by D. Scott Molloy

The Providence Cable Tramway becomes a reality.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, January/February 1995. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

A group of trolleys ascends College Street.
Image from All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode island by Scott Molloy, Ph.D. (1998).

Construction begins

Building of the Providence Cable Tramway in 1889 fascinated Rhode Islanders. A power house on South Angell Street, near the Seekonk River, pulled 17,000 feet of cable more than an inch in diameter. The line stretched from the power house beneath the streets of the East Side, down the hill, and extended to the Great Bridge at Washington Row near Market Square. Workers dug a trench six feet wide and five feet deep to house the cable. A series of 400-pound cast iron yokes supported 32 foot lengths of slot rails spaced one inch apart. A long lever from a grip car fit between the rails to bite the cable which was in constant motion. Rails for the wheels of the grip and passenger cars straddled the slot rails at standard gauge. Special footings filled the trench for stability and a series of 82 manholes allowed lubrication of gears beneath the street.

Open grip cars could hold an operator (grip man) and eighteen passengers. Each grip car pulled an open or closed trail car. The cable eventually traveled at nine miles per hour. Months before the grand opening Samuel Nightingale offered "Cable Tramway Lots" for sale. The Olneyville Business Men's Association also jumped the gun and asked for extended tramway service through Olneyville to Plainfield Street in the Silver Lake section of Johnston (not annexed by Providence until 1898). The Union Railroad charged a full fare from Olneyville to Plainfield Street, a very short distance, inadvertently encouraging shoppers to bypass Olneyville merchants and trade Downtown. "The business men of Olneyville want three-cent fares so that their customers will not ride past their stores to the city; the real estate owners want three-cent fares to induce the workers in Olneyville factories to take residence in Johnston."

Furious activity

The Olneyville Business Men's Association agreed to petition the Johnston Council to vote in favor of the tramway. One member alleged that the Union Railroad went to the council and said, "Here, we'll give you anything you want if you will shut the cable road out." The West Providence Club, a civic organization, voted to endorse cable too. A few weeks later the Union railroad, spurred by the threat of competition, began laying rail to Silver Lake. One Olneyville store keeper reluctantly backed the Union Railroad saying "he had no fear that the track would be injurious to his trade, but a large number of employees of the Union Company trade with him, and they are all so well treated by their employers that they are eager to have all opposition blocked." Meanwhile the Providence City Council authorized the cable road to run to the Johnston border adjacent to Olneyville. In December 1889 the cable company installed the eighteen-ton cable on the East Side: "Hundreds of people gathered and curiously watched the operation of the twelve horses yanking the invisible and supposedly serpent-like cable through the tunnel."

On December 11, 1889, the Providence Cable Tramway Company ran cars and "the hitherto insurmountable obstacle of the East Side hill, had been for the first time conquered." Thousands lined the streets to cheer the only railway whose principal owners lived along the route. Many availed themselves of a free ride that day and held on tightly as the grip car descended the hill. The company continued without cost for several weeks, a stellar public relations performance. One train of cars meant to hold 36 somehow accommodated 130. Meanwhile the tramway prepared stables on Valley Street in Providence near Olneyville for horsecar service. Revenue service over the hill began officially on the first of January, 1890.


There were problems that first year, of course. The cable broke occasionally, a collision between a grip car and a carriage killed a driver, and a Union Railway horsecar ran into the side of a tramway car. Rhode Island historian Albert Cliflin remembered that children were always dropping wires and ropes into the cable slot: "Many blocks of wood, horse chestnuts, pine cones, pasteboard boxes, tin cans, and dead animals traveled up the streets at all hours of the day and night."

Whatever preliminary problems plagued the new line, the innovative system worked. East Side carriage owners, united in search of higher land values, endorsed tracks in the streets. Walter Richmond proved to be an astute businessman and fierce competitor driven by more than profit. The Providence Board of Trade commented wryly when cable stock spiraled to $103 a share in February 1890: "Those who had hitherto pooh-poohed the enterprise are astonished, although unwilling to allow that they are." Even Union Railroad stockholders were purchasing shares as a sound business investment. In April 1890, friends honored the tramway founder with a collation at the South Angell Street power house which had been partially transformed into a pleasant "cottage" for patrons, not unlike Union Railroad facilities at Roger Williams Park. One speaker toasted Richmond for helping reinvigorate Providence which, he felt, had become an "animated graveyard" after the fall of the Spragues and death of Mayor Thomas Doyle in June 1886.

A cable to Olneyville?

