Reproduced from Lynch's Ferry, Spring 2010,
available at Blackwell Press, 311 Rivermont Ave.

Historic Photo of a Trolly

“Trolley” evokes a quaint, bygone era to those of us today who are even acquainted with the term. We have to remember that whole generations have had no first-hand experience with this delightful form of transportation, unless they have been fortunate enough to visit San Diego, New Orleans, or some of the foreign cities such as Toronto where trolleys still exist. But from the late 1800s until the 1950s, trolleys were the epitome of sophisticated urban transit in many American cities—and Lynchburg was no exception.

“Trolley,” “trolley car,” “streetcar,” and less frequently “tram,” are used interchangeably. These vehicles are rail-borne, and generally are of lighter construction than conventional trains. Trolleys are designed primarily to convey passengers and run within urban areas or between them. Trolley tracks normally run on street surfaces, as compared with elevated trains that run above ground level and subway trains that run below ground level.

The predecessor of the trolley in Lynchburg—and, indeed, in cities of most of the world—was the horse-drawn streetcar. The advantage of drawing a vehicle on steel rails becomes evident if one remembers the rough, unpaved street surfaces of the mid-1800s, when pulling a vehicle on rails was first introduced. Add to this, the problem was compounded by ice, snow, and rain that churned the streets into mud. Even cobblestone streets offered a lot more resistance, slippage and bumps to the steel-rimmed wheels of a horse-drawn vehicle than did smooth, steel rails. It was relatively easy to lay ties and rails on existing street surfaces, and that is exactly what downtown Lynchburg did in 1880.

However, the street railway on Rivermont Avenue was always powered by electricity. Most cities, Lynchburg included, quickly converted their horse-drawn systems to electricity after the first practical demonstration of the new powered cars—which, by coincidence, happened to occur in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887. The word “trolley,” is thought to derive from “troller.” The troller was the earliest form of device used to convey electric power from overhead wires to the motors that powered the vehicles. The troller was soon replaced by the trolley pole. This pole was attached to the top of the rail car and was spring-loaded in order to maintain constant contact between the overhead electric wire and a grooved wheel at the end of the trolley pole. Some trolley cars had a pole at each end so that one was lowered and the other raised to reverse direction. Other trolleys had a single pole that rotated to accommodate reversing the direction of the car.

It is hard for us today to think of urban public transportation as the responsibility of anyone other than municipal government. But that is very much a 20th-century concept. Private businesses and entrepreneurs, such as land developers, were the driving force behind most early urban transit systems. The commercial need to get the public from their homes to areas to shop, to work, and to relax, was the driving force. Municipalities contracted, chartered, and tried to regulate urban transit, but seldom initiated it. Land development companies opened outlying areas to housing, and in some cases also provided the means for people to get to and from these areas. These land developers created suburbs and urban expansion; in the 1890s, Rivermont was to be one of those new suburbs.

The Rivermont Land Company (RLC), a consortium of local businessmen and investors, was part of a development boom that was occurring in central Virginia in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Lynchburg, as much of the area, was moving away from tobacco and into manufacturing and development. The RLC built the first bridge over Blackwater Creek as the most direct route to the area that it planned to develop. RLC also engaged in other late 19th-century land development plans such as building retail and recreation areas, parks, and schools—in RLC’s case, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College—as well as street railways to reach them.

Unfortunately, boom was followed by bust for Lynchburg, as well as for the rest of the nation in the early 1890s. The RLC was facing the same problems as Lynchburg’s other land companies as the economy began to falter. Despite those problems, work progressed on the trolley system. The route for the electric railway on Rivermont Avenue was settled. Grading (the process of leveling the street surface) started in November 1890, even before the bridge was complete. The bridge opened to traffic in May 1891, by which time most of the track had been laid.

