|THE EARLY HISTORY OF DETROIT PUBLIC TRANSIT
The year was 1862. The American Civil War was already into its second year, as was the first term of the nation's 16th
President, Abraham Lincoln. The U.S. Census conducted in 1860 ranked the city of Detroit as the nation's 18th
largest city, with a population of 45,619 residents. The city's African-American population (today estimated to be
nearly 82%) in 1860 was recorded at 1,402, which at that time was just 3% of the population.
During the 1860s, the city of Detroit covered a much smaller area than today. The city limits were roughly bounded by
what today would be 25th Street on the west and Mt. Elliott Avenue on the east, while the northern boundaries followed
the tracks of the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Railroads, along with (and in the vicinity of) what today would be
Milwaukee, Dubois, Leland, Elmwood and Gratiot streets. In total, the city's land area covered only 12.7 square miles.
Even Detroit's famous island park, Belle Isle, was at the time still in the hands of private owners.
Although a few cobblestone streets and plank (wooden) roads could be found scattered around the city, most roads
were either gravel or stone. With the passage of the General Plank Road Act of 1848 by the state legislature, many of
the principal roadways radiating from Detroit were toll roads run by private companies chartered by the state. The
upkeep of these roads were entirely the responsibility of the private companies as a means to improve road
Meanwhile, public transportation in Detroit was minimal at best, consisting primarily of horse-powered cabs and
buses that were used by hotels to connect with railroad depots and boat docks. Numerous attempts to operate a
horse-drawn omnibus service along E. Jefferson — and later along Woodward Avenue — had been tried, with limited
success, during the years following 1847. However, for the most part, foot-travel would continue as the primary
means of transportation for most citizens at that time, since only the more wealthy could afford their own horse-drawn
Meanwhile, Detroit was quickly becoming a manufacturing boom town. After the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825
(a waterway that connected the eastern seaboard with the Great Lakes), settlers began to arrive in large numbers,
most coming from the northeastern United States and Europe. From the time Michigan was granted statehood in
1837, the city's population more than doubled every ten years following 1840. By 1860, the city's narrow streets were
becoming more and more congested, raising concerns that the city should begin seeking solutions to help move its
people around town through the use of some form of public transportation. By that time, several major U.S. cities had
already begun operating metal-wheeled cars (or carriages) that were pulled by horses along rails set into existing
roadways. As a result, a number of the city's business leaders felt it was finally time for a similar type of service to
operate here in Detroit.
In response, the Common Council of the City of Detroit passed an ordinance on Nov. 24, 1862, establishing the
guidelines for obtaining a thirty-year franchise, with exclusive rights to build and operate streetcar lines within the city.
The ordinance required the franchisee to construct and operate animal-powered cars on and through city streets such
as Jefferson, Michigan and Woodward Avenues, Gratiot, Grand River and Fort Streets. It also included provisions that
the cars not exceed six miles per hour, and prescribed the frequency (at least every 20 minutes) and hours of
operation. It also stipulated a fare of five cents on each line and a franchise tax of $15 per car per year.
DETROIT'S FIRST HORSE-DRAWN RAIL CARS:
On Jan. 5, 1863, a $5,000 deposit was made to the city on behalf of a company backed by a group of investors based
out of Syracuse, New York. On May 9, 1863, a thirty-year franchise was granted to a Cornelius S. Bushnell, et al., who
organized the Detroit City Railway Company, which incorporated under that name on May 12, 1863.
Construction began on June 30, 1863, on Jefferson Avenue near Bates Street. The trackage was similar to that used
on steam railroads and was laid within the middle of the street. The track rested on a two-inch bed of cinders, brought
flush with the top of the rails to provide footing for the horses. The track gauge used was four feet seven inches. The
first line to be constructed was along Jefferson Avenue, from the old Michigan Central Train Depot at Third Street
(currently the location of Joe Louis Arena) eastward to the city limits at Mt. Elliott Avenue. The first two streetcars
arrived from Troy, New York on July, 31, 1863, with city officials, a number of prominent citizens, and representatives of
the press making that first trip over the line on August 1, 1863.
On Monday evening, Aug. 3, 1863, a historic event would occur that would forever impact the future of Detroit; as
crowds of men, women and children gathered on Jefferson Avenue, between Woodward and Randolph, waiting with
excited anticipation to climb aboard the four rail cars lined-up and ready to receive their first passengers. Free rides
were offered that day to all, as the tiny horse-drawn cars bounced along Jefferson Avenue, from Randolph to
Elmwood. The era of public transit in Detroit had just begun.
On August 4, regular service began with eight small horse-powered cars operating along Jefferson Avenue, initially
providing service from the Michigan Central Train Depot at Third to Elmwood Avenue. On October 1, the service was
extended to Mt. Elliott (the city's eastern limits). The fare was five cents or twenty-five tickets for a dollar.
