What Happened to the Streetcars?

By 1900, streetcars powered by electricity served the people in towns and cities throughout the United States. Unlike the buses that eventually replaced them, streetcars emitted no exhaust fumes to poison the air. They were also quieter than buses, provided a smoother ride, and were more durable.

But by 1955, most of the streetcars had vanished. What happened to them? The usual answer is that people preferred to purchase and drive their own cars. But if that’s true, why do so many people go to work by subway, elevated, or commuter trains today? Do you really want to risk your life on Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway at 7:00 AM?

One of my great uncles worked as a motorman on the streetcars in Ottumwa, Iowa. When the streetcar company converted to buses in the late 1920’s, Uncle Frank became a bus driver, and at least some of the people who had ridden on his streetcar then road on his bus. Did those people prefer a noisy, uncomfortable, foul-smelling bus to a quiet, comfortable, odor-free streetcar? Who would? Nonetheless, people continued to ride the buses because that was the only mass transit available.

This brings us to Bradford Snell’s American Ground Transport: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus, and Rail Industries. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.: 1974) Snell presented his study to the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, the Committee on the Judiciary, on February 26, 1974. At that time, Snell served as assistant counsel to the subcommittee.

His report displays vast research and provides detailed evidence of his findings, including FBI and Justice Department documents, reports from other federal departments, confidential interviews with Justice Department officials, documents obtained from General Motors and other corporations, and much more. The text contains 76 pages, followed by 27 pages of endnotes containing 500 citations in all.

“This is a study of the social consequences of monopoly,” the report begins. “It shows that excessive economic concentration can restructure society for corporate ends.”

“This is not a study of malevolent or rapacious executives,” Snell continues. The pages that follow then describe, in detail, the actions of malevolent and rapacious executives. The study reveals how monopoly has adversely affected every major form of ground transportation in the United States. But in this article, I will limit the subject only to streetcars and interurban trains.

By the mid-1920’s, Snell says, General Motors and other auto companies had run out of new buyers for their cars, but GM found many ways to solve this problem. One of these solutions focused on electric-powered streetcars and interurban railcars.

In 1932, GM began buying streetcar systems. It then replaced the streetcars with buses built by GM itself. Finally, it sold the bus companies to private or public transit systems, employing contractual agreements that required the new owners to buy only GM buses when the old ones wore out.

The streetcars in Kalamazoo and Saginaw, Michigan, and in Springfield, Ohio, disappeared first. But criticism from the American Transit Association caused GM to look for other means to achieve the same ends.

“In 1936,” Snell writes, “it [GM] combined with the Omnibus Corp. in engineering the tremendous conversion of New York City’s electric streetcar system to GM buses.” This enormous project took only eighteen months. Prior to this event, New York’s trolleys had, in combination, formed “. . . the world’s largest streetcar network . . .”

But these exploits only served as practice sessions for General Motors. In 1936, GM and Greyhound executives created National City Lines, Inc. (NCL), a holding company that acted merely as a front for GM’s grandest scheme of all. “During the following 14 years General Motors, together with Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire, and two other suppliers of bus-related products, contributed more than $9 million to this holding company for the purpose of converting electric transit systems in 16 states to GM bus operations.”

Once these systems had been converted, NCL continued to operate them or sold them in the traditional manner. In either case, these systems had to buy buses, tires, lubricants, and fuel from only the companies that funded and controlled NCL.

National City Lines and its allies went on to create two subsidiaries to help NCL complete its ambitious projects: Pacific City Lines (PCL) and American City Lines (ACL). Together, NCL, PCL, and ACL destroyed the Pacific Electric Railway, the electric-powered interurban system for metropolitan Los Angeles. They also destroyed the Los Angeles Railway, the city’s streetcar system. Over 3000 railcars and hundreds of miles of track went into the scrap heap.

“By 1949, General Motors had been involved in the replacement of more than 100 electric transit systems with GM buses in 45 cities . . .” And, according to Snell, General Motors didn’t really care whether these bus systems succeeded or failed, for it ultimately hoped to replace all transit systems with automobiles.

Inevitably, all this buying and selling attracted the attention of the United States Department of Justice. On April 9, 1947, Attorney General Tom C. Clark presented indictments to nine companies and seven corporate executives for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.

