Before buses, and long before the Skyway, streetcars were the heart of public transit in Jacksonville’s urban core.
The very first streetcar line in Jacksonville began service in the mid-1880s, running up and down Main Street from downtown to Springfield. It was originally “powered” by mules that would pull the cars, but as the system was expanded, it became primarily electric-based.
Several different streetcar companies emerged around the turn of the 20th century, resulting in a streetcar system that ran through downtown into several different suburbs, stretching out as far as Ortega to the west, San Jose to the south, and Panama Park to the north.
By the early 1910s, those various companies had merged into one behemoth, Jacksonville Traction Company, creating a massive network that spanned miles across the urban core and into suburban communities. It was the most extensive streetcar grid in the state. Streetcar travel was the most convenient way to get around the city, and the city’s streetcar system served millions of passengers. Many neighborhoods and commercial corridors were developed around streetcar lines and stations.
By the ‘30s, however, the popularity of the streetcar was beginning to wane – both in Jax and nationwide. Bus and car travel took over, with both options usually being cheaper for commuters. And as the city expanded outward, it became less practical to keep extending streetcar lines rather than utilizing buses. Portions of the system were gradually shut down, and cars were decommissioned, until just a few remained in operation.
In 1936, Jacksonville Traction Company ended its streetcar operations. The company was purchased by National City Lines, a conglomeration of oil and auto companies led by General Motors, which bought up many other streetcar systems nationwide to utilize them for assets. Streets were gradually paved over, concealing the rail lines that once ran through major roadways.
In recent years, streetcars have seen a bit of a comeback in North America. Cities that kept their original systems, such as Boston and New Orleans, have restored and expanded them. Others that didn’t have a streetcar system, like Tucson and Detroit, have added them.
It seems unlikely that streetcars will ever return to Jax; JTA is instead working on an autonomic system that may very well accomplish the same purpose that a streetcar system would serve.