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.
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.