Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Alton Streetcar Story

We are currently working on compiling historical information on Illinois Terminal 170, the Birney car owned by the museum, as part of an effort to raise money towards rebuilding the car's single truck.  Car 170 ran in Alton from 1932 to 1936 and The Alton Streetcar Story, a previously unpublished history by Stephen M. Scalzo, is being printed here as part of that effort.  If you would like to support the restoration of car 170, donations may be sent to the Illinois Railway Museum - R170 fund.  Thanks to Stephen M. Scalzo for his support of this project and his contribution of this article.

All photos, except where noted, are from the Stephen M. Scalzo Collection and may not be reproduced without permission.

The Alton Streetcar Story
By Stephen M. Scalzo
Cars 19 and 24 meet on Market Street near 2nd in front of the old City Hall in downtown Alton.  This building burned in 1924.  In the left background a locomotive can be seen at the Chiacgo & Alton terminal at what is now Piasa & Broadway.

Alton is located 25 miles north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River in Madison County in southwest Illinois.  Rufus Easton, a lawyer and land speculator from St. Louis, eyed the site for a perfect location for a steamboat landing, plotting the community in 1818 and naming it for one of his seven sons.  The town received a charter from the state legislature in 1821.  By the 1830s the town was a busy river port and industrialization began in the area in 1831.  Illinois' first state penitentiary was constructed and opened there in 1833.  The city was incorporated on July 7, 1837. Alton, known as the "Bluff City", is known to be one of the hilliest cities in the United States, second only to San Francisco.

Upper Alton was founded in 1816 by Joseph Meachan, and it gradually grew in population along with Alton.

The Horsecar Era: 1867-1889

In an attempt to develop public transportation in Alton, the Alton and Upper Alton Horse and Carrying Company (A&UAH&CC) was organized by Cyrus Edwards on February 20, 1867.  After company representatives met with officials of the two involved towns later in the year, a franchise was granted to build a 2.5 mile line.  Nearly all of the $37,000 needed to build the line was raised by June.  The Company hired the city engineer to survey the route in June.  Plans called for the line starting in Alton on Alby Street and running east on Second Street to Washington Street, then northeast on Washington, Garden Street and Manning Street to Upper Alton. 

Grading work began in July 1867.  Track construction, with the rail coming from the Fort Pitt Iron Works in Pittsburgh, began at Alby and Second Streets on September 28.  Once the trackage was completed in Alton, regular hourly horsecar service began on December 5, with service extended over the Upper Alton trackage on December 13.   At the Upper Alton station, a side switch was installed so horsecars could pass each other.

A flat-roofed brick car barn was constructed on the west side of Manning Street (later 1628 Washington) in Upper Alton, with the horsecars coming from Coan and Tenbrocke in Chicago and the mules were kept in the basement.  Service was extended one block to the Alton City Hall on Second and Market Streets on January 3, 1868, and horsecars were making fifteen trips a day with forty-five minute service.  Trackage then went from Alton's City Hall up Second Street, past Illinois Glass and up the hill on Garden and Manning, terminating on Merchant Street in Upper Alton. In October, a one-mile extension from Manning and Bostwick to Seminary Street at Shurtleff College was opened.  In 1869, the company had two open and four closed horsecars and twenty-four horses.  However, passenger traffic got so poor that all service was discontinued early in 1869, and not resumed until October 1, 1873.  In 1880 Alton had a population of 8,965, and by 1886 the company was operating 2.75 miles of trackage with four horsecars and twenty horses.

The Alton Improvement Association (AIA) was organized on March 25, 1887 in order to extend horsecar service to the Middletown area of Alton.  Construction began on that second line between Alton and Upper Alton in March 1888 under the direction of William Huskinson, proceeding north uphill north on Market and east zig-zagging over various unimproved streets to Grove and Common Streets.  Because the unpaved streets were so steep, the company had to lay planks between the rails so that the horses could obtain their footing.  Two Pullman-built single-truck horsecars were obtained, with the carbarn and stable located in Middletown.  The inaugural trip over the trackage was on August 4, 1888 using a horsecar and horses borrowed from the A&UAHR&CC.  Two horsecars ordered from the Pullman Palace Car Company arrived on August 17, and after several test trips were operated on August 21, regular horsecar service began the next day using mules.

