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Back to the Future: Arlington’s Streetcar Lines, Circa 1900

by ARLnow.com November 9, 2010 at 11:31 am 4,481 21 Comments

Before there was such a thing as Crystal City — when South Eads Street was a recently-filled canal known as Jefferson Avenue — a state-of-the-art transportation option helped spur the development of what is now the Aurora Hills neighborhood.

That transportation option was the electric trolley. More than 100 years later, Arlington’s leaders are moving forward with a $200 million streetcar project that will stop in some of the same places as its long-forgotten predecessor.

Aurora Highlands Civic Association president Michael Dowell recently wrote about the area’s transportation history in the group’s monthly newsletter.

From 1843 to 1896, present-day Eads Street was actually a canal that connected with the famous C&O Canal by means of an elaborate aqueduct bridge over the Potomac. Then in 1896, the canal was deemed obsolete. It was filled in and an electric trolley line took its place.

From Dowell’s article:

In 1896, an electric trolley line was constructed along the former canal towpath. The new Arlington trolley line allowed the Mount Vernon Railway to offer continuous service between Washington DC, near Federal Triangle, all the way to Mount Vernon.

The new rail line was instrumental in enabling the development of our Aurora Hills neighborhood in 1910, as the trolley offered quick access for commuters headed into Washington DC. Our neighborhood had four stops along what was then called Jefferson Avenue: Four Mile Run, the Car Barn, 22nd Street, and 18th Street.

By the 1920s, bus transportation had become preferable to the trolley line and the last trolley rolled down Jefferson Avenue in early 1932. In 1934, Arlington County changed the street name to Eads Street (there were too many Jefferson Streets in Arlington County).

Ironically, the county’s proposed streetcar line, which will run along Columbia Pike and Crystal Drive, is intended to be a quicker, cleaner and more rider-friendly alternative to the bus routes that seemed preferable in the 1930s.

There were other streetcar lines in Arlington around the beginning of the century, as detailed in this Wikipedia article. The Fort Myer line, pictured, ran from Rosslyn, through Penrose (a community whose logo is a trolley) to present-day Nauck (Green Valley).

If this all sounds like history repeating itself, there’s one thing that seems especially unlikely to happen that time around. Unlike in 1906, the new streetcar project will probably not result in the development of an elaborate, transit-oriented amusement park in South Arlington.

Photos via Wikipedia and on-the-pike.com
(from the book “Old Dominion Trolley Too: A History of the Mount Vernon Line” by John E. Merriken)

  • JohnB

    If the oil companies hadn’t bought out all the trolleys in America so they could get us dependent on cars we’d be in a lot better place right now.

    • V Dizzle

      Thought it was specifically General Motors.

      • JohnB

        GM, Firestone, and oil companies. But the records are so secrative/non-existent that it’s hard to tell who was all really involved.

  • Chris Slatt

    Penrose webmaster here – a more appropriate photo credit is to Old Dominion Trolley Too: A History of the Mount Vernon Line, by John E. Merriken as indicated by our photo credit on the Penrose site.

    Great post!

    • Chris Slatt

      Thanks for updating the photo credit!

  • MikeyinCrystalC

    Love the history post!

  • Mark

    Great post.

  • AuroraHillsResident

    Great post about Arlington history. Too bad the street car won’t spur an amusement park – it be preferable to the metro bus station mess at Glebe and Route 1!

  • Teyo

    Thanks for the post!

    Maybe one day the Yellow Line will extend down to Mt. Vernon… it’s strange to think it was more transit accessible 100 years ago than it is today.

  • cj

    The 19th-century canal you mention connected the C&O Canal with Alexandria via the old aqueduct bridge between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and the canal channel that ran more or less along the Virginia shore to Alexandria’s commercial waterfront. Fragments of it still survive here and there.

  • Clarice

    I thought EADS sttod for “European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company”. Somehow I don’t picture them as being around in 1934.

  • Ten points for FINALLY calling it Green Valley. Or should I say 2-four points muhahahaha.

  • G::NativeArlingtonian

    Nice! Great post.

  • John Antonelli

    And a trolley was a good alternative in the last millennium. Not so in the new millenium as a trolley can not go around a misparked car or a traffic accident like an electric bus or trackless trolley can and those ugly wires YUCK.

  • Full text of the article is available in the Aurora Highlands Civic Association November 2010 newsletter online at:

  • S.Arlington

    Its great to see ArlNow paying some attention to the Pike. And the streetcars will make a welcome addition to our neighborhoods, replacing congestion from to many cars and not enough mass transit. The current mass transit options don’t allow for significant increases in ridership without adding more diesel powered pollution creating buses, “rapid” or otherwise. In addition, as the growth along the R-B corridor has proven by providing a reliable and attractive transit option to an area local government can spur right-sized development. The Form-Based Code documented the neighborhood consensus, which was achieved over several years, to what our neighbors want in terms of growth – a truly live/work/shop/play implementation of urban living.

    • Bender

      Buses have run on natural gas for years. And, that old throwback to the 19th century, the streetcar, will only obstruct traffic while requiring the installation of hideous power lines and tire-damaging rails.

      • JohnB

        The trolly represents a fixed infrastructure investment that developers and business can count on being there for years. Bus lines can be canceled within weeks.

      • S. Arl 2

        Adding to Bender’s post – Who will pay for the $$ trolley?

  • Andrew

    More history posts, please!

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