There’s a new, free trolley bus service running in Downtown Pensacola starting this week — but did you know that trolleys (or streetcars, as they’re often called) were once a vital part of everyday life in Pensacola?
For nearly five decades, from 1884 to 1932, Pensacola was a streetcar city, with multiple lines connecting various neighborhoods to the city’s businesses and attractions. In an era before many residents owned cars, streetcars were how Pensacolians got around the city. At its greatest extent, the streetcar system stretched from Naval Air Station Pensacola all the way to East Pensacola Heights.
Ultimately, Pensacola’s streetcar system can be traced back to one man: Conrad Kupfrian, a German immigrant and Pensacolian who saw horse-drawn streetcars while on a trip to St. Louis. After returning to Pensacola, Kupfrian and a group of investors raised $50,000 — more than $1 million in today’s dollars — and convinced the city council on November 15, 1882 to let them place steel tracks in the city’s streets.
The first streetcars started running less than two years later in 1884. Pulled by horses at first, Pensacola’s streetcars were converted to electric power as it became more commonplace in the late 19th century.
Kupfrian capitalized on the streetcar by building a park on the then-outskirts of the city and running a streetcar line right to the front gate. Roughly bounded by present-day Pace Boulevard, Avery Street, J Street, and Blount Street, the park included a lake surrounded by a racetrack, a beer hall, dance pavilion, band stand, and picnic areas.
Occupied today by the Pensacola Retirement Village, the racetrack-shaped lake is the only reminder of the property’s past life.
Before long, streetcars were how many Pensacolians got from their homes to work or to the businesses in downtown Pensacola. In the above photo, a southbound Palafox streetcar passes a car from another line that’s headed west on Main Street. The building at the far left, known as the Bear Block after its original occupant the Lewis Bear Company, is now home to shops and restaurants like Nom Sushi Izakaya and Bubba’s Sweet Spot.
In the early 1890s, the system was expanded east and west with trestles crossing Bayou Chico and Bayou Texar. The westward line paralleled Bayshore Drive, going past the Pensacola Country Club and across Star Lake all the way to the Pensacola Navy Yard, later known as Naval Air Station Pensacola, and the communities of Warrington and Woolsey.
At its peak around 1920, Pensacola’s streetcar system had at least 30 streetcars operating on at least five different lines, carrying more than four million passengers a year.
The heart of Pensacola’s streetcar system, like the city itself, was Palafox Street. Two sets of tracks provided simultaneous northbound and southbound service, connecting with other streetcar lines at Main, Government, Gregory, and Wright Streets.
In the above photo, the U.S. Customs House & Post Office, later the Escambia County Courthouse, can be seen at far left. The 1901 Thiesen Building, which still stands, is visible at right center.
Three of Pensacola’s neighborhoods had dedicated streetcar lines: North Hill, East Hill, and West Hill (more commonly known today as Belmont-Devilliers). The North Hill line ran up Palafox Street and around Lee Square before turning west on De Soto Street, south on Spring Street, and west again on Gadsden, where it met up with the West Hill line on De Villiers Street.
In the below photo, streetcar tracks are visible in the Palafox Street median looking north toward North Hill. At left and right respectively are Christ Church and the E.A. Perry House, both of which still stand today.
The East Hill line ran in a loop, with trackage on Alcaniz Street, Brainerd Street, 6th Avenue, Blount Street, 16th Avenue, Jackson Street, 8th Avenue, and Wright Street. In 1909, a branch line opened, which ran on Strong Street eastward from 16th over Bayou Texar to Magnolia Bluff Park in East Pensacola Heights.
The streetcar company’s decision to build a line across Bayou Texar predated construction of the first roadway bridge across the bayou, which wouldn’t come until 1911. The new streetcar line was a pivotal moment in the development of East Pensacola heights as a residential area.
The most tumultuous time for the city’s streetcar system came in the first few years of the 20th century. In 1905, Jim Crow laws were descending on the South, and Pensacola state lawmaker John Campbell Avery, Jr. sponsored a bill segregating streetcars throughout the state. Pensacola’s black population quickly boycotted the streetcars altogether, as recounted in a letter to Stone & Webster, the Boston-based company which then owned Pensacola’s streetcar system:
Avery’s bill was ruled unconstitutional on a technicality just a month after it passed, but it didn’t make a difference in the end. The Pensacola Chamber of Commerce sponsored a streetcar segregation ordinance at the local level which withstood a legal challenge in 1906.
A few years later, in 1908, the city was rocked by a violent month-long strike by streetcar workers. When Stone & Webster tried to break the strike by importing out-of-town strikebreakers, some of the striking workers and their supporters met the scabs with violence, prompting Gov. Napoleon B. Broward to order the state militia into Pensacola. More than half of the city’s police officers were fired after refusing to protect the strikebreakers.
Over the course of the strike, two streetcars were dynamited, the Bayou Chico streetcar trestle was set on fire, and at least one person was shot and killed. Several union men were arrested, and the strike collapsed after a month when a group of the striking workers approached company managers and asked to be rehired.
One of the most prominent sections of streetcar trackage occupied the wide median in the middle of North Palafox Street, an area that today is occupied by Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza and events like the Palafox Market.
In the above photo, a streetcar is seen headed south toward the bay. In the foreground, streetcar tracks cross brick-paved Chase Street. The stately San Carlos Hotel, demolished in 1993, is visible at right, and the Blount Building, which still stands, is at center.
As with most cities in America, Pensacola’s streetcar system couldn’t survive the rise of the automobile and the onset of the Great Depression. The last streetcars ran in 1932, replaced with a bus system that eventually grew into present-day Escambia County Area Transit. Most of the city’s streetcar tracks were pulled up or paved over, but tracks are still visible in a few areas, including a block of De Soto Street in North Hill.