The corporations included National City Lines, American City Lines, Pacific City Lines, Standard Oil Company of California, Federal Engineering Corporation, Phillips Petroleum Company, General Motors Corporation, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Mack Manufacturing Corporation. (The charges against American City Lines were dropped during the trial because it was indistinguishable from National City Lines.)

The seven executives were E. Roy Fitzgerald of NCL, Foster G. Beamsley of NCL, H. C. Grossman of General Motors, Henry C. Judd of Standard Oil and Federal Engineering Corporation, L. R. Jackson of Firestone, B. F. Stradley of Phillips Petroleum, and A. M. Hughes of Phillips Petroleum. (Federal Rules Decisions, Volume 7, page 393)

Although it may be greedy and immoral, it’s not against the law to buy a trolley system, convert it to buses, and then sell or operate it. But it is against the law for a group of companies to buy and sell transit systems, employing sales contracts that force the new owners to purchase buses, tires, lubricants, and fuel from only certain specified companies. Such a practice amounts to a conspiracy in restraint of trade, which violates the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The word “conspiracy” is often used in connection with Snell’s report. For my purposes, I am using that word only as it applies to the conspiracy in restraint of trade as mentioned above.

In April of 1949, with Judge William J. Campbell presiding, a federal jury in Chicago returned a verdict of guilty in the case of United States v. National City Lines, Inc., et al. Subsequently, Snell relates, the court fined General Motors $5000. It also fined H. C. Grossman, the treasurer of GM, the sum of $1. I don’t know why the fines were so small, although I could make a number of guesses, none of which would flatter Judge Campbell.

“Despite its criminal conviction,” Snell writes, “General Motors continued to acquire and dieselize electric transit properties through September of 1955. By then, approximately 88 percent of the nation’s electric streetcar network had been eliminated.” GM fended off any attempts to make it comply with the stipulations of the 1949 court decision.

A number of people eventually challenged Snell’s report. A typical example is “The Conspiracy Revisited” by Van Wilkins, which appeared in the summer 1995 issue of The New Electric Railway Journal.

In his article, Wilkins reminds the reader that in United States v. National City Lines, Inc., et al., the conspirators were not found guilty of attempting to destroy the nation’s streetcar systems. “Rather, punishment was handed down for violating anti-trust laws by conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses, tires, and gasoline.”

Wilkins then proceeds to refute Snell’s 1974 report by insisting that GM, et al., merely took advantage of already-existing economic weaknesses in streetcar systems. The conspirators also capitalized, he argues, on the preference of American commuters for the automobile.

In the autumn 1995 issue of The New Electric Railway Journal, Snell delivered a scorching response. A few samples:

“The electric streetcar, contrary to Van Wilkins’ incredibly naive whitewash, did not die a natural death: General Motors killed it. . . .”

“. . . In 1922, according to GM’s own files, Sloan [Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president of GM] established a special unit within the corporation which was charged, among other things, with the task of replacing America’s electric railways with cars, trucks, and buses.”

“. . . According to U.S. Department of Justice documents, officials of GM visited banks used by railways in Philadelphia, Dallas, Kansas City and other locations, and, by offering them millions in additional deposits, persuaded their rail clients to convert to motor vehicles. . . .”

“And where rail systems were publicly owned and could not be bought, . . . GM bought their officials instead, according to FBI files, providing complimentary Cadillacs to those who converted to buses.”

Other critics of Snell’s report have argued that, for various reasons, buses would have replaced streetcars even if GM had not done the work itself. This may be true, but we’ll never know, will we? It’s definitely true that GM didn’t want to wait for the streetcars to vanish by themselves. The company aggressively went about the business of buying and destroying streetcar systems from New York to Los Angeles.

In 1936, over 40,000 streetcars were in service throughout the United States. By 1955, that number had dropped to 5000.

Some cities refused to contribute to the devastation. San Francisco, for example, held on to its streetcar system, and that system still serves the city today. Old streetcars operate on Market Street for the tourists. Local residents ride new cars on old routes.

Elsewhere, cities clogged with automobile traffic are still trying to repair the damage created long ago. Dallas, for example, is building a light-rail system to partially replace its lost streetcars.

Sometime in the present century, the world will run out of extractable petroleum. If someone finds a way to keep automobiles on the road, they will continue to harvest 50,000 deaths per year. Simultaneously, it will become increasingly expensive to maintain the expressways that now require continual repair. Is that really what we want?

Get ready for a trolley ride. It could be a rough trip.

PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at pwirelan43@yahoo.com.







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