Today, trolleys are often seen as a uniquely urban form of transportation. The cable cars of San Francisco or the new Washington DC Streetcar are hard to imagine rolling through the valleys of north-central Appalachia. But for the first half of the 20th century, interurban trolley lines were a critical part of the region’s infrastructure. The smaller cities and towns around Pittsburgh were connected by hundreds of miles of trolley lines, often serving as the only reliable transportation before better roads and car ownership expanded.
The interurban railways often bridged the gap between long-distance and local transit options. In contrast with city streetcars, the interurban trolleys were generally larger and carried passengers between outlying towns. They were initially powered by horses before widespread electrification was completed around the turn of the 20th century; the term “trolley” originally referred to the mounted wheel that collected the current from the overhead wires. They were slower than traditional trains but also operated much more frequently: a 1925 timetable noted that the 25-mile journey from Wheeling, WV to Steubenville, OH took 90 minutes, but trolley cars left every 30 minutes. In many cases, these transit systems were owned by power companies with names such as “Fairmont Electric Light and Power” or “East Liverpool Traction and Light.”
The largest interurban network in Appalachia was the West Penn Railways, which was formed in 1904 to consolidate the lines serving the coal-producing areas southeast of Pittsburgh. Owned by the West Penn Power Company, the trolley system consisted of a main line between Greensburg, Connellsville, and Uniontown, with smaller branches providing service to the small “coal patches” that dotted Fayette and Westmoreland Counties.
The West Penn system connected to the Pittsburgh Railways Co. (the precursor to the city’s modern transit authority) in McKeesport, which allowed the ferrying of goods and passengers throughout western Pennsylvania and beyond. The network was so intricate and well-connected, in fact, that a passenger could travel from Uniontown to Chicago using only interurban and streetcar lines, albeit slowly and through numerous transfers.
In addition to operational range, a major difference between city streetcars and interurbans was the ability of the latter to carry goods and mail as well as passengers. This was key—it enabled the area’s economic development because the branch lines that ran to isolated coal patches often went where cars and larger railroads could not. The interurban railways provided reliable transportation to the larger towns in the region where travelers could shop, access professional services, and reach other transit connections.
The same was true in West Virginia, where the state’s first trolley lines were formed just after the Civil War. The Wheeling and Elm Grove Railway was formed in 1873 to connect the growing city with the latter coal mining town. The line initially opened using horses and only ran as far as Wheeling Park, 5 miles east of the city. The conversion to steam in 1879 and electrification in 1898 eventually allowed it to reach West Alexander, PA 15 miles away, with plans to connect to the Pittsburgh Railways line in Washington, PA, though those plans never materialized.
Multiple transit companies were founded at the end of the 19th century around Wheeling, connecting it to the emerging manufacturing centers on both sides of the Ohio River. Most of those lines were consolidated in 1901, creating the Wheeling Traction Company. The system ran from Moundsville, WV to Steubenville, OH, where more connections could be made. Wheeling Traction was purchased by West Penn Power in 1912, which continued to expand the system, hitting peak capacity of about 100 cars and 103 miles of track in the mid-1920s.
Wheeling Traction was not the only West Virginia transit line that attracted West Penn. The Pennsylvania company continued to invest in the state, purchasing both the Parkersburg, Marietta & Interurban Traction Co. and the Monongahela Power & Railway Company in 1923, controlling them through the subsidiary Monongahela West Penn Public Service Company. Particularly in north-central West Virginia, Mon. West Penn worked more like the original West Penn line in Pennsylvania than the more urbanized routes along the Ohio River. Due to the rural nature of the route, many cars included a separate freight compartment for goods and mail. The interurban line stretched from the small community of Weston in Lewis County to the larger towns of Clarksburg and Fairmont, connecting smaller coal camps and farming communities along the line.
The advent of the automobile began to chip away at ridership in the 1930s, which led to a hemorrhaging of passengers after WWII. Some interurban transit companies did relatively well during the war due to gas rationing, but the uptick was temporary. West Penn sold their two Mon. West Penn lines in 1944 to City Lines of West Virginia, which quickly phased out the trolleys in favor of buses by 1947.
The Wheeling lines were replaced around the same time. West Penn tried to sell the Wheeling Traction Company in 1932 after the subsidiary faced bankruptcy when their 1901 bonds came due. Despite a court order to sell, no bids were made for the struggling system. In 1933, the employees created the Wheeling Co-Operative Transit Company to buy it out, saving roughly 250 jobs and 50 miles of streetcar tracks. Within two years, however, Co-Operative Transit created a spinoff bus line that replaced the Steubenville route. By the 1940s, many of the lines outside the urbanized core met the same fate, though the local streetcar lines in Wheeling and its suburbs continued to operate until 1948.
The original West Penn Railways system in southwest Pennsylvania operated until the 1950s. Though the West Penn network was better-connected than its West Virginia subsidiaries, most passengers were still local travelers who used the trolleys to run errands in nearby towns rather than travel long-distance. Population shifts and rising rates of car ownership made the coal patch connections obsolete, and the last West Penn line was closed in 1952.
Though the days of rail-based transit in the region ended, the movement of people did not. In the Upper Ohio Valley, the Co-Operative Transit Company ran bus lines until the 1970s when the Ohio Valley/ Eastern Ohio Regional Transit Authority took over public transportation in the Wheeling area. The transfer of service to publicly supported transit authorities also occurred in other areas once served by West Penn. The only remaining rail lines in any of the West Penn system communities is an Amtrak station in Connellsville, with thrice-weekly service between Chicago and Washington, DC.
There is, however, about four miles of active trolley track still in operation in the region. Located in Washington, PA, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum owns over 50 vehicles, 14 of which are fully operational, including a West Penn interurban car. Though not in operable condition, the collection includes two Mon. West Penn cars from the Monongahela Valley line.
With the exception of Pittsburgh, the northern Appalachian region will likely never see a return of trolley service. But the evidence of the bygone era still remains.
In Marietta, streetcar rails remain visible in the downtown brick streets. The outline of Wheeling’s streetcar lines show up as parallel cracks in the asphalt. The trolley routes were also copied by today’s bus lines. The way people move may have changed, but transit and public mobility remain a critical part of the region’s infrastructure.
Subscribe to The Patch, our newsletter, to stay up-to-date with new expatalachians articles and news from around Appalachia.
Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.