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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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GRHC - September 2nd, 2009

"Glance at the Past" is a collaboration between the Community Media Center and the Grand Rapids Historical Commission. Today's episode tells of Grand Rapids as a national leader in streetcar transportation.



Before the era of the automobile, rail tracks were prominent features in both rural and urban communities across the country. By the 1900’s streetcars that rode on those tracks were seen as essential for any thriving city.

Grand Rapids has its own distinguished streetcar history. Early “urban rails services” included horse-drawn carriages that traveled along the tracks built by Grand Rapids in 1865. Over the years, the city would experiment with a variety of streetcar types, including a steam driven car and a cable car line similar to those in San Francisco. By far the most important streetcar innovation in Grand Rapids began in 1926 with the arrival of the Grand Rapids Electric Coach; one of most modern streetcar systems in the entire country.

Bringing further attention to these early mass-transit services, Grand Rapids was also famous for personalizing its streetcars. One such example was the Campfire Girls’ car. Girls would stand at attention whenever their special, namesake car rolled by. Cars like this were part of a massive campaign to keep the streetcars profitable. In one of the more popular techniques; models were actually hired to sit atop the cars with signs that read, “Don’t worry, relax! Ride the streetcar; it’s the safest place in town!”

Street cars rode the rails in GR until 1935—eventually losing out to the growing popularity of the automobile.

Full Details

KeywordsGlance at the Past, streetcars, radio, WYCE, Grand Rapids, Historical Commission
Pubdate StringSeptember 2nd, 2009

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