Horsecars and Steam Dummies: 1889-1895

In March 1889 a 1.5-mile extension was constructed on Franklin, then via private right-of-way through the woods to Shields Branch Creek, north along the creek to Staunton Street (later renamed College Avenue), and east on Staunton into Upper Alton.  A car shed and stables were built in Middletown.  In order to improve service, two yellow painted steam dummy locomotives (lettered "Middletown Railway") were ordered from the Baldwin Locomotive Works for $7,000 (those arrived on June 4) and two eighteen foot double truck enclosed trailer cars were ordered from the St. Louis Car Company (those arrived on July 10).  An inaugural trip carrying 747 passengers operated over the completed trackage on July 11.  The equipment was placed into regular service to Upper Alton on August 11, carrying 800 passengers on the first trip.  In December, a loop was installed at Shurtleff College at the top of the line to facilitate the turning of equipment.

On June 13, 1889, the AIA purchased the A&UAH&CC for $20,000, and another loop was quickly built at the foot of Market Street in Alton to allow both lines to reach the Alton Union Depot on the riverfront.  A carbarn was located on the private right-of-way west of Franklin.  In its first year of operation, the Middletown line carried 67,000 passengers.  In 1890 when Alton had a population of 10,294, the horsecar line carried 200,000 passengers and the steam dummy line carried 164,108 passengers.  In December of 1892, the company was reorganized and plans were developed to electrify the lines.  By 1893 the horsecar line had 3.25 miles of trackage, seven horsecars and twenty-six horses, while the steam dummy line had two steamers and two cars.  However, the company lacked funds to complete planned extensions.

The Bluff City Street Railway was incorporated in April of 1890 with $20,000 of capital; the Alton and North Alton Street Railway was incorporated in May of 1890 with $15,000 of capital; the Alton Consolidated Street Electric Railway was incorporated in October of 1890 with $200,000 of capital; and the Alton and Suburban Electric Railway was incorporated in 1892 with $50,000 of capital.  Four projected lines were planned, but nothing was ever built.

The Alton Electric Street Railway Company (AESRC) was incorporated on January 18, 1893 with $250,000 of capital.  A New York syndicate headed by A. M. Farnum and Joseph F. Porter (who would serve as company president until 1904) purchased the AIA and the A&UAH&CC for $100,000.  On April 1, the company began construction on a new power plant at Sixth and Piasa Streets to supply power to operate electric streetcars on the new Beacon and State Streets trackage.  Ties were strung out along the North Alton Line and foundations were poured for the power plant before the company ran out of funds.  In November, the company filed its mortgage to the St. Louis Trust Company for $250.000, with the intent of offering $1,000,000 of its bonds.  However, the Panic of 1893 dried up the money supply and left the company without a power plant and an operating streetcar line.  However, one of the six powerhouse boilers, enclosed in a temporary shed, was put into service in order to fulfill the company's contract for supplying city lighting.

The Alton Railway and Illuminating Company (AR&IC) was chartered in March 1892.  Work on rebuilding the trackage and electrifying the lines began in May 1895.  In May, the AHR&CC made arrangements to lease power from the AESRC for electric traction.  In June, the AIA sold its lines to the AERC for $100,000.  After the AR&IC was incorporated on July 17, 1895 with $250,000 of capital, it purchased the AESRC for $25,000 on June 24, 1895.  On August 21, the AIA, the A&UAHR&CC, and the AESRC were consolidated into the AR&IC, and by September the AR&IC had absorbed all of the lighting and street railway properties in the city. 

Electrification: 1895-1904 

The trackage reconstruction contract was awarded in April 1895 to the White-Crosby Company, which sublet portions of the contract and ordered new streetcars.  Construction was completed in August, with the first five light yellow with red trim painted streetcars being received from the St. Louis Car Company on August 26.  An old fire house on Market Street was purchased, with the second floor becoming the Company's office and the first floor becoming a passenger waiting room.  Regular streetcar service began on both lines on August 31, with two trips per hour being made both ways on the Middletown line and on the Second Street line, operating every fifteen minutes to Bozzatown and every half hour to Upper Alton.  The electrification of the Highland Park line into Upper Alton was completed in October. 

