Trolley Mail in Vermont - Page 1

John C. Wriston, Jr.

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 The horse-drawn trolley was the main method of public transportation in the cities in the mid and late 19th century, but its deficiencies were widely recognized by 1880 or so.  Not the least of these was the cost of horses and their upkeep, and the vulnerability of the industry to disease: the "Great Epizootic" (an equine respiratory disease) killed 2200 horses in Philadelphia in three weeks in 1872, for example, and the need for a better system was apparent.

 Vermont ingenuity played a part in the development of the electric street railway.  In 1835, Thomas Davenport, a Forest Dale blacksmith, exhibited his electrically propelled miniature train in Boston and Springfield.  Many individuals contributed to the developing technology, however, and there were several trial systems in the early 1880s, but the first really successful electric trolley system was installed in Richmond, Virginia in 1887 by Frank J. Sprague, and the rush was underway.  "Few industries have arisen so rapidly or declined so quickly, and no industry of its size has had a worse financial record" (George W. Hilton and John F. Due, The Electric Interurban Railways in America, 1960).  Growing numbers were built in the 1890s, and a few were opened as late as the 1920s, but most were built between 1901 and 1912.

 It is hard to realize now what an important role trolleys played during those brief years.  In fact, there are probably few Vermont philatelists who can say they ever rode on a nickel trolley from St. Albans to Swanton, Sextons River to Bellows Falls, or Montpelier to Barre.  Not only were there trolley systems in most cities, there also sprang up a network of interurban lines competing with the railroads, connecting one city to another via small towns across considerable distances.  It was never possible to go from New York City to Chicago by the electric interurban system, for example, because of certain gaps, but one could go over a thousand miles from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin to Oneonta, New York (apparently the longest continuous route in the system)--or from Bennington to North Adams and on.

In the industry as a whole,  passengers  were  by  far  the  biggest  source  of  revenue;  freight accounted for only 10% or less of total revenues for most lines, and mail revenues for much less than that--but it is the mail-carrying aspect of the system that is of principal interest here.

 Trolley mail took several forms.  In the simplest version, cars were used simply to transfer closed pouch mail from one point to another.  Then there were true trolley car RPOs, analogous in every way to the railway RPOs; but within this category, purists draw distinctions between streetcar lines and interurban electric railways, and a still further distinction is drawn between interurbans with their own rights-of-way and those that shared tracks with main-line through trains.

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