The first rail cars arrived in July 1891, the same month that the electric plant that was to supply power to the overhead cables was completed. By the end of July 1891, service was established from Fifth Street to Rivermont Park located at Belvedere Street (currently the 2900 block of Rivermont Avenue), not to be confused with the current Riverside Park. Prior to 1907, the trolley car barn serving the line was located at 401 Rivermont Avenue, currently Reggie Phelps Auto Service. The present owner believes that at least a portion of the current building is the original barn.

By the spring of 1892, the RLC collapsed as economic alarm began to spread, eventually to become the nation-wide Panic of 1893. Luckily, in anticipation of financial problems, RLC wisely split off the rail line as a separate entity. This move to protect itself had the fortunate effect of saving the rail line as well as the future of the Rivermont area.

Given the economic times, the newly formed and independent Lynchburg and Rivermont Street Railway Company (L&RSRCo) did quite well. The railway was reliable, popular, and specialized in recreational traffic. The line terminated at Rivermont Park, which L&RSRCo purchased from the now defunct RLC in 1894. Such a large part of the line’s ridership went to Rivermont Park that L&RSRCo invested in major improvements to the Park. The line carried over 5,000 passengers on July 4th 1892, alone. The Company enlarged the pavilion, which included a roller rink—they even built a roller coaster. L&RSRCo sponsored a Rivermont baseball team, which played on a field located at Rivermont Avenue and Huron Street. The ball field was later converted into horse grounds in an effort to lure the annual agricultural fair away from the area of City Park (now Miller Park), which was served by the rival Lynchburg Street Railway (LSR).

Wooden poles lined both sides of Rivermont Avenue. Cables connected each pole with its counterpart across the street at a height of approximately 15 to 20 feet. From these cables, two power lines were suspended, running parallel with the rails on Rivermont Avenue. Rivermont Avenue was the first trolley line in Lynchburg with two sets of rails to allow two-way trolley traffic, requiring an overhead power line for each set of tracks that ran to and from downtown.

In its earliest form, the Rivermont line started at Fifth Street and was single-tracked for several hundred feet until the beginning of the Rivermont Bridge. There, the line became double-tracked—a set of rails was provided for each direction of traffic—with the rails set parallel to the wooden decking that surfaced the 472-foot span of the bridge. That span was the longest stretch of flat trackage on the entire Rivermont system. Given the hilly nature of Rivermont Avenue, the two sets of rails were raised in some places as much as three feet above street level. This was to ease the grade of the climb and descent that trolley cars had to make on their journey. That meant that a mound ran down the middle of the Avenue carrying the two sets of tracks. Alongside the trolley right-of-way, the railway shared the unpaved street with horse-drawn vehicles and later, with motorized vehicles.

The raised right-of-way was so high on sections of Rivermont Avenue that passengers could not climb into the trolleys. The only level spots were platforms with steps at certain stops and the level surface between the pairs of tracks. Passengers had to wait for and enter the trolley on the surface between the tracks.

Before 1900, the Rivermont trolleys ran every ten minutes in the summer, and every 15 to 20 minutes in the winter. When first established, service was provided from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. A trolley ride in 1900 from the post office, then located at Court and Ninth Street, to Rivermont Park took 18 minutes.

During its lifetime, the Rivermont line had a number of different styles of trolley cars. From the beginning, all styles were fitted with headlights. These cars had wooden bodies until 1929. The carriage frame, suspension system and four wheels were steel. Most, if not all cars had double-ended controls; that is, there was a throttle for the electric motors, and brake control for the air brake at each end of the car. When the operator wanted the car to go in the opposite direction, he walked to the other end of the trolley; there, he inserted specially fitted throttle and brake handles into sockets on the controls. Early cars had open platforms at each end where the motorman stood. These platforms remained open if the car was an open car; open cars consisted of a series of benches running the width of the car, and passengers could enter from either side of the trolley. Presumably, the open cars were run seasonally. The early closed cars had open platforms for the operators, but enclosed seating for the passengers with an aisle running down the center of the car. Passenger windows could be opened, as needed. Around 1900, longer trolleys appeared. These cars enclosed the passenger seating as well as the motorman’s controls. The longer cars usually had eight wheels and a set of doors at each end. The wooden roofs of these cars were slightly domed and covered with waterproofed fabric. These early cars had a second, smaller raised roof surrounded by glass panels, some of which could be opened. This style of double roof allowed better ventilation and daylight in the cars. The trolley pole extended from the top of this roof. The clearstory roof—or “monitor” roof (named after the Civil War ironclad)—gave the early trolleys their characteristic look.