Shortly thereafter, the Detroit City Railway began operating service on other routes. On August 27, service would begin
operating along Woodward Avenue, from Jefferson to Adams Avenue. By October, the service had been extended
north to Alexandrine, near the vicinity of the original Harper Hospital. Gratiot Avenue service would soon follow on
September 12, beginning at Woodward downtown, then via Monroe, Randolph and Gratiot to Russell. On Nov. 25,
1863, streetcar service would begin on Michigan Avenue, from Woodward downtown via Michigan Avenue to Chicago
Road (Michigan Ave.) and Thompson Street (renamed 12th Street [today Rosa Parks Blvd.]).
[FOOTNOTE: Prior to 1867, Michigan Avenue was known as Chicago Road west of Eight Street]
The first horse-drawn cars to operate in Detroit were sixteen feet long, with low steps leading up to an open platform
located at both ends. Entrance into the interior was through sliding doors leading to an interior finished in maple.
Perimeter bench seating ran the car's entire length, with interior lighting being provided by oil lanterns. Since these
cars provided no heat, straw had to be placed on the floor during the winter to help keep the passengers' feet warm.
With increasing streetcar traffic along the streets of Detroit, the Common Council passed a resolution in August of
1864, which required each car to be equipped with a bell to warn pedestrians, after a man had been run down and
bruised by an on-rushing streetcar. Although these horsecars were considered slow, even by that day's standards,
the iron-rail right-of-way they rode upon provided a more smoother ride than the rough cobblestone or dirt roads used
by the horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses of that day.
At the end of 1863, the Detroit City Railway Company was operating four horsecar lines; Jefferson, Woodward, Gratiot
and Michigan — with all four lines converging at Woodward and Jefferson avenues. Because more of the population
at the time was concentrated around the river, the Jefferson line soon became the company's main line, receiving the
better equipment and provided the most frequent service. Although company officials were optimistic about the future
of the company at the end of 1863, the first three years of operation were not profitable, forcing the owners in 1866 to
lease all the company's routes to a George Hendrie and Thomas Cox, the former owners of an omnibus line, who
were eventually able to stabilize the financial condition of the company. George Hendrie would later purchase the
company and operate it until 1891.
MORE PRIVATE-OWNED COMPANIES JUMP ABOARD:
Meanwhile, the Detroit City Railway had decided to forfeit its first-franchise rights to build along other streets. This
now opened the door for other companies to seek franchise approval to build new lines within the city. The second
company to be granted a streetcar franchise was the Fort Street and Elmwood Avenue Railway Company, which
sought to build a new line along W. Fort Street. At 4 p.m., on Sept. 6, 1865, the Fort Street and Elmwood line began
operations, and would become the first line to operate across the entire city from east to west. Upon its completion,
the new 5½-mile long line would operate from the city's western limits, just west of Porter Road (the present-day 24th
St.), eastward along West Fort Street, through Michigan Grand Avenue (present-day Cadillac Square) to Randolph,
then east along Croghan Street (present-day Monroe) to the Elmwood Cemetery at Elmwood Avenue. By 1866, the
line had been extended westward into Springwells Township, via Fort Street, Clark, and the River Road (W. Jefferson),
to the entrance of the Fort Wayne military reservation, near what later became Artillery Avenue (Livernois). In 1871, the
company would be renamed the Fort Wayne and Elmwood Railway Company, and its streetcar line became the Fort
Wayne and Elmwood line.
Soon, other routes would follow as other companies jumped on board, namely; Grand River (Grand River Street
Railway,1868), Cass and Third (Central Market, Cass Avenue and Third Street Railway, 1873), Congress and Baker
(Detroit and Grand Trunk Junction Street Railway, 1873), and Russell (Russell Street, St. Aubin and Detroit and
Milwaukee Junction Street Railway, 1874). By 1874, six streetcar companies were operating nine car-lines within the
city of Detroit. As the population continued to expand outward to the city limits, many of the routes were extended, such
as Gratiot, to the Grand Trunk Railroad crossing along-side Dequindre Street, then later to Chene St; Grand River,
from 7th Street to the Grand Trunk Depot at 17th Street; Michigan, from 12th Street to the city limits at 25th Street; and
Woodward, to the Grand Trunk Depot, just south of what later became Baltimore Avenue.
Meanwhile, a major horse disease epidemic would strike Detroit on Oct. 25, 1872. As a result, no street railway
service operated across the city for several days. The disadvantages of using horses was just beginning to become
In addition to being rather slow, horses were susceptible to sicknesses, and the life expectancy of a streetcar horse
was rather short. Having to contend with horse droppings along city streets was also a problem. In addition, the
expanding Detroit boundaries would require a need for routes to be extended out, and horsepower would soon prove
to be a hindrance to that cause.
