S.A. was late in getting streetcars and early in leaving them.
Getting out of downtown, into clean country air, was the goal
Within the history of streetcars across the United States, San Antonio was a latecomer. The city also was the first of U.S. large cities to abandon streetcars.
Yet streetcars — as they were known in the South; in the North, they were trolleys — had a 55-year run in San Antonio as the city’s main public transportation system, reaching a peak of 90 miles of routes.
Houston, Galveston, Austin and even Seguin and Uvalde were served by streetcars before San Antonio, even if they were drawn by mules. San Antonio had to wait until the railroad arrived, which didn’t happen until 1877.
The railroads were requisite because rail delivered the streetcar vehicles and the metal tracks necessary for the systems, explained Hugh Hemphill, Texas Transportation Museum manager and author of “San Antonio on Wheels.”
The first line opened on June 9, 1878, but it did not connect downtown to an outlying residential area or train station. Instead, it stretched from Alamo Plaza to San Pedro Park.
The reason: to give San Antonians a breath of fresh air.
“Downtown San Antonio was nasty. Commerce Street was vile. To describe downtown as unhealthy would be an understatement,” Hemphill said.
Streetcars changed downtown immediately. Commerce Street dominated downtown commercially before 1878, but the merchants declined to widen the narrow street to make way for streetcars. Instead, Paseo del Rio, which was two blocks north and ran between houses and agricultural fields, was widened and rechristened Houston Street
“Every streetcar line began and ended at Houston Street. Commerce Street lost its pre-eminent position,” Hemphill said.
A second streetcar line opened to ferry passengers between downtown hotels and a no-longerexisting train station on Jones Street, called the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio rail depot, near the Hays Street Bridge. A third streetcar line opened for the same reason, running to the Missouri Pacific station on the near West Side.
The owners of the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa on the South Side built a streetcar line from the resort to the downtown stations, Hemphill said.
In 1889, the wealthy residents were moving north of downtown to a tax-haven suburb called Alamo Heights, a shift facilitated by streetcars. A new route was created to bring the domestic staffs — the maids, cooks and gardeners — to the big houses there and to take them away at the end of the day.
As the streetcar tracks reached out in all directions from downtown, land values increased dramatically. “Streetcars turned scrub land into real estate,” Hemphill said. Lots alongside streetcar routes selling for $5 an acre suddenly could demand $100 or more.
A big change occurred in 1890 in San Antonio: The streetcars became electrified. The electric streetcars were faster, could climb steeper hills, had more seating and provided more comfort to the passengers with protection from extreme temperatures and dust.
But streetcar operations were not profitable. By the turn of the century, streetcar operators were also losing business as more people were able to buy automobiles. Buses, which could offer faster, more flexible transportation, also cut into the streetcar business. In addition, downtown stores moved north to be closer to customers.
The Great Depression also was a factor, with fewer people working.
In 1933, San Antonio Public Service Co., which ran the streetcars, offered to pay the city $250,000 to stop offering service. Needing the money, the city took the deal, Hemphill said.
“San Antonio was the first major city in America to abandon the streetcars,” Hemphill said.
The last run of a streetcar in 1933 was ceremoniously staged with mules pulling the car as a throwback to the early days.
The tracks then were removed or paved over. Many of the streetcars were scrapped, with some sold to buyers in New York.
A streetcar shares Houston Street with automobiles and horse-drawn buggies. Streetcars operated from 1878 to 1933, reaching a peak of 90 miles of routes.