Florida's Largest Trolley System: Jacksonville Traction Co.

April 20, 2007 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Let's take a walk back in time and visit Jacksonville's past. We once had the Jacksonville Traction System, which included operations on the Ortega Traction System and South Jacksonville Municipal Railways. With nealy 60 miles of track, this was by far the largest Streetcar system in Florida (first major system abandoned). Tampa/St. Petersburg (the longest lived), Miami/Coral Gables (Coral Gables used Interurban Cars), and finally Pensacola, rounded out the BIG FOUR systems in the State. There were many others, including small lines in St. Augustine, Palatka and Fernandina Beach, and many more. Welcome Aboard our trip down memory lane!

The above photo was duplicated in many forms, it was circulated around the World and became known as "The Most Beautiful Streetcar Line in the World". Jacksonville jumped on the opportunity and went beyond the grass covered trackage and palms on North Main Street, parts of the line were double tracked and planting of flowers and shrubs joined the garden party.

A very early example of a Single Truck, (ie:4 wheels) Streetcar. The open ends date this as either a "Horse Drawn Trolley Conversion," or among the first powered trolleys in the nation. Interestingly, this photo says it lasted some 30 years, until the end of all Streetcar Service in Jacksonville! This says something of the rugged and simple nature of Trolley Technology, old or new. In a last ditch economy effort before the end of service, Jacksonville received a newer version of these cars in a small fleet of "Single Truck BIRNEY SAFETY CARS." High school boys in Ortega quickly found that by overloading the rear of the car and jumping up and down, they could cause it to derail! The company slapped restrictions on where folks could ride and the problem was solved. Many of the "Safety Cars" run in Heritage lines across the nation without any problems.

How much of this track still lies beneath the streets of Jacksonville? No one really knows for sure. Technical Note: In this early scene they are putting down regular (and fairly heavy) railroad rail, proof enough that it CAN be done with regular railroad products, new, used or even buried. This type of construction disrupts the downtown flow only for a short time. The project in EL RENO, Oklahoma, moved with lightning speed, and they did it the hard way. They completely dug out the rails of the Oklahoma (Electric) Railroad, went down about four feet, put a new roadbed in place, with new track and ballast, then repaved the streets. The net result is beautiful and has brought a "ghost downtown" back to become a major destination in Oklahoma.

The "Double ended, double truck, BIRNEY car" were among the last and most modern cars delivered to Jacksonville. The new T.E.Co. line in Tampa uses an original BIRNEY CAR and also most of the replica fleet are copies of this same design, with AC and ADA alterations. Most of our BIRNEYS ended up in Savannah, Georgia. When they were retired from that system, as in Jacksonville, they were sold at auction for use as sheds. The story goes that there are still several old Jacksonville cars sleeping on concrete blocks, somewhere in the countryside, in an area that stretches from St. Augustine to Savannah.

The old Car Barn in Brooklyn, stood at the South approach to the Acosta Bridge. Used for years as the "Bus Garage" most of the city did not know the tracks were still in the floor. In an upstairs room was a complete archive of the old Traction System, perhaps the most complete this side of Los Angeles and their Pacific Electric.

In the political firestorm over the Skyway, the City was afraid that the "Heritage Trolley," concept would cause the Federal Government to pull the plug on their "free people-mover". With the JTA moving into it's new HQ, the Trolley Barn was quickly sealed off. Seems it was in the way of the "NEW" Acosta bridge approaches. Several City Councilmen, Eric Smith and Jim Wells, amoung them hosted a televised meeting at the Trolley Barn, with some of the original "Motormen" of the old JTCo. The idea was to save the oldest part, the part showing in this photo, and use it for a Trolley Museum with a Heritage Line.

On the day of the event, we saw the place was stripped clean. An elderly man came to me with an accountant ledger from Jacksonville Traction. As he gave me the book, I asked him, "Where did you get this?" He stared at the ground and said, "I know it was wrong, but yesterday they had me take ALL of the records to the Northside Landfill, I'd be fired if they knew I took a book!" With all the Television Crews, The Times-Union, and a fair size crowd present in the giant old building, you COULD have heard a pin drop. We even mounted a "Dump Dig" but nothing was ever recovered. This made it's mark and endeared me to the JTA forever.

This is a "Railroad Builders Photo," of a brand new "Single ended, double truck, BIRNEY," these cars could only be used on a route with a turning "loop" at the ends. Single enders were rare on Street Railroads and only slightly more common on Interurban's. Wonder where this car is today? Is it gone, or is it rusting beneath the Palms? In retrospect, why, oh why, did the City and State, allow us to lose that rail line to the Beaches?