Although the novelty of the horse-drawn rail cars would lessen and become more of an established fact of life in the
city, their usefulness was becoming more evident as ridership numbers continued to rise. In 1875, the Detroit City
Railway Company alone carried 2,900,000 passengers on the four lines it operated within the city. Meanwhile, the
years that followed would bring a number of improvements to the service, including faster headways, extended night
service, new cars, and minor track and rolling stock improvements. Small coal stoves were also installed in the cars
to provide heat. Interestingly, in 1879, the city council decided to grant the City Railway company a new thirty-year
franchise, prior to the expiration of the old one. This soon-to-become controversial move would extend the Detroit City
Railway franchise to 1909, instead of the original 1893 date. (see Part 2)
By 1880, the city's population had increased to 116,340, with Detroit now ranked as the nation's 17th largest city. The
following years would again see the city's boarders expand, as portions of the surrounding townships were annexed
to the city, increasing the city's land size to nearly 22.2 square miles. The 1880s would also usher in the launching of
more franchise lines, along with the continued expansion of current routes. A number of smaller suburban lines were
also built, making connections with city routes at the boarder. However, it was also during this period that a number of
the smaller companies would find themselves being bought-out by the city's oldest and largest street railway
company, the Detroit City Railway. Take-overs and buy-outs were so prevalent, that by 1892 only two city-based
companies remained. (also see Part 2)
ALTERNATIVE POWER SOURCES SOUGHT FOR CITY'S STREETCARS:
As Detroit's boundaries began to encompass the areas up to and around the vicinity of the developing Grand
Boulevard, the streetcar companies tried to keep up by extending their lines into these new neighborhoods. However,
the longer routes were becoming much more expensive to maintain using horses. Typically, a horse could only pull a
streetcar for so many miles or hours on a given day, quite often requiring the need for ten horses per each horsecar.
In addition, the housing, feeding and day-to-day care for each horse added to the expense. As a result, a cheaper and
much faster alternative was desperately being sought to propel the cars. Meanwhile, experimentation would soon
begin in the use of electricity, steam, and even storage batteries to power streetcars. But by the late-1880s, the street
railway industry was turning its attention more toward the use of electric overhead power.
On Sept. 1, 1886, the first electric streetcars to begin operating within the city of Detroit began along Dix Avenue (now
known as West Vernor), from 24th Street (where it connected with the Congress and Baker horsecar line) west to
Livernois Avenue (which became the new western city limits in 1885). The line later continued westward into
Springwells Township to Woodmere Cemetery. This new company, known as the Detroit Electric Railway Company,
operated its cars by using an electrical system developed by a Detroit immigrant named Charles J. Van Depoele. The
Van Depoele system, which utilized double overhead wires, was capable of pulling a train of up to three cars. Even
though the system operated quite successfully across the country, it would meet opposition here in Detroit. Public
fear, coupled with complaints over the objectionable rumbling noises and electric arching the system initially
produced from its overhead connection, prompted the Detroit Common Council — citing irregular service concerns —
to order the electric cars withdrawn in 1889. As a result, the city's first electric line had to be converted into a horsecar
line. In 1892, the line would become part of the newly formed Detroit Suburban Railway Company, which was created
by consolidating the area's suburban railway companies.
Around this same time, Detroit's second electric line began operations on Sept. 18, 1886, after Greenfield Township
(along with the city of Detroit) granted a franchise to the Highland Park Railway Company. The route began at the six-
mile-line marker within the then unincorporated village of Highland Park (just north of what is now Manchester), then
traveled southward along the west side of Woodward Avenue through Greenfield Township; then across the Detroit
border at Pallister Avenue to the Grand Trunk Railroad crossing just south of Baltimore Avenue in Detroit. There,
passengers could make connections with the Woodward "horsecar" line. The Highland Park line initially operated
utilizing a slotted third rail type system, but was later converted to an overhead trolley operation in 1889. The line later
became part of the Detroit Suburban Railway Company in 1893.
Meanwhile, the technology in the use of overhead electric trolley operation would improve, and despite a reluctance by
some, the use of electric power to propel streetcars in Detroit would prevail. On Aug. 22, 1892, the electric streetcars
would finally begin on the city-based lines, with electric service beginning first along Jefferson Avenue. Conversion to
electric power on other lines would eventually follow. The last of the horsecars would be removed in November of
1895. (see Part 2)
For over thirty years, horse-drawn streetcars pulled passengers along Detroit's major roadways at a clippity-clop pace
for five cents. The horsecars offered not speed, but comfort and safety. Instead of clattering along the stone and brick
streets, metal wheels on steel rails set into the roadway transported riders with some form of relative calm. The
streetcar made "all-weather" transportation a possibility for the first time along the city's mostly unpaved dirt roads. As
streetcars became more dependable, they were credited with being major contributors to the development of the city's
prosperity and instrumental in building up the outer portions of the city. This more than guaranteed that the clang!
clang! clang! of the streetcar bell would continue on as part of Detroit's transit scene as the city entered the 1890s.
Although major improvements in streetcar service would soon follow, big problems were on the horizon.
See Part 2 for the beginning of the 30-Year War between City Hall and the Streetcar Companies.
The above article was compiled from information acquired from Detroit's Street Railways Vol.I (1863-1922) by Schramm/Henninig (Bulletin
117 CERA); A History of The Detroit Street Railways by Graeme O'Geran; the Detroit Free Press publication: The Detroit Almanac 300
years of life in the Motor City; and other numerous publications and online sources.
FOR MORE ARTICLES ON THE PRE-D.S.R. YEARS SEE: PART-II PART-III PART-IV
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THE PRE–D.S.R. YEARS — Part I
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