From July 1862 through January 1962, a network of streetcars ferried riders around Washington, D.C. and the surrounding communities in Maryland and Virginia. Although this streetcar system was dismantled and replaced by bus routes and later Metrorail trains, a museum in the Maryland suburbs tells a history of the transit network and offers rides in historic streetcars from around the world on a mile-long track through the surrounding woods.
When the Washington, D.C. streetcar system first operated, the streetcars were drawn by horses. Because horses are expensive to house, feed, and create a large amount of solid waste, from the start engineers were working to develop more efficient methods of moving the vehicles around the city. Beginning in the 1880s, the streetcars were slowly converted from being horse-drawn to a system of trolleys powered by overhead electric wires.
Over the following century the network expanded outward from downtown Washington, D.C. far into the suburbs of the neighboring states, eventually comprising more than 200 miles of track and becoming consolidated under a single company, the Capital Transit Company.
But the rise of automobile spelled the end of the heyday of the streetcar. Taxis began operating in the capital in 1908 and over the subsequent decades, personal ownership of cars skyrocketed. In 1956, the Capital Transit Company was sold and as a condition of the sale, the new owner had to replace the streetcar lines with bus lines by 1963. Today, little evidence of the old streetcar network remains.
Fortunately, people were quick to preserve the streetcar’s history. Ground was broken on the National Capital Trolley Museum in the mid-1960s. Although the focus of the museum is on the Washington, D.C. transit network, historic streetcars from all over the world are on display.
Know Before You Go
The museum is open every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.