The Time of the Trolley, Part II

By Seth H. Bramson

Although almost all of what I pen for The New Tropic deals with a special moment in Greater Miami’s history, it is possible that the era of the street and electric railways in Greater Miami — the time of the trolley — may indeed have been the most special time of all. Unhappily, that moment in time — all 35 years of it — was terribly brief. 

Miami’s electric trolleys did run for two years in the first ten years of the 20th century, but then disappeared until 1919, being replaced by both horse-drawn and battery-powered vehicles on rails. It was not until the end of World War I that the idea of regular, electrically powered streetcar service took hold and a Miami line would extend out Flagler Street to then-comparatively distant NW 22nd Avenue while the SW 2nd Avenue line went into the trolley barn at SW 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue. 

With the passage of time and the coming of the great boom of the early 1920s, innumerable land developments sprang up throughout Greater Miami, one of them the brainchild of a former Massachusetts-ite, George E. Merrick, whose father arrived in Miami in either 1896 or 1898, depending on the source. The senior Merrick had purchased property southwest of Miami and he named the rather humble abode on the property “Coral Gables” to commemorate the homesite in Massachusetts of the family’s beloved President, Grover Cleveland, who lived in “Grey Gables.”

After developing several modest Miami subdivisions, Merrick determined with his wife, the former Eunice Peacock, that he would build what would be only the second planned city in America (Washington, D.C. was the first with the L’Enfant Plan, laid out in 1792), which he would call “Coral Gables.” Although Merrick laid out home sites, apartments, commercial and recreational areas, the fact was that the great draw remained the city of Miami, as even then Flagler Street was developing its world-renowned cachet as a fine and elegant shopping district. Eventually, on Saturdays the women — always wearing hats and white gloves — dined elegantly in the Burdine’s Hibiscus tea room or one of the other lovely dining spots on Flagler or close by in downtown.

Merrick realized that he needed a reliable and convenient method of transportation to bring people to Miami and back to Coral Gables and he wisely recognized that the way to go would be to build a streetcar line. His first line would leave the terminal at Coral Way (now Miracle Mile) and head north on Ponce de Leon, following the curve of that famous street and swinging onto Flagler Street, where at NW 22nd Avenue it would meet the City of Miami Electric Railway tracks and proceed into downtown Miami using the connecting company’s trackage.

Unfortunately, what came to be “the local line” was also somewhat slow for those making the complete city-to-city trip. To remedy that situation, Mr. Merrick embarked on another of his great achievements: the building of a high speed interurban electric railway utilizing the median of Coral Way (where the huge banyans now reside), swinging north on that leg of Coral Way and then curving east on SW 13th Street a couple of blocks to SW 2nd Avenue, whence the interurbans would cross the Miami River and head north to Flagler, where they would turn east and proceed to loop around downtown Miami back to their connection to the Gables trackage. 

There were several short and short-lived extensions, but the one that was well ahead of its time was the Bird Road line which went west on Bird almost to 72nd Avenue. A paucity of riders would doom that line quite early, but the two main lines soldiered on until the very-late-in-the-season Nov. 4, 1935 hurricane destroyed most of the system’s overhead wires and left several trolleys stranded out on the line. They were pulled in by trucks, and the Coral Gables Rapid Transit Company — along with so many of the other great dreams of the 1920s — met its unhappy end in the middle of the worst Depression the United States had ever experienced.

The City, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and without anywhere near the funds necessary to repair the heavily damaged infrastructure, simply threw in the towel, and the Coral Gables trolleys became nothing more than a memory on Nov. 5, 1935. There are no real remnants of anything relating to that system anywhere in the Gables other than the poles now being used for electric lights for a short distance on Sunset. Other than that, the bulk of the memorabilia — the photos, booklets, brochures and postcards, as well as several hat badges — has found a safe haven in and at The Bramson Archive, where that material, along with all of the other Miami memorabilia and Floridiana, is safely preserved.

We will, in our next visit, continue with this story, but moving on to a different part of town. Please try to join us, won’t you?!!

Top: The fabled Edward E. “Doc” Dammers stands at the controls of Coral Gables Rapid Transit Company’s (CGRT) street car 105 as he prepares to open the new trolley line. (Doc was George Merrick’s marketing, sales and real estate director.) Bottom: a Big CGRT interurban car — used exclusively on the Coral Way line to downtown Miami — is shown here on that grand street in front of the Merrick-built Coral Gables Administration Building. Still there, it is now a bank and office building. Courtesy of The Bramson Archive.