Once Upon a Time

Riding early streetcars could be an adventure

This undated photo shows parked electric streetcars at Sixth and Hampshire streets. The group is unknown but could be the owners and employees of the streetcar company. | Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Jan. 26, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Jan. 26, 2020 12:47 am

Quincy had some form of trolley transportation beginning in 1865 when the line began at about Fifth and Maine streets and went north for more than a mile to Locust Street, and by 1869, a branch went east on Maine Street to the fairgrounds at 30th and Maine.

By 1879, additional lines reached near Woodland Cemetery on South Fifth and were inching along State Street and Broadway. Sixty Missouri mules pulled the 15 cars in service and the jingling of bells on their harnesses provided notice of their impending arrival. The drivers carried long whips to encourage the mules, but according to The Daily Herald of December 1905, "…not infrequently the mules would break loose and run away, delaying traffic and inconveniencing passengers."

In 1889 The Daily Whig reported that a deputation from Quincy went to Peoria to inspect that city's newfangled electric streetcar system. The group saw a Thomas-Houston system of double-ended cars that were powered by overhead wires and electric tracks. The car had a spring-mounted arm that reached up to an electric wire running down the center of the street at a height of 18 1/2 feet. This center wire was held in place by cross wires from poles planted every 115 feet on each side of the street. It was noted that the poles and wires offer no obstruction and "…strike the observer favorable rather than unfavorably."

To complete the circuit, underground wires carried electricity to the rails. A crank supplied the power, and a separate brake lever stopped the cars. Peoria ordinance mandated a 6 mph speed limit, although the cars were said to have a maximum speed of 40 mph on the flat.

It was a great day in Quincy on Jan. 1, 1891, when the first electric streetcar was put into service, albeit with mixed results. News of the trial run reached the public who thronged the streets to witness this wonder, and it was not disappointed. The first car carried streetcar company officials around Washington Park at Fifth and Maine streets at a sedate speed because of the crowds in the streets walking alongside. Farther down Maine where the tracks were clearer, speed increased, and flashing electric sparks of red and green occasionally flew from the wheels, frightening horses and delighting spectators.

City streets were cleaned twice a year, and horses and mule droppings, and dirt and dust and debris were common. These hazards were easily handled by pedestrians and other horses and mules, but electric car tracks were not as forgiving. Accumulated dirt would break the circuit, bringing the cars to a halt until the motorman and conductor left the car and swept it away. This process was repeated over and over on the first days of operation. Eventually, street conditions improved.

Hills also could prove to be a problem, especially a large one on Broadway before it was leveled. The streetcar would provide an exciting run down the hill, but sometimes burned out a bearing trying to ascend. In that case, it would have to be rescued, pulled up to the top and towed in for repairs to the garage at 20th and Maine. Ice and especially sleet caused other problems and often required the tracks to be sanded for additional traction.

The fare of 5 cents was collected by a conductor who walked in the middle of the car, which was open to the weather, and it was necessary to attract his attention when you wished the car to halt at a certain stop. This was sometimes difficult to do, and in the case of winter weather, the car was apt to slide past the desired stop if the rails were icy.

By 1895 improvements were made to the cars with hard coal stoves to replace the little electric ones that often burned out, as well as electric push buttons mounted below the windows to signal a desired stop.

In 1901 the city found it necessary to address a problem with the many and various type of poles along the city streets, and passed Ordinance 2. It read, in part, "… no person shall paste, stick up, paint, brand or stamp, or in any manner whatsoever put upon any tree, or tree-box, or telegraph, telephone, electric light or electric street car pole, or post, situated in any public place in this city any written, printed, or painted, or other advertisement, bill, notice, sign, card, or poster." Fines were set at a minimum of $3, with a maximum fee of $20.

Travel by streetcar was far from safe and accident free. Injuries could happen when people attempted to jump on or off the early-model cars while they were moving. Later, enclosed cars that could only be boarded or exited by a door controlled by the operator solved most of this problem. There were accidents when the sparks thrown by the wheels and bearings frightened horse or mule teams on the street. Car and auto accidents increased as more cars joined traffic. Sometimes the streetcar couldn't stop in time, but at other times, the fault was with the auto. In 1912 Harry O. Channon, driving his daughter along Spring Street hear 20th Street failed to stop and plowed into a streetcar traveling south on 20th. The streetcar was knocked off the tracks, and the auto "suffered a slight fracture of the fenders, but was able to proceed downtown under its own power," according to the Oct. 7, 1912, issue of The Daily Journal.

It was duly noted that, had the streetcar been full to capacity, it likely would have held the track and the auto been more severely damaged.

Travel on Quincy's streets was an adventure.


Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill. She is a former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.



"Auto Makes Street Car Take the Count," Quincy Daily Journal, Oct. 7, 1912.


"Electric Street Cars," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 29, 1880.


"Ordinance No. 2," Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 3, 1901.


"Presents for Old Employes (sic)," Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 5, 1905.


"Street Cars on the Slide," Quincy Daily Herald, Feb. 13, 1910.


"Superb Improvements for Our Street Cars," Quincy Daily Journal, Dec. 5, 1895.


The Streetcar System, "Historical Sketches of Quincy Illinois," Carl Landrum, Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Ill., p. 83.


"The Old Reporter Lights His Pipe," Quincy Daily Herald, July 20, 1917.