Downtown Trolley, Inc.
2015 Chadbourne Avenue
Madison, WI 53726
Phone 608-233-1999
Email info@downtowntrolley.org
Sun, Dec 17, 2017
Proposals : Madison Streetcar History
Streetcar Paved the Way for New Subdivisions
The Capital Times, 2/20/06

Streetcars in Madison

Following the national trend for electrification of the horse or mule drawn streetcar lines, Madison's streetcars were converted to electricity in October 1892. Several service improvements - and the popularity of streetcars - followed rapidly. By 1896, the electric streetcar line had twenty cars. Each thirty-one foot long car held fifty seated passengers. By 1901, the cars ran on a regular schedule, twelve minutes apart and even more frequently during UW football games and other special events.

These relatively frequent running times were achieved even though much of the early system was single tracked and cars needed to wait at several short double tracked areas while cars running in the opposite direction could pass.

The basic system ran from a maintenance facility and car storage barn at Atwood and Fair Oaks avenues, down Winnebago Street to Jenifer, up King Street to the Capitol Square, then down State Street to Park Street and over to University Avenue. It went west on University and turned on Breese Terrace to Monroe Street, then right on Harrison to Regent Street, ending at what is now the Forest Hill Cemetery gate house. There were also three spur extensions. One went down North Hamilton from the Square then east on Johnson Street to Baldwin, ending at Baldwin and West Washington Avenue. Another spur ran to the Oscar Mayer plant at North and Commercial. A third extension ran south from University Avenue down Mills Street to Emerald and then along Lakeside Street south of Monona Bay, ending at the site of Olin-Turville Park.

The history of the development of the basic line east and west is also the story of how land use and transportation work hand in hand. Only a few years after the electric system was established, the Madison Land and Improvement Company subsidized the construction of the line through their Elmside development on the city's East Side. In return the trolley company promised to run service there for the next forty years. The same company helped subsidize service to their University Heights and Wingra Park developments. The University Heights subsidy was in the form of $10,000 in subscriptions paid by Heights residents. In return the trolley company gave the residents free passes to ride anywhere on the system for an entire month.

Elmside and University Heights are classic examples of "streetcar suburbs", an especially appealing urban development form of the early twentieth century. Streetcar suburbs could provide leafier refuges for those who did not like the more tightly developed urban core, but because most streetcar customers walked to their homes when they stepped down from the trolley, development still needed to be relatively compact. About eight homes per acre was average. Moreover, most of these streetcar "suburbs" were suburban only in the sense that they were somewhat less urban in design then the central city. It is important to note that these new neighborhoods were still within the municipal boundaries of the city, not separate municipal entities altogether.

Another extension of the line was done for industrial economic development, rather than as an inducement to residential development. In 1919, the Oscar Mayer Company paid for a line extension to its East Side plant so that workers could get to and from their jobs more easily.

Madison's streetcar system started to decline in the 1920's and by 1935 it was dead. Its demise was due in part to chronic fiscal mismanagement (a common trait of streetcar companies across the nation), over-regulation by a state commission that demanded more service while quashing rate increases to pay for it, and the beginnings of the American fascination with auto travel.

The final blow came on February 13, 1935, when an ice storm brought down most of the trolley lines. Busses, which were being phased in anyway, took over. The streetcars never returned and the last electric lines were taken down a month later.

Electric streetcars served Madison well for 43 years. (At the height of its popularity in 1920 streetcars with especially fine amenities - insisted on by the Madison City Council - were referred to nationally as "Madison-type cars".) The system helped form our most appealing neighborhoods and it took Madisonians to their jobs in factories, in state government and the university and on weekends it took them to football games, parks and fairs. Best of all, it got Madison residents to where they wanted to go using clean electric power and in a way that did not demand ugly parking lots, which hollow out and take value from the city. As the rest of this report will assert, the streetcar was an especially beneficial urban amenity that probably should never have been abandoned and which deserves a chance to make a comeback.