Ballston Spa Life
History Lesson: Trolleys in Ballston Spa enjoy brief popularity
Ballston Spa Life
BALLSTON SPA — America in the early 1800s was a fundamentally different society than it is today. Only a few million people lived in the young country, and only about 1 in 20 lived in a city. At a time when cities were small, people of means used a horse and buggy to get around; people who didn’t have a horse simply made due with walking.
As cities grew in size, getting around them became increasingly difficult. Some form of public transportation was needed to allow cities to spread out into industrial and suburban neighborhoods. The first street transportation vehicle was called an “omnibus.” These were horse-drawn cars that differed from the traditional stagecoaches in that they had designated routes and were low-cost to passengers. Building metal rails into the street and fitting the cars with special wheels soon improved upon this method.
The first successful improvement over horse-drawn cars was the development of cable cars. A London-born businessman named Andrew Hallidie came up with a system that used cables embedded under the street to move the cars. To convert a horse-drawn line to a cable system, a ditch would be dug between the rails, and then a chamber was installed to hold the cable. The long cable, sometimes stretching for thousands of feet, would be spliced together in a large loop that covered the car’s entire route. It proved to be the most reliable system yet tested, and by 1890 cable railways were in 28 cities, with 5,000 cars in operation.
Around 1880, cities began to look for alternatives to the cable car. Perhaps the first successful experiment took place locally, when inventor Leo Daft constructed a 2-ton electric locomotive that pulled a standard railroad coach with 75 people up a two percent grade on the Saratoga, Mt. McGregor and Lake George Railroad.
After repeated problems with a system using a third rail for power, the switch was made to an overhead wire system. Current was collected by a four-wheeled carriage that rode on the wires and was connected to the car by a flexible cable. The device was called a “troller” after the way it was towed behind the car, which eventually evolved into the name “trolley.”
This system proved to be the most economical and successful. The Department of Commerce took a census in 1890 and found that only 1,300 miles of track were electrically operated. By 1902, that number had risen to 22,000 miles. Much of this growth came from horse and cable railways converting to electricity. But a more fundamental shift was also occurring. Because the electric trolley was so inexpensive to operate and proved to be reliable in almost any conditions, the total amount of track nearly tripled during that time.
At the turn of the century, trolleys were carrying 5 billion passengers, more than seven times the number of passengers carried by steam railroads. This led some to predict that trolleys would take the place of steam railroads for all passenger traffic. For example, in 1915, the Hudson Valley Railway provided 35 cars daily between Troy, Mechanicville, Saratoga, Ballston Spa, Hudson Falls, and Glens Falls compared to 21 northbound and 16 southbound trains provided by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad.
At the peak of operations in 1917, electric traction had reached 26,000 miles of trackage, transporting 11 billion passengers per year in 60,000 trolley cars. Virtually every city of any size or consequence had an electric railway. The fact that Ballston Spa, with only about 5,000 people, was served by three trolley lines in the early 1900s gives some indication of their popularity.
Unfortunately, the electric railway system became a victim of bad timing. It was efficient in its day, but the idea was conceived too late in history to give it a chance to become entrenched. The trolley, with its fixed path and schedule, could not compete with bus and auto developments that gave people more freedom of movement. As automobile ownership moved from the ranks of the well-to-do in the 1920s to commonplace in the 1940s, local governments soon realized that the trolley was a dead-end form of transportation, and rapidly closed them down. But during their brief existence, electric trolley lines helped develop the economies of the cities they served by offering fast and reliable passenger, express, and mail service.
Excerpts of this article were taken from Starr’s book “The Ballston Terminal Railroad and its Successors,” available at the Brookside Museum. For more information, see www.HistoryOfSaratoga.com.