By Ethan Barton
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BALTIMORE — The last streetcar made its way over Baltimore streets in 1963, done in, partly, by the rise of the automobile and the growth of the suburbs — all coming atop an antitrust scandal.
But today, some groups are calling for the streetcar’s return.
Members of the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign want streetcars back because, the group says, they’re better for the economy and the environment.
A streetcar, or trolley, is powered by an overhead electric cable and runs on a track, though there are also trackless trolleys, which use rubber tires.
“They’re more permanent than buses. You can see the tracks,” said Andrew Blumberg, director of public affairs for the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. “They last longer. They were more resilient, more durable.”
That permanence, some boosters say, has an effect on business.
“Economic activity seems to spring up around streetcars in other cities that have them,” Blumberg said. “Just being able to see the routes means something to the riders and the businesses.”
Of course, efficiency isn’t the only reason riders love streetcars.
“Some people remember them and have nostalgia,” Blumberg said. “People seem to gravitate to that form of transit.”
Jeanne Shipley, 78, a former Baltimore resident who now lives on the Eastern Shore, remembers why she preferred streetcars to buses.
“The buses have the wind and were loud and moved around,” Shipley said. “The streetcars — they were just smooth.”
If streetcars were beloved, why did they disappear from Baltimore and from most other American cities?
One large factor was the increased use of the automobile, which cut ridership on mass transit. Motorists complained that streetcars tracks interfered with driving. And of course, Americans were moving to the suburbs.
But it was an antitrust scandal, many historians say, that really helped do the streetcar in and prompted the conversion of streetcar lines to bus routes over the two decades after World War II.
In the 1930s and 1940s, National City Lines, a holding company based in Chicago, purchased part or all of transit companies in cities across the nation and converted the streetcar lines to bus routes, regardless of public and expert opinion. National City’s investors included other big businesses that would profit from the conversion, such as General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil.
“National City Lines expedited the process” of turning streetcar routes to bus lines, Blumberg said. “But it still would have happened.”
In Baltimore, National City Lines purchased stock in the Baltimore Transit Company, the largest provider of public transit in the city, and began converting the streetcar lines to bus routes despite public anger.
One Baltimorean stockholder even sued Baltimore Transit over the conversions and their lack of concern for the stockholders. He lost in both trial and appeals courts.
In 1954, in a federal case, National City Lines and the other companies it conspired with were convicted of breaking antitrust laws. But the fines were small — despite the huge profits National City made — and no one went to jail.
Still, streetcars didn’t recover. By then, more and more people were buying cars, and cities began pulling up or paving over the tracks.
In Baltimore, the era ended Nov. 3, 1963. On that day, the last streetcar carried passengers through the city. Newspapers reported the visitors came from as far away as New York to watch.