Keeping Johnson City moving

Becky Campbell • Mar 27, 2012 at 10:41 AM

From horse-drawn taxis to the Johnson City Transit System, public transportation here has come a long way.

But the form of public transportation that created the most stir among residents was the electric trolley.

By 1890 efforts were well under way to get the system built and running.

“Most other cities during that time had horse-drawn trolleys. By the time Johnson City was big enough,” to warrant trolley transportation, electricity was already a part of the town’s daily life.

As a result, Johnson City skipped the horse-drawn trolley and built the electric version.

Holston Light Company, which later became Watauga Lighting & Power Co., built the station to power the cars. Workers installed poles for the streetcar line and the wiring arrived in late 1890.

A historical book written by Johnny Graybeal, “The Railroads of Johnson City,” also contains a section on the town’s streetcars.

According to Graybeal’s research, it took nearly a year before the first trolley load of passengers rode through town.

Graybeal documented an article in the Aug. 30, 1891, Daily Comet which described the day the first car started a test run.

According to that article, the first car started at the station on Roan Street at 5 p.m. “and it was crowded to its utmost capacity by citizens who have waited impatiently for the line to be completed.”

Two trolley cars, with a capacity of 40 riders each, ran for the next four hours and were filled each time. There was also room for additional riders on the platforms and steps.

Even after dark, the trolley station was lit up “by ten arc and thirty incandescent lamps and darkness was entirely dispelled,” the article said.

Just a few days after the first trip, a third trolley car arrived.

Initially, the streetcar tracks ran along Main Street to Roan Street, down Roan to Watauga Avenue, from Watauga to New Street and over to Second Avenue and back to North Main Street.

More lines were added to Carnegie and “the Oaklands,” according to Graybeal’s book.

Just a few days after the trial run, a third car arrived to be added to the fleet, and by the end of September 1891 streetcars were running on three miles of track.

In October 1891, the trolley system, named the Johnson City and Carnegie Street Railroad Company, began a regular schedule of stops.

“They offered a great convenience to the city, passing certain points every twenty minutes,” Graybeal notes in his book.

The depression of the early 1890s apparently hurt business for the trolley, and by October 1894 cars were only operating from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.

In December, the trolley stopped running completely and would remain idle until June 1896. The trolley started at 7:20 a.m. on a run from the depot to Lake Watausee, a man-made lake at the edge of town in the Carnegie section. The trolley ran every 20 minutes all day until 8:40 p.m.

Over the next few years, the company made various changes to the trolley schedule, including times and routes.

The trolley’s fate was sealed, apparently, when the power company built its new plant on the Watauga River.

“This changeover was the last straw for the trolley line,” Graybeal wrote in his book.

So, in 1900 the trolley line ceased operation and much of the track was taken up and sent to the ET&WNC railroad company.

Just a year later, however, when the Soldier’s Home was built, Watauga Light & Power Company considered rebuilding the trolley line. That did finally happen, and the trolley system’s operation would ebb and flow for the next 30 years.

In the 1909 publication, Johnson City — The Way We Were, it’s noted that the city had one of the best trolley systems around.

“Johnson City possesses one of the most thoroughly modern and well-equipped electric street railway lines in the country. They have about five miles of trackage, leading from the suburb of Carnegie on the east, to the Mountain Branch Soldier’s Home on the west. The cars are all first-class and make good schedule. The Johnson City Traction Company -- for such is its name -- is one of the most public-spirited institutions we have, and is one of the first and foremost to offer inducements to, and assist in, the promotion of the new enterprises, and its officers are among the leading members of the Commercial Club.”

But as the city grew and new technology became available, electric streetcars were pushed out. The last streetcar in Johnson City ran in 1932.

But public transportation was already taking a new turn with a switch to bus service.

It wasn’t the Johnson City Transit system as it’s known today, but soon after the trolleys stopped, buses took their place.

In 1979, the JCT dedicated its first mini-bus fleet on a fixed-route service, with First Lady Rosyln Carter there for the ribbon-cutting.

The milestones for JCT took the system from that small fleet to 30 buses, then medium-duty small buses.

Many of the JCT bus upgrades were funded through federal and state grants.

By 2003, the system added the Molley Trolley, a throwback to the electric trolley of the 1890s.

The JCT has continued to upgrade and improve its system with new buses and new fixed routes as the city continues to grow.

This year, the JCT will implement vehicle location technology as well.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos