The horses were spooked. They snorted and danced nervously as a strange carriage approached at a rapid pace.
With a crackle and a hum, the futuristic machine whooshed forward on gleaming tracks along the dirt road.
The public debut of Akron’s new trolley service in October 1888 was nothing short of electric.
Akron Street Railway Co. created a buzz with the introduction of streetcars to replace horse-drawn herdics. Teams of horses had pulled taxi-like vehicles on downtown tracks for five years before the line was converted to an electric-powered system.
The herdics, named for Pennsylvania inventor Peter Herdic, required a fresh team of horses after a few round trips. The electric streetcars flitted back and forth almost effortlessly. They didn’t consume oats, they didn’t require rest and they didn’t foul the streets.
Company President John S. Casement of Painesville, Vice President Sylvester T. Everett of Cleveland and Secretary F.C. Bangs of Cleveland were the primary financiers of the streetcar project. They paid $30,000 in cash, purchased $15,000 in stock and assumed $20,000 in debt from the former herdic operators.
The railway company constructed a power plant at Canal and Beech streets in downtown Akron, built tracks along Market Street to the eastern and western limits of the city and installed 39 miles of copper cables.
When the first streetcar debuted on Oct. 10, 1888, it generated tremendous excitement among the city’s 27,000 residents. The car carried only a handful of dignitaries, electricians and reporters.
“Many people along the line came out of their houses and looked at the car,” the Akron Daily Beacon reported. “The women could not restrain the temptation and came forth bareheaded and some with sleeves rolled up.”
A trolley pole atop the streetcar was attached to wires strung about 18 feet above the street. An operator controlled a lever that increased the speed or brought the vehicle to a halt. The car cruised along at a maximum 15 mph with the aid of two 600-pound, 7½ horsepower motors and a 450-volt current.
“The car went at such a rate of speed that a fast-running 10-year-old boy could not overtake it,” the Daily Beacon reported. “Horses looked at the thing with a wild stare but it is believed they will soon take kindly to it, especially if they are relieved of making trips through the seas of mud on W. Market and S. Main streets.”
It cost a passenger 5 cents to travel the entire route. The line ended just short of Portage Path at the western boundary.
Initially, the railway company purchased six streetcars, described as “beautiful specimens of the car builder’s art,” and adapted six old cars to the new system.
“The line got its first real test Saturday night, Oct. 13th,” Akron historian Karl H. Grismer wrote. “Gorman’s Minstrels were playing at the Academy of Music and many people from East Akron attended. When the show ended, a large crowd rushed to get on an East Market car. Men, women and children pushed their way inside; others clambered onto the roof and filled the running boards.”
The car was supposed to have a capacity of 40 passengers, but the conductor somehow collected 75 fares — and that wasn’t everyone on board. In contrast, the horse-drawn herdics, soon to be obsolete, had a capacity of only 25.
A famous Akron photograph from October 1888 shows the contrast. The city’s first streetcar, surrounded by mustached men in hats and formal attire, looks positively monstrous in comparison with the little herdic behind it.
The two bridled horses stare apprehensively at the technology that will replace them.
Within a few weeks, the workhorses were put out to pasture.
There were concerns about the new mode of travel. Some people likened it to riding a lightning bolt, and worried about the possibility of electrocution. Some feared that an operator might lose control of the vehicle on a hill and not be able to stop. Gentlemen feared that their pocket watches would be destroyed by the magnetism of the motors.
“With no reasonable grounds for fears concerning the safety of the new public conveyances, assured that there is no danger from lightning or unmanageable cars, or magnetization of watches, the citizens of Akron may enter upon the enjoyment of the benefits this new acquisition brings with no small pride,” the Daily Beacon reported.
As it turned out, there was indeed a danger. The first serious accident occurred more than a year later when Danny Gilhooly, 8, broke his leg on March 5, 1890, after being struck at Main and Market streets.
“This, the first accident of the kind, should serve as a warning to other boys to whom clinging to moving streetcars is a much practiced play,” the Beacon noted.
By 1891, Akron Street Railway Co. had more than 15 miles of track. Its officers included brothers F.A. Seiberling and C.W. Seiberling, who went on to co-found Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. before the end of the decade.
The railway company’s successor, the Northern Ohio Traction & Light Co., eventually grew to 300 miles of track. The old power plant at Canal and Beech streets was demolished in 1927 to make room for the Beech Street Steam Plant, which generated heat for downtown buildings.
Streetcars and electric trolley buses disappeared from local streets in the 20th century — to the lament of nostalgic riders. Tracks were removed. Wires were taken down.
Blame it on the popularity of the automobile, whose rubber tires were manufactured in Akron.
What comes around goes around. Streetcars had their day in the sun. Then they went the way of the herdic.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.