Car 23 is shown on private right-of-way at the entrance to Rock Spring Park on the North Alton line.

In February 1896, the company petitioned for a franchise for the North Alton line.  Construction of the North Alton line began in April on State, Beacon, Fourth and Piasa, crossing the Chicago and Alton Railroad at Third, and on to Market Street.  In April construction also began on the powerhouse extension.  Streetcar service on the North Alton began operating on May 30, with over 1,200 passengers riding the line on the first day.  That route was combined with the Middletown line, with all lines being single track with turnouts.  On June 1, streetcars began operating on the Alton to Upper Alton line over the private right-of-way through Rock Spring Park; electrification of that line, including new streetcars, cost $75,000.  During July the streetcars carried 100,000 passengers.  A siding was installed on State Street allowing streetcars to go to Upper Alton via Second Street, and in August a siding was installed on Henry Street on the Middletown line in order to further improve service.  By the end of 1896, the company had nine miles of track, ten streetcars and four trailers, and two steam dummies.  Rock Springs Park was also opened to generate weekend and excursion revenue.

Earnings of $61,736 in 1898 were inadequate and the company was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1899, becoming the Alton Railway, Gas and Electric Company (ARG&EC), which was incorporated on August 8, 1899 with $500,000 of capital.  That company began purchasing all the gas and electric utility companies in Alton.  The line on Union Street was constructed in 1899.  Construction of the Sixth Street line and a new seven track carbarn, capable of holding twenty-eight streetcars, at Seventh and Market Streets began in March 1900.  Streetcars began operating on the Market Street line on May 26.  In June, the sixth dynamo was received at the powerhouse, and in October construction began on another powerhouse addition.  The steam dummies were sold to a logging camp in Pearl River County at Ellisville, Mississippi, and shipped in September of 1900 and March of 1901.  By 1901 the company operated 12.5 miles of trackage with eighteen streetcars.  When the new carbarn was opened for service in February of 1901, the old Highland Park car barn became a storage facility for old equipment.  Five new streetcars were received in April, with the old streetcars being rebuilt.  In 1901, earnings were $61,913.  On January 25, 1902, the streetcar men formed a local union.

The Alton and East Alton Railway Light and Power Company was chartered in 1898 with the intent of building a line to the suburban town of East Alton.  The company was incorporated in February 1899 with $100,000 of capital.  After obtaining the necessary franchises it was reorganized as the Alton and East Alton Railway and Passenger Company (A&EARPC), incorporated in 1901 with $250,000 of capital.  Construction of the one mile East Alton line from Washington Street to Milton Road to serve the Federal Lead Company began in April of 1902, with streetcar service beginning on January 1, 1903.

The A&EARPC was purchased and merged into the ARG&E to form the Alton Light and Traction Company, which was incorporated on August 10, 1903.  On August 15, the old Middletown car barn was destroyed by fire, including the six horsecars stored inside.  By 1904 the company operated sixteen miles of trackage with eighteen streetcars (and eight horses for several horsecars), with earnings of $96,087 (or $180,562 including power sales).  Eventually all the remaining horsecars were phased out.

Alton Granite & St. Louis: 1904-1918

The Alton, Granite and St. Louis Traction Company (AG&SLTC) was organized on September 8, 1904, by purchasing the Alton Light and Traction Company.  The company built several interurban lines between East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Granite City and Alton, using Second Street as the entrance into Alton for its interurbans.  By 1905, the extra traffic forced the company to double-track Second Street, and on January 7, 1906, regular half-hour service to East Alton was begun (as only trippers ran there previously).  The AG&SLTC had its second car barn at Yeager Park at Federal (Cut Street) and Milton (East Broadway), and the Alton Powerhouse had a 500kw rotary for the local streetcar system as well as generating power for lighting and hot water heat.  

In March of 1906, a decision was made to change the paint scheme of all streetcars to yellow.  In April, control of the company passed into the hands of the East St. Louis and Suburban Company, resulting in more changes.  Work immediately began on installing heavier rail on the Second Street trackage.  In May, large twelve bench open streetcars from East St. Louis began operating on Second Street for the summer. 

