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For half a century, streetcars were king

From the early years of the 1900s until buses took over in 1949, trolleys were a major part of the St. Petersburg scene.

In 1903, Ida Louise Weller held the city's first teenage streetcar party.

She staged another in 1904. "Up and down Central, (she) rode all evening long, the bell clanging merrily all the time," historian Karl Grismer wrote about Weller, the trolley company manager's daughter.

As decades passed, locals shared Weller's infatuation with trolleys. "The St. Petersburg streetcar had personality," an admirer once wrote in the local press. "It was a thing of lightness and grace."

The romance with trolleys ended in 1949, however, after buses caught the city's eye.

About 100 years ago, F.A. Davis first introduced streetcars to St. Petersburg. The Philadelphia transplant had brought electricity here in 1897.

Some of the roughly 2,000 residents opposed trolley transportation in 1901, and the council refused Davis a railway franchise. Davis responded by establishing the St. Petersburg & Gulf Electric Railway Co.

Voters approved a franchise in 1902 by a vote of 104-48.

The first car arrived Nov. 15, 1902, recorded James Buckley in Street Railways of St. Petersburg Florida. Grismer called the trolley "dinky . . . holding not more than twenty people."

J.B. Cutler paid the first fare a year later. Loans from Philadelphia's Jacob Disston, brother of Gulfport founder Hamilton Disston, kept the system alive.

"Street railway is being pushed rapidly by a large corps of workmen," the Tampa Tribune wrote. The streetcar's official premiere occurred on Sept. 28, 1904.

Conductor Warren Scott and motorman Glenn Pepper operated the trolley. Noted Grismer: There were speeches "and the St. Petersburg band played loud and gaily."

Tracks began at Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue N. They then passed Mirror Lake, found Central Avenue and meandered to Ninth Street's Booker Creek.

The Electric Pier and Bayboro extensions followed in 1906 and 1911, respectively. By 1913, tracks flowed to Coffee Pot Bayou (Snell Isle) and the Jungle area. Big Bayou (Gulfport) was linked in 1914.

"No self-respecting development could do without a streetcar line," Buckley wrote.

Fares varied through the years from 5 to 15 cents. "It was an inexpensive way to travel," resident Marilyn Taylor, 70, recalled. John Thornton, 87, remembered riding the trolley to Gulfport and then boating to Pass-a-Grille.

There were long and short cars, the St. Petersburg Times wrote, and many secondhand ones that "threatened to leave the track when traveling at high speed." Frequent derailments embarrassed the system.

The first trolley fatality occurred in 1905, Buckley recorded, when a conductor fell from a car. A horse was struck and killed in 1908.

About 850,000 locals boarded streetcars in 1912. Numbers leaped in 1914 to nearly 1.6-million riders. By 1915, the system was the third-largest in Florida, with 25 miles of track.

The fleet consisted of 16 cars in 1917, the year economic disaster struck the company and Davis died. After brief ownership by Jacob Disston and some New Jersey associates, the line became municipally owned in 1919.

By 1924, the operation employed about 100 residents. Grismer wrote that trolleys were rarely profitable, yet they "continued to be one of St. Petersburg's greatest assets."

Developers rode trolleys to eye potential acquisitions. "No single factor is nearly so largely responsible" for the city's growth, the Times said.

Streetcars were second schools for Gulfport resident Ruth Huff-Saylor in the late 1930s. "I learned a lot of my schoolwork while riding the trolley," she said.

At about age 15, Huff-Saylor, now 75, and the police chief's son greased inclined tracks and then watched the trolleys spin their wheels.

Several female trolley conductors kept locals moving during World War II's gas and tire rationing. City surveys in 1946, however, revealed that buses were a more practical mode of mass transportation.

By July 1947, 36 buses and 33 streetcars traversed the city. The council voted that October to park its trolleys.

Locals such as Mayor Bruce Blackburn protested, noting the streetcar's quaintness and grand past. But "city fathers thought (trolleys) were too plebeian," the Times wrote.

The Jungle and Gulfport lines ran until May 7, 1949. Blackburn, former St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang and Bill "Alligator Man" Carpenter made the last trip that day in Car 100.

Residents stripped the car for souvenirs, wrote historian Walter Fuller, whose father was heavily involved in Davis' trolley company. Gracing the streetcar's front was a sign: "Not Dead Just Retired."

"It broke my heart," Huff-Saylor said. "Streetcars were such a part of St. Petersburg and Gulfport."

_ Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzelgate.net.

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