The Time Of The Trolley, Part I

By Seth H. Bramson

To paraphrase a wonderful New York Globe editorial from the very early years of the 20th century, “Yes, totteleh, there were trolley cars in Miami! And Coral Gables! And Miami Beach!” Indeed, for some 35 glorious years, streetcars or trolley cars — today returning to cities throughout America under the updated moniker, “light rail vehicles” — operated in, to and through the then-three largest cities in Dade County.

Some years ago, Ed Ridolph wrote a fine, soft cover book titled Biscayne Bay Trolleys in which he detailed the history of the three separate systems, complete with rosters and photographs. It is in no small part due to Ed’s early research that we have learned so much about those operations, and as it generally is, it is best to begin at the beginning, which is what we shall do in this column.

There is some debate as to whether the first trolleys to operate in Miami were several of the electric variety owned by the Tatum Brothers (in later years they of Tatum Waterway Drive fame, that street beginning at 77th Street just before one would go over the bridge to Biscayne Point and directly across from the west end of Biscayne Elementary School at 800 77th Street), or those of the animal-powered type, which departed from the dock near either the Musa Isle or the Carhart Tower, both of those fine edifices early observation towers where one could look from today’s either 12th Avenue or 17th Avenue adjacent to the Miami River toward an Everglades that still came east almost to today’s NW 7th Avenue and wound up at… you guessed it, the tower!

Tatum’s trolleys only lasted for two years, while the mule or horse-powered cars, which ran from the Miami River landing to the tower, may have lasted into the early teens. In any case, the city, having been founded only nine years before the first electric trolleys ran, was simply nowhere near capable of filling the seats of the incipient and long-before-its-time mass transit system.

Sometime around 1913, the second effort to run streetcars on rails occurred in Miami when several enterprising entrepreneurs determined that they could operate a trolley line profitably, provided that the power to operate the car was the all-the-rage and coming-into-vogue storage battery, a massive set of batteries located under the car that promised to allow the car to run silently and flawlessly all day and until the car ran back to the street car barn for its overnight battery recharging. Problem was, it didn’t work.

Most of the time the cars would, at some point in the work day, run out of battery charge and then would have to be pulled back to the barn by the mules or horses which, ostensibly, they had been put in place to replace. That system lasted about three years, and for several years thereafter Miami had no reliable urban transit (much as is the situation today).

Although trolley tracks are clearly visible in front of Smith’s Casino (the first of the bathing casinos on Miami Beach) we do not have documentation regarding the kind or type of vehicle which carried passengers on this street car line, nor do we know how far north it went, but, and in any case, at least we know that there was, very early on Miami Beach, some form of rail transit. Courtesy The Bramson Archive.

Finally, in 1919, the first electric trolley car, operating with a trolley pole connecting to an overhead wire, rolled silently down 12th Street. The Chaille street renumbering plan of 1921 would create the quadrant system, turning 12th Street into Flagler Street, Avenue D into Miami Avenue, and would install a rational numbering system based on Southeast, Southwest, Northeast and Northwest street and avenue numbering. The trolley was an immediate hit, and at various times, the Miami street cars were run or the system was managed by the City of Miami itself, Florida Power & Light Company or The Miami Beach Railway Company, the successor company maintaining that name on the company’s buses until the Dade County MTA buyout of the private transit systems in 1963 or ’64.

At any rate, the Miami trolleys would eventually operate from a large trolley barn and yard at SW 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue and serve most downtown streets, NE 2nd Avenue to 36th Street, and Flagler Street west to 22nd Avenue, the point at which the Coral Gables Rapid Transit Company’s street cars would leave their own tracks and begin operating on the Miami company’s trackage as they continued on to downtown Miami. Among other routes, the 7th Avenue line — which ran past the then-new Seaboard depot at 2206 NW 7th Avenue and all the way up to NW 35th Street — was a very popular line, carrying large numbers of working people back and forth to and from their homes in that area of the city.

Next time, the story continues with a look back at George Merrick’s Coral Gables Rapid Transit Company, its two separate lines into downtown Miami, and the short lived Sunset line, which, indeed “sunsetted” after about two brief years of unsuccessful operation.