wanted to build a new line out to his Rosen Heights addition (north of the Trinity and west of North Main), he organized the Rosen Heights Street Railway Co., and proceeded to secure a state charter and operating licenses from both North Fort Worth and Fort Worth. He only ran into a problem after he began laying track to connect his development to downtown.

NTTC first refused to let him tie into their line then refused permission even to cross its line with his tracks. Threatened with ruin if he could not provide service to his housing development, Rosen took desperate action. On a cold winter night in 1905 he put his crews to work creating an intersection where his tracks and NTTC’s crossed. By the time NTTC’s cars began running the next morning, the line from Rosen Heights to downtown was a fait accompli. Rosen Heights’ cars and NTTC cars often raced side-by-side trying to get to the intersection first, creating a dangerous situation and an exciting ride all in one for passengers. It was also the last time any local won a major victory against the NTTC folks.

In the 19th century, the lines were always privately owned, and every company operated on the same business model. They had to have a charter from the state of Texas, which allowed them to issue stock, which, by the end of the century, was mostly being bought up by rich Northern investors who sometimes pushed out local management to bring in their own men. Fort Worth’s first street car franchise was capitalized at $50,000 in 1876. By 1901 after consolidation and combination had left a handful of large, powerful companies nationwide, franchises were being valued at anywhere from $2.5 to $5 million. Streetcars had become big business.

The most valuable part of the deal was the franchise itself and the right of way. If a company did not fulfill all the terms of its contract, such as failing to provide regular service or operating dilapidated cars, the franchise could be revoked and the route sold or its tracks pulled up. Despite their built-in advantages, all streetcar lines operated on a razor-thin profit margin. Public transportation was not, by nature, a cash cow for investors; the money was in the building, not the operating as the big railroads had proven time and again.

In 1897, Fort Worth’s three largest street car operators tried to negotiate an arrangement where any passenger going to or from the City Park (Trinity Park today) could travel on any of their lines at a single, reduced rate without transfers. But the two biggest players were unwilling to sacrifice potential business to help out the floundering Polytechnic line. In the end, the NTTC was able to swoop in and snap them all up for a song in 1900.

But NTTC proved not to have the Midas touch any more than its predecessors. It was never able to create a “modern efficient” streetcar system that measured up to the promises. By 1905 a survey by the Fort Worth Telegram found that a majority of citizens believed service had been better before NTTC came to town. When the company could not make a decent return on investment, yet another syndicate took over, headed by famed “streetcar magnate” C.A. Stone. The syndicate, known as Stone & Webster, already owned lines in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston and El Paso, so Fort Worth was a natural fit. After adding the city to their portfolio, they announced sweeping improvements, which included extending interurban service to Cleburne. Interurban service to Dallas was the only part of the line that was really making a profit.

The streetcar companies did more than just provide public transportation; they also built the first amusement parks. Northern Texas Traction Co. built Lake Erie in Handley as a stop on the Interurban. The Arlington Heights Street Railway Co. built Lake Como, and Sam Rosen’s Rosen Heights Street Railway Company built “White City” on the North Side.
The transformation of local public transportation finally came in the 1930s, and it was underwritten by federal largesse.

The stage was set by the death of NTTC. It went into receivership in 1932 only to re-emerge as the Fort Worth Transit Co. (FWTC) whose principal mission seemed to be shedding losing street car lines as fast as possible. At the end it was operating streetcars, buses, and the Interurban to Dallas. In the winter of 1935-36, the company stopped service on its Hemphill and Central Avenue lines but left the tracks in place. The last active streetcar route in Fort Worth was the Riverside line, which operated until 1938.

As the FWTC abandoned the old lines, the city was forced into subsidizing privately owned bus companies. Part of the city’s “bail-out” included subsidizing daily operations so that the bus operators could keep fares at 5¢.

The New Deal turned out to be the savior of public transportation in Fort Worth. In 1938 the city applied for a $618,000 grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to remove the last remaining streetcar tracks and repave the underlying streets. The WPA application was held up in City Council by a fight over whether the city should absolve the FWTC of its contractual obligation to remove the rails before the federal money was in hand or step out in faith.

Pulling up the last street car tracks — on Main and Lancaster — got underway right after Christmas, 1938. The job on Main Street alone cost $65,000, and those were Depression-era dollars. When municipal elections rolled around the following April, one of the big issues was the streetcar-track removal project. A group of citizens had already filed a lawsuit to block the removal. When word came down that the WPA was not going to turn loose any funds until the city got its act together, the suit was abruptly dropped. Then the old City Council that had first approved the removal was voted back into office in a landslide.

It was all for naught. In the end, the WPA disapproved Fort Worth’s request without explanation, leaving the city to fix its own streets and create its own public transportation system in place of streetcars. That was accomplished with much anguish by creating a public bus company and expanding service incrementally as finances permitted.

Today, streetcar advocates nostalgically recall the good old days when streetcars roamed the city, and they talk about all the economic and cultural benefits that would come with a reborn system. What they conveniently forget is that the original system never worked as well as we think we remember it, proved a financial black hole, and was gladly abandoned as soon as alternative forms of mass transportation came along.

The last stanza of the 1901 streetcar poem had this to say:

Do the companies care
A snap for the public except the fare?
Not much; they don’t and they never will,
As long as the cars are there to fill,
To fill to the limit, to stuff and stuff,
No matter how many cry “Enough!”