Tampa’s first streetcar system began in 1885, when the Tampa Street Railway Company ran a wood-burning engine with several small cars over a track from downtown Tampa to the neighboring town of Ybor City. The creation of this early transit line helped further Tampa’s rapid growth and development that took place at the end of the nineteenth century.
Tampa’s streetcar line soon became electrified, thanks to Frank Sprague of Richmond, Virginia, who developed a four-wheeled “troller” that ran along an overhead wire and transmitted electricity to streetcars. This new power source opened the door for private electric companies to enter into the transportation business. In 1892, the Tampa Street Railway Company merged with the Florida Electric Company to form the Tampa Street Railway and Power Company.
Tampa’s original trolley company quickly encountered competition. In April 1892, the Tampa Suburban Company was formed by a group of local entrepreneurs, including Peter O. Knight, who realized the growing commercial potential of the city as a result of the opening of the luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel across the Hillsborough River in West Tampa. In an effort to forestall competition, the Tampa Street Railway and Power Company secured an injunction to prevent operation of the Suburban lines. With an appeal pending, backers of the Suburban Company organized a new corporation, selling stock to local citizens. The Consumers Electric Light and Street Railway Company soon became the dominant trolley system in Tampa by winning a rate war against its rival, which it bought out on June 18, 1894. After some financial disputes and trouble with stockholders, Consumers went into receivership, and in 1899, it became what is today Tampa Electric Company.
In its early years, the company operated just over 21 miles of tracks with main lines extending to Ybor City, West Tampa and Ballast Point. At its peak, 190 streetcars covered Tampa’s 53 miles of streetcar lines along 11 routes. The streetcars ran from 4:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day.
The streetcar served a purpose beyond workday transportation. A 1940s map and schedule of the Tampa Street Car System requests that shoppers avoid the rush hour periods. Resorts and parks operated by street railway companies, known as “electric parks,” were established in cities throughout the United States. In Tampa, the recreational venues DeSoto Park, Ballast Point Park and Pier, MacFarlane Park, and the Sulphur Springs Pool were developed at the extremities of the streetcar lines. In addition to public parks, Tampa Electric Company also built the original Fortune Street and Garcia Avenue bridges and contributed funding to the construction of the current Fortune Street (now Laurel Street) and Lafayette Street (now Kennedy Boulevard) bridges.
Tampa’s streetcar reached its peak of popularity in the 1920s. The system carried almost 24 million passengers in 1926. Tampa’s streetcar ridership remained high during World War II, when gas and rubber rationing limited automobile and bus travel. But the end of World War II also brought the end of streetcar service in Tampa. Residents had long complained that streetcars were noisy and hampered the flow of auto and bus traffic. Bus systems were also promoted as cheaper and more practical for public transportation. Tampa Electric Company had been operating its streetcar system at a loss for many years, since it never raised its fare above the original five-cents (two-and-a-half cents for school children). In August 1946, the last Tampa Electric Company streetcar made its final run. Bus service took over former streetcar routes.
In October 2002, Tampa Electric Company began running six historical replica streetcars along a new 2.4-mile line, connecting Ybor City, the Channel District, and the Tampa Convention Center. A 1/3-mile extension is under construction, running along Franklin Street to the parking garages at Whiting Street.
Images courtesy the Florida State Archives.