The Electric Way: Streetcars, Trolleys, and Trams

Imagine the wonder of one day being able to ride a new-fangled machine powered entirely by electricity that could whisk passengers between cities at a brisk speed of up to 20 miles per hour. Such was the excitement and delight with the invention of the streetcar in the mid-1880s by American engineer Frank Julian Sprague (1857–1934). Before the arrival of streetcars, also known as trolleys or trams, the fastest mode of interurban transportation was the horse-drawn tram, a much slower way to travel within or between nearby cities. The convenience that the streetcar provided facilitated a boom in urban populations as citizens could move to suburban areas and become the first commuters. 

The area of East St. Louis in Illinois experienced a surge in population growth and urban expansion in the late 1800s as the East St. Louis & Suburban Railway extended its reach in the St. Clair and Madison counties of the state. Stretching from the town of East St. Louis in Illinois to St. Louis in Missouri and beyond, the Great East Side Railway moved passengers and freight between the two states, becoming a transportation hub and spurring industrial development in the area. The IDHH is pleased to welcome the St. Clair County Historical Society to the Illinois Digital Heritage Hub and to feature their Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection, which contains images of the streetcars and transportation infrastructure of the East St. Louis & Suburban Railway and the St. Louis & Belleville Electric Railway. Passed down through generations from a longtime employee of the Union Electric Company, which provided the power for the electric railways in the area, these photographs offer a glimpse at the historic influence of this novel mode of transportation. 

Here are a few of our favorite items from the collection:

East St Louis RR, Car #24. November 4, 1929. St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Track scene, IL Central Car Derailment. [n.d.] St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Trolley Car 25. [n.d.] St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Suburban Railway. January 11, 1932. St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Miner’s Extra Train. [n.d.] St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Inside of Trolley with car operator. [n.d.] St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.
Eads Bridge Trolley Station. [n.d.] St. Clair County Historical Society. Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection. Courtesy of the St. Clair County Historical Society.

Want to see more? 

Browse the full Metro East Streetcar Photographic Collection from the St. Clair County Historical Society. 

Visit the IDHH to explore even more items related to streetcars.

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