The history of Richmond’s electric trolley system

The Richmond Union Passenger Railway was a global leader in electric transportation — but its been gone for 70+ years.


The streetcar system, as seen on a 20th century postcard.

Photo via VCU Libraries Digital Collections

Rapid transit is on the rise in Richmond. Talk of expanding the GRTC Pulse has included stretching the line further west and adding perpendicular equivalents. But over 130 years ago, Richmond was a leader in transportation innovation — thanks to the electric streetcar.

Several communities had tried to create electric trolley services before the Richmond system cracked the code. Frank Sprague, a former technical assistant to Thomas Edison, designed the system.

Before the advent of electricity, the primary method of transport in cities were horse-drawn vehicles. Many city streets had built-in rails in order to improve the speed and capacity of these vehicles, so the potential of incorporating electricity had captivated the imagination of many around the globe.

Sprague used many of his own inventions to design a 12-mile electric rail system for the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, which would open on February 2, 1888.

In September, the Boston City Council observed the success of the Richmond system in person and returned home to approve an electric street railway of its own — the second in the world. Hundreds of cities followed suit, with almost 900 similar systems built in the country by 1895.


Take a look back in time at the intersection of Monument and Sheppard.

Historic photo via Cook Photograph Collection. 0945/PHC0047. The Valentine, Richmond, Virginia

The Richmond system would expand to 82 miles, expanding in tandem with the new suburban neighborhoods in the city. The trolley system was also the site of several social and political struggles, including a 1903 worker strike and a 1904 boycott in protest of racial segregation.

By 1949, the proliferation of buses and personal vehicles, propelled by General Motors — more on that criminal conspiracy herehad signed the death warrant for Richmond’s streetcars. Trolley No. 408 was burned on December 15, 1949.

It would take over six decades for rapid transit to return to the River City.