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.

Welcome Des Plaines Memory!

The IDHH welcomes the Des Plaines Public Library as a new stand-alone contributor. For years, the Des Plaines Public Library has contributed content through the Illinois Digital Archives. Now, Des Plaines provides over 1200 additional items through their own digital library, Des Plaines Memory, including hundreds of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and more that document the diverse history, people, and cultures of the city.

Des Plaines Memory includes a range of artifacts documenting life, history, and culture in the town of Des Plaines. This includes a big arts scene, local musicians, painters, writers, dancers, and many others. Many artists celebrate rich, multicultural heritage.

Des Plaines’ collection boast a rich record of the distant past as well, including diaries from the Civil War. This collection boasts several objects, including journals and images and is growing, and is a truly remarkable addition to the many Civil War artifacts available in IDHH collections.

Black and white photograph of Charles E. Bennett, bearded, wearing a dark overcoat.
Portrait of Chester E. Bennett. 1890. Des Plaines Public Library. Des Plaines Memory. Permission to display was given by Des Plaines Public Library.

In addition to the Civil War diaries, Des Plaines Memory holds a host of content related to wartime in the U.S. The collection includes images and documents from both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts and commemorations. There are also numerous images and documents pertaining to the McDonnell Douglas factory once located in Des Plaines. The images below depict men and women who served in World War I and World War II.

Finally, Des Plaines memory includes selected works of local artist, Edward Dougal (1937-2016). Dougal was a versatile artist with expertise in several forms and a host of media. He was a painter, sculptor, wood worker, and a writer and illustrator of children’s books. His pieces incorporating mirrors are among the most interesting, some of which are featured below.