Alton street railway system track map, information from Stephen M. Scalzo Collection

On October 1, there was a rerouting of all lines in order to improve service.  The North Alton to Upper Alton streetcars were operated via the Middletown line instead of via Second Street, with twenty minute service during the day and ten minute service in rush hours.  Streetcars on Second Street were operated to Upper Alton via Washington; Union Street became a shuttle from Sixth and Alby Streets to Second and Shields Street (because of complaints that was later changed and streetcars were operated to city hall).  Other double truck streetcars were brought from East St. Louis for occasions when the single truck streetcars were inadequate, such as for circuses and other events.

Generally, service was greatly improved, with owl streetcars being inaugurated on all lines on September 18, 1906.  On November 30, the Upper Alton trackage on Washington was extended from Bostwick Street to Salu Street.  During January 1907, some larger streetcars were transferred from Granite City to Alton and rebuilt before being placed into service.  The Village of North Alton was annexed into Alton on April 29, 1907.  In September and October, several large closed streetcars arrived from East St. Louis for use on the Middletown line.  In December the company gave the twenty-eight acre Rock Spring Park to the city of Alton.  By March 1908, the Middletown line had fifteen minute service and the Wood River refinery line had thirty minute service.  By 1912, the city of Alton insisted that all lines be operated with double-truck streetcars because of overcrowding, and as a result, ten new double-truck PAYE streetcars were ordered in February 1913 from the American Car Company for the Alton local lines.  Those new streetcars were placed into service in October on the Middletown, Union Street and Second Street lines.

On January 10, 1913, the Alton and Eastern Electric Railway was organized as a subsidiary of the AG&SLTC to construct a two mile extension of the Middletown line on College Avenue to the new Illinois State Hospital for the Insane.  The extension was to be built as part of a contract to provide electricity to the hospital; however when the State of Illinois cancelled the contract, trackage was only built to Wood River Creek.  Streetcar service began on the extension on September 20, 1918.

Receivership and Decline: 1918-1930

The company was hard hit by the inflationary period of World War I.  The local lines began using skip-stop service, but the city council objected and required the resumption of full service after the war.  Earnings were $177,340 in 1917, but wartime wage hikes resulted in a fare increase from five to seven cents in 1918 and eight cents in March of 1920.  In an attempt to reduce costs, ten new single-truck one-man Birney streetcars were ordered and all remaining streetcars were converted to one-man operation.  In 1919, even though the company earned $40,000 over operating expenses, the company began to encounter financial problems. 

Alton Birney car 121, built new for the AG&SL in 1921 by American Car Company, shown near the end of its career on July 14, 1933.

The February and August 1920 interest payments were defaulted, and the bondholders put the company into receivership in August.  On September 1, fares were raised to ten cents. 

The receiver said that all available funds would be used to improve the property, and $80,000 was used for repair work and to pay for the previously ordered Birney streetcars for Alton.  In May 1921 the court made permanent the temporary receivership under which the company was being operated.  When received, two Birney streetcars were put on the Broadway line in April, three on the State Street line on May 23, and four on the through routed State Street-Upper Alton line on June 15.  The leased East St. Louis streetcars were then returned, with the ten double truck PAYE streetcars and the Birney streetcars holding down all remaining service.  Extensive improvements were made, with $150,000 in track renewal on State, Third, Piasa and Broadway.  For August, the company made $300 because of one-man streetcars.

Birney 170 (ex-Galesburg 7) is shown in downtown Alton near Piasa & 2nd around 1935.

However, the Birney streetcars could not halt the downward earnings, especially with the increased use of private automobiles and concrete highways.  Inroads were also being made by competing bus lines.  As an economy measure, all owl service in Alton was discontinued on September 9, 1921.  Effective May 1, 1923, a labor settlement gave workers a three cent per hour increase, with rates for operating one-man streetcars for the first three months being forty-five cents an hour, the next nine months being forty-eight cents, and after one year being fifty-two cents.  In July of 1924, the city council passed an ordinance granting the franchise for the company to continue service, but with a clause for paying an annual tax of $25 per streetcar and constructing a second track on the City Hall Square.  On October 4, the company filed a petition to abandon the 3,100 foot State Hospital extension, as patronage was too light to justify investing in new tracks and other improvements; service there was discontinued on February 18, 1925.

