1887: Jamaica Trolley
Clang, Clang, Clang It Went
By LEE LANDOR
“El” Terminal, 168th Street and Jamaica Avenue, 1921, with the trolley tracks clearly shown.(Photo by Frederick J. Weber; Queens Library.)
Throughout the last three decades of the 19th century, experimentation, exploration and invention were ways of life. People were constantly looking ahead, hoping to discover newer and better things.
In the 1870s and 80s, people searched for a more efficient street-car propelling system because the one in place then, drawn by horses or mules, was limited: the animals could only work so many hours a day, and needed to be fed, housed, cleaned and picked up after.
Many different experiments were launched, testing different propulsion mechanisms, including steam and cable to run the small streetcars that ran along railways in the ground.
Finally, in 1886, Belgian immigrant Charles Van Depoele designed the first motor and power plant in New York City that generated electricity that would propel the streetcars, according to documents in the Carl Ballenas Collection of the Queens Public Library. Together with Cyrus W. Field and William and Aaron Stiles, Van Depoele created the Van Depoele Electric Railway Motor Co., and began searching for a testing site where he could try out his invention.
He chose Jamaica, Queens – a promising location for business growth. The Jamaica and Brooklyn Road Co. leased its streetcar line, which ran along Jamaica Avenue, to the electricity enthusiasts on April 15, 1887, according to the Carl Ballenas Collection documents. It took about eight months of pole erecting and preparation before the electricity-run cars made their debut on Dec. 7, 1887.
When the trolley line was unveiled, people were in awe, some even refusing to believe their eyes and claiming horses were being concealed inside the cars, according to the documents. Eager to ride the electric trolleys, 20 passengers at a time boarded the four Pullman Company-built cars, paid the reduced fare of 10 cents and rode the trolley for 25 minutes from its starting point in Brooklyn to the last stop in Queens: Grand Street, Jamaica.
Though wrought idealistically, the trolley line experienced its share of problems during its first year, from unfitting wheels to dropping bolts to snapping wires. But they were repaired quickly and efficiently, helping to ease critics’ concerns. It seemed that, overall, the electric cars were more profitable and satisfactory than the horse cars, the documents stated: the electric trolley was so heavily used, especially to and from Cyprus Hill Cemetery, that it prompted consideration for two-car trains.
The success of the Jamaica trolley was, in hindsight, indicative of the area’s future as a busy, major regional transit hub, where trains would roll, buses would rumble and subway cars would lumber.
The Jamaica trolley, sometimes referred to by its users as the Toonerville Trolley, ran along Jamaica Avenue until about 1939, according to Central Queens Historical Association President Jeff Gottlieb. But the business of transporting people is still booming in Jamaica, as evident with the recent renovation of the train station and establishment of other transit means.
Whether its on an outdated electric trolley car or underground subway car, the 120-year-old tradition of sharing rides to and from work, up and down town and in and out of the home vicinity with neighbors is still in strong practice today.