A trolley system once provided Tylerites with entertainment and access to a variety of activities.
The electric street car system was in place during the early 20th century, coming after a mule-powered transportation system that was in place during the late 1800s.
Local historian and attorney Randy Gilbert said neither lasted long.
According to an article by former Smith County Historical Society President Morris S. Burton, interest in the trolley came from James Postell Douglas, who served as senator in the 12th Texas Legislature, as well as his associates. They obtained a franchise for the Tyler Street Railway Company in 1889, and by 1891, about 3 miles of track operated with four cars.
“They were pulled by nine head of mules, not withstanding the franchise stipulation of ‘operation by horse-power,’” Burton writes. “The tracks extended from the depot of the (Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad) … on West Erwin Street, due south of Oakwood Cemetery, running east along Erwin Street to pass the south side of the County Courthouse Square and continuing east on Erwin Street to Fleishel Street, turning south on Fleishel to Scott’s Park…”
“A branch line extended along Spring (Street) from Erwin to the depot of the St. Louis and Southwestern Railway Company, the Cotton Belt Railroad. The two depots were now connected by one mule street car-Tyler’s first!”
Still, Gilbert said the mule-powered system did not last long, and he believes it’s possible that the Panic of 1893 could have played a role.
Track, cars, mules and a stable on West Erwin Street were sold in 1893, and although operations started again in 1894, it was only for a brief period of time, according to Burton’s article.
It wasn’t until 1911 that a franchise was awarded for the trolley system, according to the article.
But “within less than a year, this first street car line failed, with only one mile of track built — on North Bois D’Arc (Avenue) — … and without any ‘Car No. 5’ making a single run. Even the special spike driving ceremony at the First Baptist Church corner was for naught!” Burton writes.
A second street car franchise was granted in 1913 “but much more extensive than the earlier 1911 version,” according to Burton’s article, and in Sept. 1913, nine passengers were aboard as Car No. 6 left West Elm Street and the Short Line Railroad tracks.
“It started the first trip to the East Texas fairgrounds, traveling along West Elm … south on Peach (Street) and then west on Front (Street),” Burton wrote.
According to the article, policemen and firemen were not to be charged fare if they were in uniform, per a franchise provision.
Gilbert said the electric street car system was more than utilitarian.
By 1914, residents were able to ride to the fairgrounds, Bergfeld Park, Hill’s Natatorium, where people could swim and canoe, a route ending at Winona Street, the site of the Riviere Mineral Water Bottling Works and to the Car Barns and Machine Shop, near the current site of Tyler City Hall, according to Burton’s article. Dean’s Store, north of where Marvin United Methodist Church currently sits, was the transfer station for branch lines, the article reads.
“The eight passenger cars were of the single-truck style, painted dark green, and were constructed new in Chicago,” Burton writes. “They were shipped on flat railroad cars direct to Tyler. Each trolley car was about 35 feet long. It would seat 32 passengers with standing room in the center aisle for 18 others, a peak capacity of 50 passengers.”
According to Burton’s article, passengers included youth and those attending events.
“All night lighting was electrical, both inside the car, and outside for a single headlight. This feature gave Tyler youths much night amusement. They could sneak up at the rear of a car and seize the control rope and pull the trolley pole from its wire. The car, in sudden complete darkness, would come to a complete stop!” Burton writes. “For special occasions or celebrations, the cars were available for charter trips. With natatoriums and city parks at track’s end, many Sunday School picnics or school closing ceremonies were started from the city to the outskirts of Tyler.”
Lois Fitzgerald, a child at the time, describes an incident with the street cars in a diary entry that is part of the Chronicles of Smith County, Texas, published by the Smith County Historical Society.
“The street cars started to run from Mrs. Rivere’s to the fairgrounds Monday, on Sept. 30, and they made the first trip all right but in the afternoon two got off the track and two collided breaking the glass out of one of them but I don’t think there was anybody hurt,” she writes in her Oct. 7, 1913 entry.
She also writes in her Oct. 11, 1913 entry that she went to the fairgrounds on Oct. 9, 1913 via the street car.
Tyler resident and historian Mary Jane McNamara said Lois Fitzgerald and her good friend, for entertainment, would sometimes ride the street car all afternoon and continue transferring to different routes. She said they also particularly loved to go to Hill’s Natatorium.
But in the end, the trolley did not sustain enough riders and needed financial support to continue successfully, according to an article provided by the Smith County Historical Society.
“By 1917, the trolley line had fallen on financial hard times and even a campaign by The Tyler Courier-Times to garner support for the system failed to halt its demise,” according to the article.
Gilbert said there may have been a significant increase in the number of cars in the county and town in 1913 compared to 1917.
According to Burton’s article, Henry Ford’s 1914 Model “T” came to Tyler, and there were more than 300 registered automobiles in Smith County by 1916 “and each new auto reduced the passenger potential of the Tyler Traction Company.”
Additionally, the Dixie Overland Highway was developed in 1915, and the fact that a federal highway came through Tyler around that time indicates that there was enough traffic in Tyler to have one of the earliest federal highways, Gilbert said.
He said, once the electric street car system folded, there wasn’t a public transportation system in Tyler for years afterward.
Ms. McNamara said she could tell where the street car system used to be when she moved to Tyler with her family in 1931. At the time, she said she was disappointed that Tyler didn’t have street cars because she had been accustomed to riding them in Dallas.
“I’m sorry the street car vanished before my time” (in Tyler), Ms. McNamara said.
This story contains excerpted information from an article provided by the Smith County County Historical Society, as well as excerpted information from an article by Morris S. Burton, former president of the Smith County Historical Society.