The Trolley Transforms Transit: A Moment in the History of Transportation

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Drawing of the front of a trolley car

The story of the trolley car. July Century. George Frederick Scotson-Clark, 1905

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress launched a new primary source set highlighting some of the ways transportation has changed over time. One interesting way to examine how these changes have affected individual citizens is by analyzing oral histories.

Consider this “oral history with a 85 year old white female, Concord Massachusetts,” available both as a recording and written transcript. Ask students to examine this history, focusing on the following question prompts:

  • What modes of transportation are mentioned by the speaker?
  • What time period is covered?
  • How are changes in transportation technology important to the speaker?

Students will no doubt identify multiple modes of transportation, many of which were employed during the same time period. These include bicycles, trains, electric cars, and automobiles, as well as a “horse-drawn barge,” which could be fitted with wheels or runners (for snow), and which served as the speaker’s school bus. Support students in noting that the oral history was recorded in 1977, when she was aged 85. Simple calculations place the speaker’s birth at around 1892,  providing a rough historical context.

Of the various transportation forms mentioned, the electric car seems to have held special significance to the speaker, who noted her isolated life in the country. “The electric car revolutionized country travel,” she said, “It brought people to Concord and took people out of Concord. It was a very happy day when the electric cars came especially for the women. It made them more independent. They could go anywhere themselves.” One prime entertainment destination for the speaker was Lexington Park, “on the Lexington-Bedford line.” This reference to the Lexington-Bedford line implies that electric cars are what we refer to as trolley cars, which ran on rails out to remote locations, and which spawned early suburban development. According to the speaker, trolleys were only the beginning of this ever increasing mobility and societal change. “When the automobile came, people could then go to more distant spots, and the park didn’t last long after that.” (Note: If you wish to limit reading or listening to just the electric car, you might assign only the first paragraphs on pages 9 and 12). 

For additional insights, encourage students to explore other references to the trolley car in the primary source set. For example:

  • This 1902 video of New York City, which shows horses, automobiles and trolleys sharing the street. What might students learn from the video about the trolley’s impact on urban citizens?
  • This early 20th century map of Baltimore, which shows trolley trips in and out of the city. What might the map imply about issues of equity as development occurs? Hint: imagine that you lived in an area not served by the trolley car.

Finally, ask students to think about what transportation forms make a difference in their own lives. What do they think it would have been like to live during the time covered in this oral history?

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