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It Happened Here 10/27/11

Pensacola’s Streetcar Heyday
by Jessica Forbes

Before automobiles dominated Pensacola’s roadways, a network of streetcars served as the preferred mode of ground transportation in the city. Pensacola’s once thriving streetcar system connected residential neighborhoods, downtown, the Navy Yard and outlying recreational areas together in a maze of tracks from 1884 to 1932.

Pensacola’s streetcar-era began in March 1881 when Conrad Kupfrian spearheaded the establishment of the Pensacola Street Car Company. In November 1882, the Pensacola Board of Alderman granted the company the right to build and operate a horse-drawn “Street Car Railroad” in the city.

Two years later, streetcar operations began. The first routes extended from the south end of Palafox Street and went east on Wright Street to the Union Depot, west on Gregory Street to DeVilliers Street, and north on DeVilliers to Kupfrian’s Park. Conrad Kupfrian was an enterprising local saloon owner and president of the streetcar company. Kupfrian developed more than 100 acres of land into his namesake park, which contained a racetrack, lake, biergarten, and dancehall. As the initial western terminus of the system, Kupfrian’s Park, located west of present-day Baptist Hospital, became a popular attraction thanks to the streetcar line.

The streetcar system enjoyed quick success, and more substantial beds and tracks were constructed in 1887. Kupfrain died in 1892, one year after the Bayshore Line connecting downtown Pensacola to the Navy Yard was completed. The extension was called the “Dummy Line,” for its use of dummy cars, which were trolleys pulled by small steam engines. The route ran through Palmetto Beach, which became a popular leisure spot in the area. Palmetto Beach was a gathering place for picnics, baseball games, swimming, dances and theatrical performances. After passenger service was discontinued on the Bayshore Line in the 1930s, the site was eventually developed into the Star Lake housing community.

By 1906, all streetcar lines in Pensacola had been electrified, and the system ran throughout the residential areas of North Hill and East Hill, and over Bayou Texar into East Pensacola Heights. By 1910, five separate lines ran in the city, most from 5:30 to 12:00 a.m. In the 1950s, a former trolley operator recalled that dogs, if muzzled, were able to ride the streetcars for full fare. Many young couples would ride the streetcar round-trip several times an evening to pass the time together.

There were challenges in the history of the city’s streetcar operations. In 1905, despite efforts at the state and local levels to block Jim Crow laws specific to streetcars, the Pensacola City Council passed an ordnance that led to separate seating areas for African-Americans on the city’s trolleys. In 1908, local streetcar employees went on strike in protest of a policy that prevented employees from holding a second job. Though eventually settled, the state militia was called in after strikebreakers from out of state and local strikers engaged in a fight that reportedly involved thrown bricks and gunshots.

The streetcar system continued to expand in the early 1900s, growing from 17.2 miles of tracks in 1902, up to 24.2 miles in 1912. In 1920, the number of individual trips on the system was 4,017,397. By 1923, however, ridership had decreased to less than 2,000,000 trips annually. Throughout the 1920s, private automobile ownership increased, diminishing the trolley’s utility for many Pensacolians. The last day of service for the Pensacola streetcars was December 31, 1931. City buses, which began operating about one month before trolley service stopped, took over as the primary form of public transportation.

Aside from small segments of track still visible on North Hill and East Hill streets, one of the few relics of Pensacola’s streetcar past today sits in the Museum of Commerce. Originally built in 1912, Trolley No. 61 was used along Palafox Street in the 1920s and early 1930s. Now restored, the trolley is a showpiece in the museum, and a tangible way to connect to the past.