Within six months the cable carried 40,000 passengers and cut into lucrative Union Railway traffic to Olneyville. Tramway operators kept the promise of a one fare ride from the Red Bridge. In October 1890, tramway officials asked the city council to authorize an underground cable from Market Square to Olneyville to eliminate rental of Union Railroad tracks. Richmond described cable service as impervious to bad weather and pragmatic for the proposed route. He volunteered to place all police, fire, and telephone wires in the cable conduit at no cost to the city. At the next hearing, William Roelker, council for the Providence Gas Company, thundered: "These petitioners coolly ask your honorable body to confiscate our property without compensation to us, and give it to them. It is safe to say that no more barefaced and piratical proposition was ever presented to any legislative body." The tramway brought in outside expert witnesses to testify. Rathbone Gardner, lawyer for the road, offered the greatest threat to Union Railroad hegemony: "I can say today that if the time has come when the Union Railroad does not give acceptable service, the tramway company is ready to put the cable in all streets where cars are now run, and in all others where they ought to run." Earlier in the year, another group of entrepreneurs incorporated the Pawtucket Cable Tramway to run from Pawtucket through East Avenue and Hope Street to the East Side, a route the Union Railroad had been contemplating.

Two weeks after the last contentious hearing and tramway threat to thread the city with underground cable, Union Railroad officials approached the cable company and tendered a bountiful offer to buy the road for $130 a share. Upon agreement, the Union Railroad immediately petitioned the General Assembly to increase capitalization to $3,000,000 and to allow it to hold stock in other companies and to lease property of local railways. The cable retained its name. The tramway entrepreneurs, including some of the most powerful citizens in the state, had bested the Union Railroad and made a profit to boot. While the Union Railroad suffered a public defeat, much to the glee of the populace, it purchased a successful road.

The Union railroad eventually paid top dollar for the cable enterprise but preserved a virtual monopoly on railway service, although other competitors continued to seek an opening. The electrification of service and the added capital expense of that power would discourage even well-heeled investors in the future. For the public, an end to railway rivalry meant an end of competitive pressure that frequently forced the Union Railroad to improve service. The latter soon took political steps to codify the informal control of Providence streets to preclude further interlopers.

The East Side tunnel

Following the introduction of electricity, the tramway changed to a trolley system aided by an underground counterweight for added power to negotiate the hill. The last cable car ran on January 26, 1895. Electric cars equipped with only one motor (the cable could not haul two-motor cars because of their weight) assisted each other up and down the hill on a slow and inefficient one-to-one ratio. The counterweight system was soon re-engineered to allow former cable cars fitted with electric motors to push trolleys up the still imposing incline.

In 1913-1914 a tunnel beneath College Hill was finally constructed. George Washington allegedly suggested such a solution on one of his visits to the city! Tunnel supporters had actually broken ground in the early 1870s but were overwhelmed by engineering problems. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses still use the East Side tunnel today.

The following excerpt is from Fares Please: a Popular History of Trolleys, Horsecars, Streetcars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways, by John Anderson Miller (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), reprint (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1941).

One of the difficulties with early electric cars was that they did not always have power enough to get up steep hills. Frank Sprague had had considerable trouble of this kind at Richmond [Virginia] and others had experienced it elsewhere. At Providence, Rhode Island, the fifteen per cent grade on College Street hill presented a particularly knotty problem until a most ingenious solution was worked out. This was nothing more than a heavy counter-weight operating in the old cable conduit between the rails. At the bottom of the hill the car was hooked on to one end of a long cable running over a wheel at the top of the hill. Attached to the other end of the cable was the counter-weight, slightly lighter than the car. As the car went up the hill the counter-weight slid down the conduit. Being lighter than the car it served only as an aid to the movement of the car, the car's own electric power being required to do the rest of the work.

Having reached the top of the hill, the car was unhooked from the cable and continued its run. Then the next car headed in the opposite direction picked up the end of the cable at the top of the hill and proceeded down under electric power, thus pulling the counter-weight up again to its original position. This system was installed in 1895 and remained in use until 1915. But they had been building a tunnel through the hill and when this was completed the tough climb for the trolley was over. In operating the counter-weight system, great care was required to make sure that the mechanism was adequately secured when the weight was left in the up-hill position. Otherwise it might come loose and start down of its own accord. When that happened the hook at the other end of the cable, which projected above the pavement, went sailing up the hill. In spite of all precautions this sometimes happened. It was entertaining to watch, but was occasionally dangerous to the other users of the street. Once when the weight broke loose, the rapidly moving hook neatly removed the rear wheels from a wagon crossing the street at an intersection part way up the hill.
D. Scott Molloy is a professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. A former bus driver for RIPTA, he is the author of Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line, and an Images of America book entitled All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode Island. As a member of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee he educates the public about the role of Irish immigrants in Rhode Island labor history. 10,000 pieces from his extensive collection of labor movement memorabilia are preserved in the Smithsonian.

More Mass Transit in Rhode Island...

Part 1: The early turnpikes from Indian trails to tollgates
Part 2: The stagecoach era; symbol of rapid transportation in 1815
Part 3: The omnibus, a crucial urban link
Part 4: Rhode Island's first horsecar, Providence to Pawtucket
Part 5: Horsecar workers
Part 6: Horsecar drivers and customers
Part 7: The first Rhode Island trolleys: Woonsocket and Newport
Part 8: New England's only cable car, the Providence Cable Tramway: the struggle on 'Quality Hill'
Part 10: The first trolley in Providence, 1892

This article last edited September 4, 2015

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