DC Mythbusting: The DC Streetcar System

Photo courtesy of
‘Washington, DC View east down F Street NW no date’
courtesy of ‘army.arch’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting.  In order to avoid thinking about the terrible accident on Metro yesterday, I’m going to transport you back in time to when DC had another transit system.  That’s right, our fair city was served by a streetcar system beginning in 1862, and the last of the trains ran a hundred years later in 1962.  Then, as was the trend at the time, the transit system was forced to switch to buses, and the streetcars were no more.  There are many legends about the streetcar– it’s hard to imagine a transit system just leaving town with no marks, but you look around the city today and it’s hard to imagine the thriving streetcar system that existed just a few generations ago.  However, we’re lucky enough to have some very cool remnants of the old streetcar system.

Have you ever walked around Dupont Circle and seen those things that look just like New York City subway entrances?  Well, those are old streetcar entrances.  They were not all fancy like our Metro entrances (no one is standing to the right on escalators here), they’re just simple stairwells down to the streetcar platforms.  Passengers would descend into the station, where the streetcar would run in half-circles.  The Mount Pleasant Line of the streetcar system shut down in 1961, and by 1964 the station entrances were paved over.  But that’s not the end of the story for Dupont’s old streetcar station– in 1995, the station opened as a food court called Dupont Down Under, but apparently people don’t like eating in windowless underground lairs when they could be eating outside in one of DC’s great urban parks.  The project failed within a year, and the area was once again abandoned.  A couple years back, Jim Graham suggested that the space be used for adult clubs; however, neighborhood residents weren’t too excited about that and the space has remained vacant.

Old Streetcar Entrance in Dupont

Old Streetcar Entrance in Dupont, courtesy of Davis

The Dupont station isn’t the only thing that’s left from Washington’s streetcar era.  There are still streetcar tracks visible in Georgetown, and there are tracks underneath the asphalt in Adams Morgan.  And of course there are the car barns in Capitol Hill and Georgetown and Navy Yard and 16th Street Heights that have been preserved and reused.  Pepcogot its start as a subsidiary to a streetcar company back in the 1900s.  And some of today’s Metrobus lines still run along old streetcar routes.

For those of you who love history and transit as much as I do, I’d recommend checking out the National Capital Trolley Museum out in Maryland (streetcar rides!  yeah!).  However, the museum’s operations are suspended until later this fall due to a relocation because of the ICC (once again, car infrastructure outweighs transit).  The museum will be open for one day only on July 19, so mark your calendars to schedule a visit then.

This isn’t the end of the line (ha!) for streetcars in DC though.  DDOT is working (slowly) to bring a streetcar system back to the city, with one line along H Street NE and one line through Anacostia.  There are still a lot of questions remaining about whether those are the best alignments for the streetcar, and how exactly a streetcar system will be built in the historic downtown, where Congress has imposed a ban on overhead wires.

That’s the short story on the history and future of streetcars in DC.  Once you realize what you’re looking for, you’ll be surprised how many elements of the old streetcar network are still around.  I couldn’t figure out what those Dupont entrances were initially, and I never knew that so many old streetcar barns have been reused as schools and housing and shopping centers across the country.  But while we may no longer have the streetcar lines running through the city,  the vibrant, pedestrian-friendly nature of many DC neighborhoods is due to the old system.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

21 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: The DC Streetcar System

  1. Dupont Down Under failed in large part because the A/C was woefully insufficient. That’s my personal recollection, in any event.

  2. At one point in the streetcar project, the Anacostia alignment was chosen because CSX had an unused rail spur in place which would make a good demonstration line. However (as I recall), the demonstration project never managed to make an offer to CSX that they would accept.

  3. In asnwer to Mr. McMahon, the deal fell through because were questions as to whether CSX owned the right of way in fee simple. These questions were never satisfactorily resolved that would have allowed the entire alignment to be acquired. One stretch that was acquired is near Bolling AFB and is being used for access to the proposed vehicle storage and maintenance facility (soon to be or maybe already under construction).

  4. “And some of today’s Metrobus lines still run along old streetcar routes”

    And… Those still use the same route numbers as the streetcar routes. Funny how some things don’t change.

  5. This picture was taken in the late ’40′s looking east on F St. NW at 11th NW with Woodward & Lothrup’s department store cattycorner from the photographer. What dates the photo is the street
    car at the head of the line on this side of 11th
    St. It was one of the very last group of cars built for DC in late 1945 or early 1946. When I
    was a boy in the ’50′s I stood on that same safety
    island to get a Route 40 or 42 car east to go home!

  6. I was a child when the subway was built. It eliminated the cars going around Dupont Circle. I remember the construction and believe several men were killed in a construction accident. My Grandfather’s store was Lorraine’s (around the corner from Riggs Bank). Because traffic tried up, many of the small merchants had to close. There remains a lot of track under the pavement and I wonder if there is a map of that which was not destroyed. Congress forced the closure of the system-major mistake. There was an air conditioned demonstration car called the Silver Sightseer. Many of the cars were sold overseas.

  7. Irwin, I have a framed map from the 20s at home, and it shows street-car routes. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the thick red lines on the map indicated, until I noticed that one terminated at the Car Barn on East Capitol Street.

  8. Two books. 100 Years of Capital Traction by King and Capital Transit by Kohler. Corgi toys built several models of the PCCs.

  9. The Silver Sightseer was at the Capitol Trolley Museum until it was destroyed by arson.

  10. I noted a bit of DC conduit streetcat track in a clip from The West Wing” and wondered where exactly it was and if there was much more track like it.
    We have just a short piece of track in London, leading into a tram subway, closed in 1951 or 1952.
    Her in Lyon, france, we have some mixed-gauge (3-rail) sections dating from about mid-1950s.

  11. P and Q Streets in Georgetown. Some is still buried here and there. After an accident, a bicyclist sued the city, stating that the tracks were a hazard, and except for a couple blocks in Georgetown, all the tracks were removed.

  12. When I visitede Washington DC in 1967,there were still streetcar tracks in the streets downtown.

  13. Five of the cars went to Fort Worth and operated on the Leonards department store subway (later know and the Tandy Center subway) until 2002. Remodeled into a completely different carbody in the mid-1970′s, three of them still sit in a vacant lot in Fort Worth as we speak.

  14. Five of the cars went to Fort Worth and operated on the Leonards department store subway (later known and the Tandy Center subway) until 2002. Remodeled into a completely different carbody in the mid-1970′s, three of them still sit in a vacant lot in Fort Worth as we speak.

  15. Pingback: This Week: DC Streetcar Showcase | TheCityFix DC

  16. The French seem to have got close to perfecting systems that allow cars to run without overhead for considerable distances, either by stored energy (Nice) or connections below street level (Bordeaux).
    Proposers and supporters do well to find out more.
    Conduit operation was expensive, but these new systems seem more practical and cheaper!!!!