1889 – The Street Railways Of Lafayette Square

1889 – The Street Railways Of Lafayette Square 

In the summer of 2016 a road crew working on Lafayette Avenue in front of Lafayette Park exposed a pair of iron rails. On request, they set them aside, and they lay near Lafayette and Missouri for several weeks. Unable to reach any consensus for display, the neighborhood may have lost track of them, but it did set me to  wondering…

St Louis has a rich history of streetcars (or trolleys, if you prefer). Initially, these “omnibuses” were pulled by horses or mules. Over time and with the success of existing lines downtown, routes were extended and new lines created. This led to

Mule Drawn Trolley 1880s at 1800 South Jefferson Avenue

a transport infrastructure with several dozen privately owned lines. In turn, the demand for cars created another business, and St Louis claimed the largest car  manufacturer in the world. The St Louis Car Company produced streetcars, buses, automobiles, seaplanes and even dirigibles from 1887 through 1973 at 8000 Hall Street.

The first transformation in the streetcar lines was from horse to cable drawn coaches. The line that best served the Lafayette Square area was the Peoples Railway. It started as a horse car line in 1859, and converted to cable in 1890. 

The cable car runs by mechanically gripping a moving cable, like a beginner skier uses a rope tow. Running and maintaining this cable was not a trivial endeavor. It required a single steel cable twice the length of the line. In 1886, the longest cable ever made to that time was shipped from New Jersey. It was 40,000 feet long, 1.75 inches in diameter, and weighed 50 tons. It was shipped on a spool 10’ in height and 8’ across, and loaded in St Louis onto a specially built wagon, like that pictured below. Pulling it required a team of three dozen horses.  

Turning that much weight in cable, let alone cars and riders, required brute force. Coal burning powerhouses with steam boilers created up to 1000 horsepower, and drove things more or less constantly. Fuel was fed via conveyor belts from giant hills of pea coal, and large amounts of rainwater were collected and used to minimize boiler scaling. Numerous curves in the rail pathway frayed the cables faster than a straight line would have. The Peoples Railway line number one had eight such turns, number two had ten.This kept Peoples from using the electrical power supply others around the country were rushing to adopt, choosing mule power over horsepower. 

Peoples Railway Powerhouse 1800 Park Avenue

In 1889, the Peoples Railway was operating a horse car line from Morgan Street along Fourth and out to Lafayette Park and Grand Avenue. The company directors, observing the successful introduction of cable on other lines, took the plunge into cable,  despite the daunting number of curves along the line. A fine powerhouse was constructed at Park Avenue and 18th Street and the line was extended to Tower Grove Park. The powerhouse ran around the clock, and many cars were in service at a time.

As it happened, both of the Peoples lines required a new cable every six to eight months. If the cable frayed and snagged, a frequent occurrence, the length of the cable would have to be inspected, so the offending strand could be clipped out. This led to numerous irritating service outages.  

The plant ran continuously for six years, until the great tornado of 1896 tore the

Peoples Powerhouse May 1896

roof off. Amazingly, the plant was operational the following day, running in the open air for a while. After repairs, it ran uninterrupted for another five years. 

Two companies competitive with the Peoples Railway ran lines on Geyer and Park Avenues, The new rivals cut into revenue for Peoples. The company went bankrupt in 1897, and was sold at a sheriffs sale in early 1899. Peoples Railway tracks and equipment were nearly worn out. The line converted, like everyone else already had, to more easily maintained overhead electric wires, and the cable ran its last circuit on Valentines Day 1901. The Peoples Railway holds the distinction of having been the last working cable car line in St. Louis. 

Streetcar At 6th and Pine Streets

During it’s heyday, it brought the crowds to Lafayette Park, and Schnaider’s and Staehlin’s beer gardens. Its success was part of the undoing of Lafayette Square’s cachet as an upper-crust enclave. The streetcars ferried a democratic cross-section of people from all over the city, and helped  convince the existing residents that better privacy lay to the west. 

It’s ironic, as the presence of the streetcar was used to convince people that a move to Lafayette Square wasn’t some form of rural exile. In a very early (1865)

1865 Parade Place Ad For Lafayette Square

ad for development of Lafayette Avenue facing the park, the reassuring presence of a streetcar on Mississippi at Lafayette must have been seen as an inducement – that this area was new, but accessible. 

 The Peoples Railway became part of a consolidation of all St Louis streetcar lines by a national  holding company. The United Railways Company was run locally as the St Louis Transit Company. They went bankrupt together in 1919, and the operation ran essentially broke until 1927, when it was taken over by the St Louis Public Service Commission (precursor to Bi-State and Metro). Here’s a 1901 map of the Lafayette Square area. No need to walk far to catch a lift.

In 1919, St Louis was the largest city in America with a completely surface-run public transportation system. Rapid transit schemes, like subways,  were considered and debated during the 1920s. Arguments over routing and who would benefit and who would be left out weighed against much progress toward a next generation of mass transit. Entire communities had formed along streetcar lines, and business districts had sprung up at their junctions. This made route decisions for rail or subway hotly contested. There was also deep concern at City Hall over the growing migration from city to county. 

The age of the streetcar peaked in St Louis in 1923, when 1650 trolleys plied over 450 miles of road on both sides of the river, running from the city deep into the county. At that time, Chouteau, Park and Lafayette Avenues each had a line headed both east and west. Then the first bus routes were introduced. Flexible and cost efficient, buses replaced streetcars steadily over the next forty years. The last streetcar line was the Hodiamont, making its last run from downtown to Wellston in May 1966. 

Before any subway or commuter train plans could come to fruition, buses and cars began dictating development of the area. The focus of attention turned toward facilitating automotive traffic. Outside of Metrolink, we’re pretty much still there today. In fact, we almost lost a good chunk of Lafayette Square to state highway 755, also known as the North-South Distributor. But of course, that’s another story.  

Peoples Electric Car at Park and Missouri Avenues

The Lafayette Square Archives has been hosted for the past year through the kindness of Looking Glass Designs on Park Avenue. If you enjoyed this post, consider dropping by and seeing what Andrea can customize for you from the stock of 100 year old street railway tokens she’s collected. Could be a nice token of your esteem for a special someone.  

Thanks to research sources, including:

StL Today May 5 2017

Mound City On The Mississippi; St Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency. 

St Louis Plans – The Ideal And Real; Edited by Mark Tranel; Missouri Historical Society; 2007. 

University of Texas Library; http://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/street_railway/1901/

Saint Louis Cable Railways; Berl Katz; Electric Railway Historical Society; 1965. 


Vintage St Louis By Paul Hohmann