“Scranton was a distinctly different place that November day in 1886 when a gaggle of mustachioed men in derby hats mugged for the camera around a gilt-lettered ark tethered to a wire at Wyoming Avenue and Spruce Street.”
So I began my June 18 story in The (Scranton, Pa.) Times-Tribune about plans to commemorate a milestone anniversary in the city’s transit history.
“Quaint and ornate to 21st-century eyes the little four-wheeled streetcar in that famous photo represented cutting-edge technology in 19th-century Scranton,” the tale continues.
“On Nov. 30, 1886, the state-of-the-art system took another leap forward with the first passenger runs of the Scranton Suburban Railway’s electric trolley line between Central City and Green Ridge.”
And a glorious milestone it was, inaugurating electric transit in a growing industrial city well before any of the nation’s powerful burghs had converted their streetcars from lumbering, dung-producing animal power. The quasquicentennial of that November, 1886 milestone will be commemorated with several events in Scranton this year, the first of which was a June 19 ceremony at The Electric City Trolley Station and Museum, as described here by one of my journalistic colleagues.
In my story, I admit I broached a sensitive subject among Scranton trolley enthusiasts. That 1886 Van Depoele electric line was historically significant for several reasons. It survived in continuous operation until 1954, becoming Scranton’s last trolley line, when, as the Green Ridge Suburban route, it closed the streetcar era here on Dec. 18. It is credited with giving Scranton its enduring nickname, “The Electric City.” But was it, as proud locals love to boast, the first?
Well — as is briefly explained in my article — sort of.
Blackpool inaugurated electric street tramway service in September 1885. Montgomery, Ala., was seven months ahead of Scranton but temporarily returned to animal traction as a result of an 1888 fire — and thus was not strictly continuous. Organizers of the Scranton festivities have done well, then, in celebrating the Green Ridge Suburban line as “the first commercially successful and longest operating electric streetcar line in the United States.”
But all of this misses the point. As local historian Cheryl Kashuba points out, Scranton’s early electric cars were indeed in the vanguard of a movement, but more importantly they had a profound impact on the city’s development.
“They gave people of all classes a means of transportation,” Cheryl told me. “Anyone could travel further than their immediate neighborhood to shop or to visit, and the streetcars allowed them to travel further to work, or even to school, opening up more opportunities for employment and education.
“That’s an enormous achievement, and I think we should sing its praises as loudly and as proudly as we can.”
You can read more of Cheryl’s thoughts on Scranton’s pioneer trolley line in this post on her Scranton History blog. Also see vintage 1886 news clippings on the Times-Tribune’s Pages from the Past blog, maintained by my colleague Brian Fulton.