Tuesday, October 22, 2019

52 Ancestors - TRANSPORTATION: Streetcar Envy

I am jealous of the public transportation system everywhere in Europe. Getting from here to there is so easy and so inexpensive whether by bus, train, or subway. Here in Virginia, heavy traffic on city streets and interstates makes for a white-knuckle ride at any time of the day. Our local leaders are finally offering one solution to ease the crowded roads: light rail. However, there are so few routes to places anyone wants to go that everyone wonders if it was even worth the expense.
The Tide
wikimedia commons
Public transportation used to be better. When I was a teenager, I could hop on the bus right in front of our house. For 25 cents I could go downtown to shop at any number of department stores, go to movies at three different theaters, and grab lunch at Woolworth’s lunch counter. If that was not enough, for 10 cents more I could take the green tunnel bus to neighboring Norfolk for another world of shopping.

My parents often spoke of taking the ferry to Norfolk in the days before construction of the tunnel in 1952 made the ferry obsolete. About the same time, bus service was introduced putting cab companies and streetcars out of business.

I have only a vague recollection from my teen years of remnants of the streetcar system along High Street and Crawford Street in downtown Portsmouth. But many folks in the Portsmouth Facebook group have clear memories of where the tracks ran in various neighborhoods. They shared stories and pictures, some of which are included in this post.
View from the Professional Building - High Street downtown Portsmouth
 Streetcars in the News
from Virginian Pilot 10 Jul 1917
Annie Brown in her uniform
Badge no. 5110 on her straw hat 

The local newspaper, The Virginian Pilot, sometimes prints stories of happenings 100 years ago. One such story was about a streetcar strike in 1917. When men were needed to go to war, the Virginia Railway and Power Company hired women to serve as streetcar conductors. The men refused to train the women, and eventually the company decided to put that plan on hold.

Another story from 1897 falls under the “too much information” category. Apparently, there was a great deal of concern about people spitting on the floor of the streetcars, prompting the City Attorney to give the go ahead to the City Council to enact an ordinance prohibiting such a nuisance. Conflicts with the Health Department suggest such an ordinance might not come to fruition.

Headline in the Norfolk Virginian
13 May 1917

The Beach Route
As a young boy, my dad used to ride the streetcar to the beach in Ocean View. I never could picture how that was possible because today it requires traveling through a tunnel, over numerous bridges, and on the interstate. Thanks to memories of folks on Facebook I understand the route: first, they would have taken the ferry to Norfolk.

Postcard of the ferry terminals 1940s in Portsmouth 
1950s ferry between Norfolk and Portsmouth
From there they would have walked a short distance and through the Selden Arcade to the Monticello Hotel on City Hall Avenue. 
Streetcar stop in front of the Monticello Hotel 
That was the stop for the Ocean View streetcar which ran down the middle of Granby Street to Ocean View. People on Facebook remember it being a wild ride full of bumps and sways due to the uneven ground. 
Ocean View streetcar
Ocean View station 1930s
Granby Street in Norfolk
Granby Street TODAY - grass medians cover the old tracks
Streetcars in Cradock - Who Knew?
Growing up in the Cradock community of Portsmouth, I NEVER EVER heard that there used to be streetcars in our neighborhood. But it is true. The folks in the Portsmouth Facebook group posted copies of old mimeographed newsletters containing photos of the Cradock streetcar. The tracks once ran down the middle of Afton Parkway from Paradise Creek to downtown. 
Streetcar on Afton Parkway, corner of Decatur Steet
Photo courtesy of Bob Cutchins 
This is the same spot today - corner of Afton and Decatur.
Like Granby Street, grass medians now exist where once there were streetcar tracks.

Someone in the group recalled a favorite prank pulled off by the boys of Cradock. When the streetcar reached its destination, in order to make the return trip, the conductor had to change the connecting rod to the overhead electric power from one end of the car to the other. He also had to reverse the position of the backs of the seats to face the front of the car. During this down time, the boys of Cradock would grease the rails with old oil confiscated from local gas stations. When the conductor pushed the lever to go, the wheels would spin. 

One Last Story
My sister recalls one interesting story about our dad’s experience with the streetcar. When he was in school, his basketball team rode the streetcar to South Norfolk to play in the gym. His team had 7 to 9 players but only 5 pairs of tennis shoes between them. They took turns wearing the shoes. Yes, little to do with the streetcar, but how many chances will I get to share this crazy story? 

How ironic that some forms of transportation made obsolete by progress might be one solution to the problems that progress created. 

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. How interesting they shared the shoes! I'm sure these days it would be frowned on, but it seemed to work! Very interesting post about street cars and public transportation. Cool that you could trace your dad's route to the beach through Facebook of all things!

    So true public transportation used to be more available in years past so to speak. When we lived in Billings Montana (and it might have changed as we are gone 13 years) you could stand on any street corner that a bus ran by and they would stop and pick you up. They didn't have formal bus stops.

    Here in Phoenix we have the light rail and it gets mixed responses. People either like it or hate it. Businesses hate when it is being put in their area because with all the streets torn up it reduces business for them. Homeless people ride them all day long and then when the tracks are extended, it brings more homeless people into different areas that make people unhappy. jSo its a good thing but sometimes comes with associated problems.


  2. Oh my, I forget how interesting and wonderful these posts can be, and so much to learn about our past. I am a true street car fan and when I get a chance to ride one I do! Thanks Wendy, I really enjoyed this!

  3. I second what others are saying...this was a most enjoyable post...great pics of those old street cars, and the story about the rascals greasing the tracks is funny...as well as the one about your dad's team's shoes. Thanks for an entertaining (and somewhat educational) post!