S.A. was late in get­ting street­cars and early in leav­ing them.

Get­ting out of down­town, into clean coun­try air, was the goal

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page -

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.

Witte Mu­seum

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.

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