There was a great deal of competition among Lynchburg’s street railways. In fact, the Rivermont line created a great public relations coup when it heated its closed cars in December 1894. Each of the rail lines owned its own tracks, power-generation plants, and equipment. In January 1894, the Rivermont line—which started at Fifth Street—wanted to expand into the city. To do so, it had to run its track on Church Street because the rival LSR already had its tracks on Main Street.

This first extension of the Rivermont line was intended to serve the Presbyterian Cemetery. The L&RSRCo trumped competing lines by laying its track along Church Street, up Diamond Hill on Washington Street, to Grace Street, where it then turned left and continued to Maple Street, ending at the Cemetery entrance. Therefore, the Rivemont Line secured two, heretofore unserviced areas, the Presbyterian Cemetery and Diamond Hill. All of this extension was single-tracked, meaning that when the trolley reached the Cemetery, it more than likely reversed direction and returned on the same track. How ironic that Diamond Hill was served by a rail line built to serve a community on the other side of Blackwater Creek!

As we observed, competition among the three trolley companies to serve the city’s commercial, residential, and recreational destinations caused an imbalanced service to the people of Lynchburg. Some parts of the city had redundant lines, while others had none. In 1901, the Lynchburg Street Railway Company, the Lynchburg Electric Railway and Light Company, and the Lynchburg & Rivermont Street Railway Company were absorbed by the newly formed Lynchburg Traction and Light Company (LT&L). The mastermind behind the amalgamation was Lynchburg resident and philanthropist R. D. Apperson.

For the purposes of this article, we will continue to narrow our focus to Rivermont Avenue. The new company set about expanding service and eliminating duplication. The old L&RSR Co. services east of Fifth Street were reexamined in perspective of other lines and were reorganized. Rivermont Avenue rail service continued to focus on recreational efforts at Rivermont Park, as well as YMCA Island, which opened at the foot of Fredonia Street in 1912. Other destinations were Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and commercial areas located in the 1200 block and 2400 block of Rivermont Avenue. It was at this time that the new and larger wooden cars were introduced by LT&L.

The newly amalgamated company also introduced a consistent 12-minute schedule on all of the city’s street railway lines. This schedule remained fairly consistent until the trolley system’s demise. In 1901, LT&L also extended service from 6 a.m. until midnight, with reduced service late at night.

In 1913, the Rivermont line was extended to the new Peakland Place subdivision built on land purchased from Presbyterian Orphans Home (now Presbyterian Home and Family Services). While extending the line from Rivermont Park to Peakland Place, an issue between LT&L and the city became exacerbated. The tracks in the middle of Rivermont, especially the raised areas, were a traffic problem. The ever-increasing numbers of automobile drivers found the tracks and their raised surface to be a danger and an impediment. Vehicles could not readily make a left turn because of the trolley tracks on their raised bed. Vehicles had to proceed to a cross street on Rivermont where the tracks were lower or a ramp allowed passage over the trolley right of way. A compromise between the city and LT&L resulted in the Rivermont tracks being lowered to street level and the entire width of the Avenue paved from Rivermont Park to the Rivermont Bridge. Finally, the extension of the line to Peakland Place was completed as part of the compromise.

The double track was extended from Rivermont Park to Oakwood Place, but the track areas were unpaved. Originally, the parkway in the middle of Peakland Place (which is still there today) was intended to have two sets of tracks, similar to the rest of the Rivermont line. Instead, a single set of tracks was laid, with a loop at the end of the line in Peakland. The loop was seldom used because the trolley simply reversed direction upon reaching the end of the street. The cars backtracked down the single set of rails to the place where the double tracks began and continued toward downtown.