In 1926, the courts ordered that the bankrupt AG&SL be broken up.  On June 22, 1926, the Alton Railway Company was incorporated with $750,000 of capital to operate the 20.25 miles of trackage in Alton with twenty-eight streetcars.  The new company took over all operations on December 1.  Buses were introduced on August 9, 1926.  In 1929, the streetcar system consisted of the State-Broadway line and the Middletown-Union line operating over fifteen miles of track using thirty-six streetcars. 

Car 163 is shown in operation on July 16, 1933 not long after its transfer to Alton from Galesburg.

On July 1, 1930, the company was purchased by the Illinois Power and Light Corporation; at that time, track mileage had dropped to 15.6 miles operated by nineteen streetcars.  On July 1, the Illinois Terminal Railroad leased the St. Louis and Alton Railway and the Alton and Eastern Railroad (which had acquired the old Bluff Line between East St. Louis and Grafton), and priority was given to getting the interurbans off the streets in Alton.

Illinois Terminal Transportation Company: 1930-1936

The Illinois Terminal Transportation Company was organized on November 30, 1930, and acquired the Alton transit property on March 1, 1931.  However streetcar cutbacks continued as the system continued to operate at a loss.  In April, headways on the State-Broadway line were reduced to fifteen minutes with all cars being through routed, the Middletown line received twenty minute service, and the Union Street line received thirty minute service.  On September 13, the Illinois Terminal Railroad interurbans from Alton to St. Louis were rerouted off Broadway Street and began using the newly electrified Alton and Eastern Railroad's old Bluff Line trackage into Alton to the former Bluff Line depot.  Rush hour streetcar service was retained on the old interurban line for workers in Wood River and Roxana for a short period, but buses were soon substituted.  Fourteen second-hand Birney streetcars were purchased from Galesburg to replace the remaining original Birney streetcars which were in deplorable condition and desperately in need of repair.  However, it could be seen that it was only a matter of time before buses finally replaced the remaining streetcars.  As the Depression continued, patronage continued to drop, and the transit system was still operating at a loss.

Birney 163 is shown in downtown Alton in the mid-1930s signed for Wood River.

In the spring of 1933 numerous paving contracts were let by the city of Alton.  On July 18, buses replaced streetcars on the State Street line in North Alton and on part of the Broadway Street line.  The Middletown line was cut back to Central and Franklin Streets when College Avenue was paved.  On November 13, 1933, the Middletown line was discontinued and replaced by a feeder bus line to the station.  The Broadway streetcars were rerouted via Washington and College Streets to Seminary Street to serve the high school to replace the abandoned Middletown line.  Service on Washington Street north of College Avenue to Salu Street was then discontinued.  Streetcar service on State Street was later restored, and in 1934 the unused 1.33 miles of track and overhead located on the private right-of-way through the park on the old Middletown line was torn up.

Birney 169 (ex-Galesburg 18) is operating on the State Street line on Memorial Day 1935.  It is shown on Alby at 6th Street.

By 1935 the system was operating only eight Birney streetcars over 13.8 miles of trackage.  In the spring of 1936, the company notified the city of Alton that it intended to surrender its operating rights because of continued losses.  After monthly losses reached $500, the company on April 20, 1936 petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission to abandon all service.  The company suggested that the city secure a successor, and as an aid deeded to the city all rails, ties and support structures on the remaining 10.73 miles of trackage.  After approval was granted to terminate all service on July 19, the last streetcar operated on August 27, 1936.  The company was immediately dissolved, and buses of the Alton City Lines took over local transportation the next day.  All remaining electrical equipment and the overhead wires were removed and scrapped.

 Alton Birney 163 (ex-Galesburg 1) is stored with the rest of the Alton Birney fleet at the National Steel plant in nearby Wood River awaiting scrapping following the abandonment of streetcar service in Alton in 1936.

A line of Alton Birney cars is in storage at the National Steel plant in Wood River awaiting scrapping in 1936.

Appendix A
Alton Roster Information

Renumbering history of ex-Galesburg Birneys:
Galesburg number > Alton number
12 > 160
11 > 161
13 > 162
10 > 163
1  > 164
15 > 165
16 > 166
6  > 167
4  > 168
18 > 169
7  > 170
17 > 171
5  > 172
9  > 173

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