Our own SOUTH JACKSONVILLE MUNI RY., operated from the Car Barns, over the old Acosta bridge into San Marco and San Jose, at the time, it reached far out into the country. The City of South Jacksonville also had a typical attraction found on early streetcar lines, a brilliantly lit "Trolley Park" complete with thrill rides. The line leading to the park would be illuminated with electric street lights and were called "White-Ways". Beach Blvd. is an example of the first major non-trolley "White Way" in the County, but while there was no Trolley line, there WAS the Florida East Coast, Jacksonville Beach/Mayport branchline until about WWII.

Forsyth, Bay, and Main Street all had massive junctions and track work. With a sharp eye, compare this rail with the older track photo above. By this time they were no longer using railroad rail, and had relaid the downtown track with the much heavier trolley type "Chair Rail". While standard rail is roughly "T" shaped, trolley Chair Rail was "U" shaped. The reason for this was it did not need coping stones or brick work for the wheel flange ways. While very expensive, it prevented pavement chipping.

Giant electric utility company "Stone and Webster" also had a Streetcar management division. They operated the Jacksonville system under a contract. Along with Stone and Webster, came the "big cars", the classic "TURTLEBACKS." For years and years, a huge old Turtleback rested just a couple of blocks North of Beaver Street in the West Side. The doors still worked on it and the craftsmanship of the wood work was incredible. When the idea for a Heritage Trolley hit the papers, the City served notice on the old cars owner that he must remove it or be fined.

They attacked it with chain saws and it was quickly reduced to sawdust. The McKinney Avenue Heritage Trolley in Dallas uses an original Turtleback in daily operations. The old car (which might have some Jacksonville roots) has stacked up the miles and the City says it is as reliable as any of the new LRV´s, and MORE so then any of the City's buses.

The Billie Burke Special, from Jacksonville's years as the "Hollywood" of the East. Billie Burke was a famous actress of the time, She starred in The Father of the Bride, and as Glenda The Good Witch, in the Wizard of OZ, fame enough to charter a Streetcar for promotional purposes. This appears to be another Turtleback car.

Besides charters and tours, in the days before automobiles were common, Trolley lines almost all had "Funeral Cars". These were rolling palaces of stained glass, wood and velvet. They had a small compartment for the coffin and plenty of room for the mourners. Evergreen Cemetary is a prime example of a "Trolley Cemetery".

Today, we constantly ask "Where are all the people downtown?" Well this is evidence enough that when Jacksonville rode the trolleys, we had a crowded city. This is the double track line on Forsyth Street, with two large Turtleback's approaching the photographer. From here lines spread to: Riverside, Avondale, Ortega, Murray Hill, McDuff at Edison, Phoenix, Fairfield, Panama Park, Myrtle, Pearl, Springfield, Beaver, Moncrief, San Marco, San Jose and many more locations throughout the city. Even the infamous Myrtle Street Underpass had a Trolley line through the middle of it! Looking at it today, the center is filled with concrete, but one can still see the center arches and passageway where the trolleys passed.

How do you get a Trolley over the river? Well the photo shows the old way across, the double track line went over the Acosta Bridge. Bridge of the Lions also had a double track trolley line as did the old Ortega Bridge, on occasion, between refurbishing's, the rails start to show themselves on these last two bridges. True today, some system of rebuild would need to accommodate the trolley into the Southbank. Engineers could possibly retrofit the Main Street Bridge, another opportunity might occur with any new Mathews Bridge construction.

End of the Line for Jacksonville Traction, Oddly this sign was found in Springfield after World War II. The last vestiges of the old system are finally surrendered to the Big Orange Bus. With it went a way of life, something other cities have sought to recapture. Using Heritage Rail as a back door into Light Rail is a wonderful way to start. Little Rock, Tampa, Dallas, Memphis and other city's have now taken this low dollar approach, one for under 4 million dollars per mile.

The strength of Light Rail is it's flexibility. Commuter Rail can NOT run downtown, in street, or curbside. The same is true for large DMU units. Light Rail on the other hand, if properly built and planned CAN run on railroad track. There are even newer Light Rail Vehicles that are Diesel Powered (electric is an option) and fully railroad compliant. So with an heritage line in place, we could add futuristic new LRV's as time and money permit. They COULD operate over our Heritage line as well as LRT or even some of the old freight trackage, a railroad compliant LRV could go anyplace.


This guest column was written by Robert W. Mann, a Jacksonville transportation consultant currently residing in Colombia, South America.

Photos courtesy of the State Photographic Archives and R. Mann Collection.