As you drive through Alexandria, you’ll notice an array of public and private transport options, from buses to trains, cars, bikes and scooters. But what might surprise some is that at one time the city’s residents took advantage of a burgeoning electric streetcar system.
Originally called the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Electric Railway, it opened on September 18, 1892, ferrying tourists to Mount Vernon and, later, workers to DC.
It instantly became a local thrill. The Washington Post covered its debut, reporting that Fairfax Street was so crowded with spectators that it was nearly impossible for streetcars to run on time.
There were several stations along the route of the railway. Beginning at the Mount Vernon Estate, the trams made stops along South Royal Street, South Fairfax, King Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Four Mile Run and Arlington. In 1896, the streetcar line was finally extended and connected to tracks owned by the Belt Line Street Railway Company, allowing cars to easily reach 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.
While trolleys were popular, much like today’s electric buses recently introduced to Alexandria, they did not run smoothly. Early trams tended to be poorly heated and sometimes stalled while in transit. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that engineers significantly improved the vehicles.
Mount Vernon station might be the most intriguing of all stations. Rather than being a small hut-like structure with benches, it was a welcoming stopover and featured a cozy tea room where riders could disembark and grab a bite to eat before continuing their journey or exploring the historic sites. near.
To meet demand, trams ran regularly Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. until almost midnight. As the area developed, the system was used for more commercial purposes, such as reaching shops and the amusement park known as Luna Park near Four Mile Run. Without obstacles, wagons could reach the District of Columbia from Alexandria in 30 minutes.
These vehicles not only served as a means of transportation, but also contributed to the growth of the city. Through its layout, it encouraged the expansion of neighborhoods like Del Ray and St. Elmo as they became more accessible. By including a line along these suburban areas, more people were able to own property while still having access to the city. At its peak, 92 cars were rushing through the area. Thanks to its efficiency, the electric railroad quickly became one of the most efficient streetcar systems in the United States.
Electric streetcars were enjoying their celebrity status until a major competition arose: cars. The growth of the automobile industry in the early 20th century proved fatal to streetcars as people became fascinated with this new technology. In a final blow to the system, the development of the Federal Triangle in the 1920s removed the Washington, DC streetcar station, making it more difficult for riders to reach the nation’s capital.
Over the years, the streetcar line has been slowly removed or covered over to make new routes. Parts of the George Washington Memorial Parkway are on portions of the trolley route, such as near Great Hunting Creek. The south roundabout of the George Washington Parkway also displays the design of the turnaround route of the old streetcar at Mount Vernon.
With all these obstacles it was virtually impossible for the service to continue and in April 1932 it officially closed after four decades of service.
While most traces of this fascinating part of Alexandria’s history have all but disappeared, a few remain. The only remaining artifacts are the car in front of the Del Ray Library and the Potomac City Streetcar sign, according to Daniel Lee of the Office of Historic Alexandria. However, there was a big stir in the city last year when a section of tram tracks were uncovered under King Street during repairs.
The old trams may no longer work, but their legacy lives on. Although slightly different, the King Street Trolley serves a similar purpose in helping residents and visitors maneuver Old Town Alexandria. To further honor the streetcar’s mark on the city, the Office of Historic Alexandria commemorated the streetcar line when it unveiled its holiday ornament during the 2021 holiday season, depicting system car 303.
As you stroll through the city, you’ll more than likely be distracted by the nearby Potomac, car horns, and the occasional whistle of the train, but if you listen carefully, you might hear the soft tinkling of ghostly streetcar bells echoing through the busy streets.