NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Decades ago, the streets of Nashville contained miles of iron rails that transported hundreds of thousands of people several miles from east to west and north to south.
Little evidence of the city’s extensive streetcar system is still visible, but several historical documents detail the transit system, which at one time was widely used by people going to and from the suburbs and center of Nashville.
The first streetcar line carried over 400,000 passengers in its first year, and after the switch to electric streetcars in 1889, railways spanned about 50 miles throughout the city, according to information compiled by retired archivist Debie Oeser Cox.
Over the years, automobiles and buses overtook the railways and today, Nashville is the second most car-dependent city in the nation, the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee told News 2 in an interview earlier in May.
While past proposals for a modern light rail system have not panned out, several organizations and residents have continued to call for a renewed public transit plan, not unlike how the streetcar system got its start in Nashville decades ago.
‘They had plenty of people riding’
Talks of a transportation system for those without horses and carriages began a few years before the Civil War, said Davidson County Historian Carole Bucy. However, those ideas came to a halt when the Union Army occupied Nashville in late February 1862.
After the Union Army left and the war came to an end, Bucy said the city was in need of something that could help boost the economy. That manifested with the launch of Nashville’s streetcar system in March of 1866.
“Basically, a group of private individuals decided that what Nashville really needed was some kind of rail system,” Bucy said. “So, they came up with this idea and started a company to run a rail line down basically 4th Avenue.”
The first rail line owned by the South Nashville Street Railroad company was about four and a half miles long and ran out of Cherry and College Streets, from Cedar to Franklin, according to research by Cox. In its first year, a total of 400,006 passengers rode on the railway.
“It was very profitable in that they had plenty of people riding it coming in,” Bucy said.
Nashville’s second railway was built by the North Nashville Street Railroad company in 1867 and spanned two miles and 400 feet north. The following year the railway carried 135,327 passengers, and by 1869, the number of passengers had increased by over 40,000 people.
Evolution of Nashville’s streetcar system
Bucy said the first streetcars in Nashville were pulled by mules and horses. At one point in time, there were more than 40 horses that regularly pulled cars throughout the city.
“The company that had this had to keep a big supply of animals to pull the cars,” Bucy said. “On that line, they had eight cars and they had to keep a lot of animals fed and taken care of.”
Over time, the mule-drawn cars were replaced by steam-powered streetcars, then in April 1889, the first electric line was created. The first electric railway was owned by the Nashville Railway and Cumberland Electric Light & Power Company and ran about 17 miles.
Other railway companies then began following suit, eventually totaling nearly 50 miles of electric railways in the city. By 1890, the numerous private railroad companies were consolidated under the United Electric Railway, according to research compiled by Cox.
At the time, it cost about five cents to ride from one side of the city to the other. Bucy said the transit system led to more people moving to the suburbs and businesses springing up in downtown Nashville.
“We had iron rails in the streets, and getting onto the west side of town and going in other directions really expanded this city,” Bucy said.
‘They had to be completely segregated’
The streetcars continued running into the 1900s, but Bucy said they were marked by segregation, which became a point of contention among Black Nashvillians who in 1905 boycotted the transit companies.
“They had to be completely segregated, meaning the back of the bus so to speak,” Bucy said. “So, they organized this company that was going to compete with the other companies that were running these lines.”
A group of prominent Black men launched the line called the Union Transportation Company as an alternative to the segregated streetcars, but the new company faced some problems in that its steam-powered cars couldn’t make it up and down all of Nashville’s hills.
Bucy said they later invested in electric streetcars, but more deep-rooted issues kept the line from becoming profitable.
“Their fear controlled a lot of the racism,” she said. “This Union Line had Black preachers, Black doctors, all sorts of people in the elite community in support of it, but it created a good bit of trouble for the people who owned it because they thought people would ride it, but they were afraid to.”
According to Bucy, many people were afraid that if they rode on the Union Transportation Company’s line, they would lose their jobs for not supporting white-owned companies. In the end, Bucy said a tax put on their cars killed the effort.
“That tax put on them by the city really led to them basically going bankrupt, so they had to sell their cars to pay their debt. So, that effort was short-lived here,” she said. “A lot of people refer to it as the Black boycott of the streetcar lines.”
Public transportation remains a ‘big political discussion’
The other railways persisted until buses and automobiles began taking over the streets in the 1920s. According to Cox, the increased traffic caused safety concerns and streetcars were much slower than other means of travel. Finally, the last streetcar ran in Nashville on Feb. 2, 1941.
Afterward, Nashville’s transit system remained privately owned for several years until the Metro Government was formed in 1963. The Metro Government bought the transit system about 10 years later and changed its name to the Metro Transit Authority.
Although a thing of the past, Bucy said a rail system has periodically become “a big political discussion” because of traffic and parking prices in Nashville.
“The mayors get a lot of complaints,” she said. “This really became a big issue when Karl Dean was mayor and he had a plan to run some kind of line down west end Harding Road and the public, the people who lived around there, were very much opposed to that.”
Similar ideas have failed time and time again.
In 2018, about 62% of voters said no to another transit plan that included building an underground tunnel downtown and a 26-mile light rail system. It was proposed to be paid for through a half-cent sales tax hike and surcharge on the business, hotel and rental tax.
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Part of the problem is the city’s existing infrastructure said Bucy, who explained that Nashville doesn’t “have a good place now to run a rapid rail system unless we put it up on stilts like a viaduct over a road or something.”
While the city may never see a streetcar system as it was decades ago, organizations like the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee are continuing to explore ways to enhance transportation, with public transit being a key topic in Nashville’s upcoming mayoral election.
“It’s really an interesting evolution from figuring out ways to move people,” Bucy said. “I think the price of parking downtown is going to persuade a lot more people to ride the bus now because it’s just astronomical how much the parking is downtown. Something’s going to have to be done.”