[Note: although not strictly N&W, the Radford streetcar system was an important piece of local New River Valley history. This article from the Radford News Journal on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 1982, was written near the end of my time with the paper as a reporter.]
Trolley Car Romance: The Rise and Fall of Radford Railway
By Bruce Harper
Can you remember the days when street cars ran regular routes through Radford, just as they did in the more glamorous locales of San Francisco and New York?
The street cars were Radford’s public transportation system for nearly 40 years. The system began 90 years ago, when the Radford Railway Company was chartered on March 1, 1892, by the Virginia General Assembly.
City records give us the history of that system. Here is what they tell us:
The charter authorized the company to “Locate, construct, maintain and operate a street railway on any streets or highways in Radford...and in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties, in the vicinity of Radford.” Subsequently, city council gave the company the right to operate on Radford streets in an August 15, 1892, ordinance.
Radford Railway also was required to obtain permission of the Radford Land and Improvement Company “as to the use of the part of any street or highway macadamized by or at the expense of Radford Land and Improvement.” That permission was granted quickly, on September 1 of that year.
Radford Railway wasn’t the only company interested in operating a street car business--but it was the one which came out on top in a dispute against a rival firm. Central City Street Railway filed suit against Radford Railway in the Hustings Court of Radford over service to the same general area. The case went on to Montgomery County Circuit Court.
The Central City company lost its bid to be the Radford area’s cable car operator. Under an agreement between the two firms, it paid the Radford Street Railway $300 and transferred all work and all rights and franchises to them.
Radford Railway started operating its system from “the depot in East Radford to the iron foundry in West Radford,” according to “Radford Then and Now.” Operations began in August, 1893.
The company received two parcels of land in 1897 from M.A. Riffe and his wife Anna in return for payment of a $265 note extended to Riffe. One lot was on Arlington Avenue, and the other was at the corner of First and Wadsworth streets.
The lot on Arlington became the site of the company’s car barns and shops.
That same year, financial difficulties caught up with the owners of the firm. Several labor liens for payment for work performed were filed, and two companies filed liens to receive payment for items provided.
The Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh filed a lien for $79.74 for several items the company purchased.
Radford Electric Light and Power Company also put a lien on the company for payment for electric power furnished to the street railway. The charges for the month of August amounted to $125.12.
The financial problems mounted, and several suits were filed against the company. The company was finally sold at auction by the court and went to Ella M. Crockett for the high bid of $3,505. The property and equipment were transferred on Jan. 3, 1899.
Crockett and her husband John shortly thereafter sold half interest in the operation to George W. Miller for $1,750.
Crockett entered into a lease of the street car company with the Radford Electric Light and Power Company for five years, beginning on Jan. 1, 1899, and running for five years.
Six months after buying the operation from the court, Crockett, her husband and Miller sold it to George L. Carter of Bristol for $10,000 with the understanding the lease continue.
Two years later, the water and electric company was in financial trouble also and it offered its operations for sale. Carter also put the street railway up for sale, then came yet another development.
The Radford Water-Power Company was incorporated by the General Assembly on Feb. 13, 1901. The original incorporators were George W. Miles, H.L. Morgan and R.L. Jordan of Radford, T.P. Trigg of Abingdon, Gustav Radetzki and George Taylor of New Orleans and J.H. Carper of Pulaski County.
Miles, Jordan and Carper met in the offices of the Radford Electric Light and Power Company on Feb 19, 1901 to discuss purchasing the offered properties, including the street car operation.
Miles purchased 495 shares of stock in the new company, valued at $100 a share. He put up “48 acres of land lying on both sides of Little River in the counties of Pulaski and Montgomery, just above the covered wagon bridge, being the two tracts deeded to him by Eli Peterson and John E. Peterson et als, and on which is erected a timber dam and electrical and water-power plant.”
Carter sold the Street Railway Co. for $25,000 on April 9, 1901. The company also purchased the franchise and property of the Radford Electric Light and Power Co. for $25,000, “except the present power house and machinery, boilers, and engine therein contained.”
That fall, the water-power company fulfilled the second half of its name when it purchased the water works, pumping station and water tower from the Radford Land and Improvement Co. for $21,600.
In Nov. 1901, at a board meeting, the president of company was authorized to purchase additional street car equipment and repair the present equipment for an estimated $1,900.
The company had a request to expand its lines in 1907. The Southwest Virginia Agricultural and Live Stock Association asked that a street railway line be built to the fairgrounds, located at the corner of Wadsworth and Twelfth Streets.
The company agreed to build the line, but only if additional fares could be brought in. The directors decided to work out an agreement and hoped to have it ready for the association “that we may see this line in operation in time for our 4th of July celebration.”
The operation of the streetcars was not without mishaps. The secretary of the company reported at a board meeting that he had personal knowledge that “any and all claims that might be held against the company in connection with the accident that occurred in which the life of Joseph, the eight year son of Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Hurts was lost, could be settled for the sum of $125 -- said amount being a total of the burial expenses of the said child.”
