Brooklyn Boro

Ask a historian: What happened to Brooklyn’s trolleys?

October 15, 2019 John B. Manbeck
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Constance from Bay Ridge asks: “When did trolleys disappear from Bay Ridge?”

I think that topic can be broadened to: “When did the trolleys disappear from Brooklyn?”

But first, a short history of the original light rail. Trolley cars — or street railways or trams, in Europe — were the basic public transportation in Brooklyn. They were so important that a baseball team was named after them (before the Brooklyn Dodgers were the Brooklyn Dodgers, they were the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers).

They were very practical and more efficient than their predecessor, the stage coach, because they ran on rails. Streetcars connected neighborhoods and permitted connections to other transportation such as ferries. All were independently owned. As the city of Brooklyn expanded, horsecars were introduced in 1854. The last horsecar line in New York City ran until 1917.

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After the Civil War, mechanical inventions created the cable car. While they are associated with San Francisco today, a cable line ran along Montague Street down to the ferry at Furman Street where Brooklyn Bridge Park is today. In another 20 years, the motor generator permitted electrification of larger cars with a “trolley” or trawler pole connected to an overhead wire.

With the expansion of the private trolley lines, fares competed jumping from two cents to three and no transfers. In Gravesend, passengers rebelled, refusing to pay additional fares. Then, in the 1920s, competition came from the new subway lines — also privately owned — which relegated trolleys to second-class transportation. After 1929, Brooklyn and Queens Transit Corporation supervised all the surface lines until the city took it over raising the fare to a nickel.

Another competitor appeared on the scene: the automobile, which competed with street space. A new company began buying up independent trolley lines, replacing them with buses. Behind the anonymous façade, the company was owned by General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires. They lobbied local governments to remove trolleys, and replace them with buses. Competition grew desperate as trolley management developed a new model, the streamlined PCC. But it was too late: Robert Moses built his highways and Oct. 31, 1956, reported the death of Brooklyn’s last three trolley runs. The trolley on Church Avenue was the last line to run in Brooklyn.

Many trolleys ran in western Brooklyn. The cutoff date for trolley service could be set for the 1940s. In 1886, a line served Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea and ran until 1889 taking people to Ulmer Park amusements in 1893 and to Unionville for fishing until the 1930s. In 1891, the Bay Ridge Avenue line served the Scandinavian neighborhood running from Third Avenue to Cropsey Avenue until 1949. The 86th Street line ran a similar route to Cropsey but over Fifth Avenue instead of Bay Ridge Avenue. That lasted until 1948. The Eighth Avenue line served Bay Ridge to Greenwood Heights until 1949.

Service in Fort Hamilton came from the Hamilton Avenue line from Third Avenue to Hamilton Avenue until 1942 while the Third Avenue line ran along Third Avenue to Brooklyn Bridge closing the same year. At 39th Street, passengers could catch the Staten Island ferry. The New Utrecht line and the West End trolley ran to Coney Island until 1947. Riders could drop off at Washington Cemetery for “graveside picnics.”

But the beginning of the end could be predicted in 1928 with the first Bay Ridge bus routes along Bay Parkway. The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association has promoted plans for a light rail line along the East River. If they materialize, possibly they will multiply and return rail to Bay Ridge.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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  1. Trevor Harris

    Before Brooklyn’s electric trolleys, horse pulled rigs were extensive. Mack
    trucks, today a worldwide industry owned by Volvo, were first manufactured on the site of a major horse trolley barn running from Atlantic to Pacific on Third Avenue, which had recently been destroyed
    in a sensational fire. Mack’s owners lived one block away.