During World War I, LT&L managed to continue using existing equipment, but maintenance and labor costs continued to rise. LT&L was restrained from increasing fares beyond 5 cents a ride by its original 1901 franchise agreement with the city. This made it impossible to offset the increased costs with fare increases. To compound problems, Apperson died in 1913. As long as Apperson managed LT&L, the affairs and needs of the city and its residents were considered in company decisions. When Apperson passed away, management of LT&L passed into the hands of its parent company, a Philadelphia group called American Railways Company.

With absentee owners, the concern for local issues and needs began to wane. World War I to the 1920s, was a period of decline for LT&L. This decline continued when American Railways Company was sold to Appalachian Electric Power Company (AEP) in 1926. In that year, AEP absorbed the electric-generation assets owned by LT&L. LT&L was now exclusively a transit operation. LT&L was sold again in 1928. Again, absentee owners acquired it, this time the Chicago-based Central Public Service (CPS).

CPS was prepared to play hardball with the city and offered what was, in fact, a list of demands in July 1928. CPS threatened to abandon the entire rail system if it could not be revamped into a revenue-generating operation once again. CPS demanded:

    a fare increase;

    release from any further financial obligations to pave track areas;

    the right to run one-man cars.

In return, CPS would supply a fleet of new modern cars, replace the Main Street car barn, move its tracks, (but not pay for paving) in projected improvements. On Rivermont Avenue, this referred to the extended track laid beyond Belvedere Avenue and Rivermont Park to Peakland Place, where there was still unpaved street, open track, and a center strip between the tracks.

The city did not oppose a fare increase in 1928. Tickets were now to be 7 cents, cash; tokens at 25 cents for four; and weekly, unlimited rides at one dollar. No new equipment had been purchased by LT&L since 1911. The new cars purchased by CPS were Brill Master units, the most modern streetcar design at the time and the last style of car to run on Lynchburg street railways.

The new cars were all steel construction and very sleek in design. They were 40 feet long and had interiors very similar to today’s buses. The motorman had a stationary seat in the front of the trolley next to the front doors. As you entered these doors, there was a fare box; therefore, as in today’s buses, the new cars could be operated by one person, eliminating the need and expense of a conductor. The rear doors, which were operated by the motorman, were for exiting the car.

The biggest issue on Rivermont Avenue had always been paving the track areas. Traditionally, cities had the right to require street railways to pave track areas within their city limits. In Lynchburg, this practice was complicated by the fact that much of the track was not within the city limits when it was originally laid. The city annexed these areas and tracks only later. CPS argued that Rivermont Avenue presented a unique situation. This became a court issue, with CPS claiming that its predecessors had originally opened Rivermont Avenue, and then gave it to the city; therefore, CPS had vested interest in the street itself and could do as it pleased with the track area. The courts settled in favor of CPS. A compromise between the company and city stipulated annual payments by CPS toward the city’s paving of track areas for the next fourteen years.

In 1929, the Rivermont Avenue track area from Belvedere to Oakwood Country Club was finally paved. Now, for the first time, the entire length of Rivermont Avenue was paved—and the tracks set at street level—from Rivermont Bridge to Peakland Place. However, the city now wanted to repave the Avenue from Belvedere to the Bridge because it was beginning to fall into disrepair.

The Great Depression hit in October 1929. The city of Lynchburg and CPS found themselves in financial straits. The proposed repaving of Rivermont Avenue was postponed in 1929 and again in 1932. In 1937, the renewal of tracks and repaving of Rivermont Avenue was becoming critical. Also, the franchise was due to be renewed because it was set to expire in 1942. Government funds from gasoline taxes were available for highway construction. Lynchburg saw an opportunity for the repaving of Rivermont Avenue to be underwritten; however, the Roosevelt administration stipulated that no funds would be allocated to the reconstruction of streets containing streetcar lines.

