Past Times

Development of electricity, street cars in Raleigh took a while

This “mule car” was renovated and repainted for parades in the 1940s.
This “mule car” was renovated and repainted for parades in the 1940s. N&O file photo

The path to progress can sometimes be bumpy. In 1958, writer J. A. Seay reviewed the events that brought electricity, and streetcar service, to Raleigh.

The little group in the old North Carolina Car Company shops waited importantly for the ceremony to begin.

History would be made before the evening was much older, and two small boys in the party would help make it.

Finally, the machinery began to whir. At a few minutes past 6 p.m., December 3, 1885, Master Frederick C. Olds, the 6-year-old son of the city editor of The News and Observer, pulled a switch. Lights flashed on inside downtown buildings and stores.

Seconds later, Master Robert L. Gray, son of the president of the electric light company, pulled a second switch and light shone on the Capitol, in the market, outside Miller’s wine, lunch and billiards rooms.

“The city gets a very great brightening up,” The News and Observer reported. “Raleigh leads the State in being the first to have an electric light.”

The demonstration was marred only by a minor mechanical failure. The belt driving one of the dynamos was too slack, so the two sets of lights – those switched on by Master Olds and those switched on by Master Gray – could not be operated at the same time.…

The city was accustomed to lighted streets and stores. It had a gas company and a rather extensive gas lighting system, but electric lights clearly were the coming thing. Moreover, merchants at once recognized that electric lights were an exploitable sales feature.…

The electric light was finally an actuality in Raleigh, the paper noted proudly. Night was turned to day.

The demonstration was the consequence of a three-year exclusive franchise which Raleigh’s city aldermen granted … to C. M. McNett of Washington, D. C.

McNett and his colleagues had arranged with the North Carolina Car Company for the power to turn their dynamos for their initial operations. They could not have hoped for better results. Nor could they have suspected the trouble that would strike so quickly.

The car company was building cars for the not yet operative Raleigh Street Railway Company. Its shops were located near the old Johnson Street station, off Halifax Street, not far from the present location of the Seaboard station. R. F. Hoke, the car company president, and W. E. Ashley, its superintendent, were among the best known and most important businessmen in town.

The car company had a powerful and handsome 100 horsepower steam engine which seemed more than capable of meeting the electric company’s needs. On December 14, less than two weeks after service was inaugurated, the engine blew a cylinder head.…

By the first week of January 1886, McNett’s system was running again and McNett was organizing electric service in Durham.… but the the system was not long to survive. Its Lynn, Mass., plant became the nucleus of the present General Electric Company; the balance of it, like 50 other lighting systems brought forward in electricity’s early years, succumbed to the growing popularity of the Edison incandescent system.

The Edison System would not arrive in Raleigh until after the Texas mules. Approximately 100 of these small, rabbit-eared animals were brought to town as motive power for the city’s first street cars and quickly became known as Texas rats.

The street car project was put over by two Texas promoters, Col. J. F. Scott and G. M. Snodgrass. They ordered four cars from North Carolina Car Company, laid four miles of narrow gauge track, and began hauling passengers with considerable ceremony and excitement on Christmas Day of 1886.

The system was not a smashing success.…. Within four years after they had begun operating, the mule cars were out of business. The mules were returned to Texas and a reorganized Raleigh Street Railway Company negotiated for electric car service.

The collapse of the street car company was not brightened by the disappointingly slow development of electric service. The Thomson-Houton Company and its arc lights obviously didn’t have the answer and the company finally was absorbed in 1889 by the older Raleigh Gas Light Company which then undertook to provide both gas and electric lighting to its customers.…

The limited lighting service whetted Raleigh’s appetite for electricity. Unlighted neighborhoods petitioned the aldermen for street lights. There was a “hustling to get electric lights” into Stronach’s warehouse in time for the 1890 State Democratic Convention.

Raleigh Cotton Mills signed a lighting contract that October. There was growing talk of an electric street railway. …

On September 1, 1891, the long-awaited electric car service was inaugurated. The first trip ran eastward along Hillsborough Street, around Capitol Square, down Fayetteville Street, to a depot on Cabarrus Street and then back out to Brookside Park.

One accident marred opening day: Mrs. M. F. King, waiting in a buggy near the State Agriculture Building, to watch the car pass, was injured when her horse bolted and she was forced to jump. The N&O July 13, 1958

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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