The payment was authorized to be made and the company was to be released from all claims by the family.
The company also had equipment problems. At the May 6, 1908 board meeting, president J.L. Vaughan reported “that on Saturday night March 28th at 7:15 p.m. (someone) did cut a certain guy wire supporting a pole bearing the main transmission lines of the St. Ry. and lighting service and that the pole was so situated when the guy wire was cut that so much weight was thrown against the pole that it was broken off flush with the ground, thereby entangling both the A.C. current wires and D.C. current wires, causing a dead short circuit which resulted in the armature of the St. railway machine burning up, necessitating the same be sent to the manufacturer for repairs.”
The Radford Water-Power Company began to run into the same problems its predecessor had, financial difficulties. A trial balance of the company’s books on Jan. 1, 1909 showed the street railway had earned $4,743.60. But operating expenses amounted to $2,029.86 and permanent improvements cost $5,270.66.
The problems continued, and 10 years later the board of directors passed a resolution calling for the problem to be corrected. A portion stated, “It is apparent that the overhead expenses of the company are too great considering the volume of receipts.”
Unfortunately, the resolution had little effect, and on June 21, 1922, the directors decided to accept an offer of $160,000 from the City of Radford for its entire operation.
A vote was held that year in the city to determine if the voters would support a bond issue to raise the money needed to purchase the electric, water, and street railway systems.
The bond issue was approved by a large majority, and on August 1, 1922, the city was in the utility business.
When the city took over the street railway, it came into possession of tracks, rolling stock and some property. A 1920 fire district map of the city shows the car barn and office located on Arlington Avenue. The building contained a four-car carbarn, a machine shop, a repair shop, an office and a transformer house.
The building has undergone some transition since then. When the city discontinued the street cars, it became the bus garage. It was also a shop for the city, and it is now the fire station.
After the city acquired the utilities, it began work to upgrade the systems. In his monthly report to city council, the public works superintendent listed the cost for street railway construction.
In September, 1922, the city spent $5,148.28 for materials and labor. In October, the sum was $3,142.08. In November, it was $3,846.27. December’s work cost $3,335.60, and work in January cost $2,510.69.
Once in operation, the street cars came up at council meetings every so often. At the April 8, 1924 meeting, “Mr. Wyatt brought up the matter of the street car crossing Connelly’s Run bridge and council instructed Mr. Tyler to instruct his motormen to approach this bridge under control and not to run across the bridge at a speed greater than 10 miles per hour.”
In October of that year, the superintendent of public works reported the street railway had revenue from the bond fund of $17,633.88 and from collections of $30,217.77, for a total of $47,851.65.
This was offset by expenditures of $5,000 for a purchase, $25,095.29 for improvements and $20,874.46, for a total of $50,969.75.
On May 14, 1928, “Mr. Arthur mentioned (to council) the condition of the street car system and stated that if the street car was to be operated much longer, extensive repairs to the track and all equipment in connection with the system would be necessary at once. After some discussion, it was decided to try to lease one, or more, buses for experimental purposes, before going to the expense of overhauling the system.”
At the May 29 meeting, “council decided to go to Roanoke Friday, June 1st, with the view of leasing a bus for the City for comparison of expense of operation between the bus and street car.”
The next month, “a representative of the Studebaker Motor Co. was present and discussed with the Council the question of Studebaker buses for the City.”
Sometime after that June meeting, council decided to go to a bus system and retire the street cars, although no mention of the action was made at the council meetings until Dec. 10, 1928.
At that meeting, a bus fare resolution was passed, stating that on the first day of January, 1929, “all school children will be required to pay full fare of five cents, or six tokens for twenty five cents, the same as other passengers.”
ln January 1929, the city received an offer from a “Baltimore Junk Firm” for the city’s scrap, including “$17.25 per gross ton, F.O.B. cars Radford, on the old street car rail.”
Action on this was delayed, and later the city accepted an offer from the Merrimac Mines Company for the rails.
The January 29, 1931, issue of the News Journal reports that the removal of the tracks had begun that week, under the direction of city manager H.W. Rankin.
“Mr. Rankin said today that with sixteen men serving jail sentences and a half-dozen others in such need that the city would have had to support them from the poor fund, it was found possible in this way to put the men at work at a slight financial gain to the city and at the same time to effect a needed improvement.”
The work was completed in July, and all final traces of the street car system were eliminated with the surfacing of Norwood and First Streets.
“Wiping out the scar left by removal of the city street car tracks, a force of men started work Monday surfacing the middle section of Norwood and First Streets from the end of the east business section to the Riverside garage beyond the court house,” the News Journal reported July 30, 1931.
“A rolled rock base is being placed, which will be covered with waterbound Macadam and topped with two applications of tar and chips.”
With the application of the final coat of tar, the end of an era was sealed. The city replaced the street cars with buses, and the romance of the trolley car was over.