As the city expanded, the question of initiating bus lines versus rail lines was an issue. Bus routes were added to meet the ends of the trolley lines and carried passengers to the newer residential areas of Lynchburg. In 1936, CPS petitioned the city to convert a rail line to bus to accommodate a newly developed part of Lynchburg. The demise of Lynchburg’s rail service began, therefore, because CPS found it easier to extend service to new areas with buses rather than build extensions of its rail lines. H.E. Cox proposes that CPS—not the city of Lynchburg—began the demise of street rail. In fact, the city council feared a sudden, total abandonment of its street rail lines. CPS wanted a gradual conversion from rail to bus — with much of its rolling stock less than ten years old and much of the track in generally good condition, CPS wanted to amortize the value of its investment before abandoning it in favor of new vehicles and a new transit mode.

By 1937, news that federal funds for Rivermont Avenue repaving could be gotten if the rail lines were removed began to weaken resolve in city council. Even though city council did extend the rail franchise to 1952, they apparently did so with much contention. An ominous note of forewarning was part of that extended franchise. This stated that CPS would have to substitute its Rivermont Avenue rail line with buses on six months’ notice from the city.

Because of the long-postponed need to repave Rivermont Avenue, the city quickly exercised its notification option. CPS was given due notice, and the last trolley car on Rivermont Avenue ran early on the morning of 7 August 1938. The buses were substituted on Rivermont Avenue later that day.

The cessation of the Rivermont trolley line had a domino effect on Lynchburg’s street railway system. According to CPS’s franchise, the remaining trolley lines could have continued service until 1952. However, CPS management felt that running a mixed transit system of trolleys and buses was uneconomical in a city the size of Lynchburg. In spring of 1941, the decision was made to abandon the remaining street railway lines within the year.

With war clouds looming on the horizon, and rearmament beginning to take priority with U.S. manufacturers, CPS hurried Lynchburg’s conversion to buses. The company feared that if it did not get its new buses immediately, it might not get them at all, because manufacturers would switch to military vehicle production. As soon as the buses arrived, CPS quickened the pace of conversion; Lynchburg’s last trolley ran on 1 November 1941.

Five weeks later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Ironically, the government halted all street railway conversions, foreseeing a gasoline shortage to run the new buses. In fact, the government requested that Lynchburg reinstate trolley systems for the duration of the war as part of a nationwide effort to ease the wartime gasoline shortage. However, this was impossible due to the speed and thoroughness with which the trolley system was dismantled.

The city of Norfolk, desperate to meet its wartime needs, had purchased the last of Lynchburg’s trolley cars. Lynchburg’s overhead power lines were removed almost immediately as the trolleys were loaded onto flat cars for their journey to Norfolk.

While wartime needs perpetuated the life of street railways into the 1950s for many U.S. cities, Lynchburg’s 61-year history with trolleys ended abruptly—and virtually overnight—on the eve of World War II. But the beginning of the end started three years earlier with the closing of the 47-year-old Rivermont Avenue trolley line.

Nothing remains today of the Rivermont trolley line except the diminishing numbers of those with first-hand experiences as passengers, charming photos and newspaper articles, and the possibility of a few remaining steel rails still buried under the surface of Rivermont Avenue.

Roger Garfield, a retired Chicagoland high school administrator, moved to Lynchburg with his wife Janice in 2005. An avid history buff, he quickly became fascinated with the history of Lynchburg, especially that of Rivermont Avenue where he and Jan live. Roger and Jan both serve on the Board of the Friends of Rivermont Historical Society. Graham Garfield resides in Chicago and is a general manager for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). A lifelong urban transit rail ran, he is currently an officer of the Central Electric Railfans Association (CERA) and maintains a website on the history of the CTA’s “L” (elevated) trains ( He is the author of numerous articles and has consulted with the Smithsonian on aspects of CTA history.

This is the first co-authored effort of the father-and-son team. Roger and Graham Garfield have always shared an interest in each other’s vocations and hobbies and, at last, combine these interests in written form.