by D. Scott Molloy

New England's only cable car, the Providence Cable Tramway: the struggle on 'Quality Hill'.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, November 1994. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Five cent cable tramway ticket.
Image from All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode island by Scott Molloy, Ph.D. (1998).

Providence's College Hill (or Quality Hill as its detractors mocked it), rose impressively over the old commercial district and harbor. Wealthy colonists settled in nooks and crannies overlooking the growing city. Brown University sat atop the slope. Famous Benefit Street, with its eighteenth century mansions, hugged the mid section of the hill. The prohibitive fifteen percent grade prevented horsecar service. The Union Railroad built routes around College Hill via Wickenden and Governor Streets to the east, and Olney and Camp Streets to the west. Residents on the hill complained they "had to go downtown by way of Warren."

The Providence Cable Tramway petitioned the general assembly in February 1882 to incorporate. Citing the successful cable operation on the hilly streets of San Francisco and the impenetrable ledge beneath College Hill, the petitioners asked for permission to run a wire cable belt beneath the streets of the East Side from Market Square to the Red Bridge. Grip cars would grab the cable through a slit in the road and pull larger cars up the hill. A stationary steam engine would supply power. The company set capitalization at a modest $100,000.


Some residents immediately branded the scheme as too dangerous and intrusive. "The whole opposition seemed to be," according to the Morning Star, "that the objectors did not want any part of 'Quality Hill' traversed by anything except vehicles not running on tracks." Providence's cable tramway, the only one ever constructed in New England, created a number of competing interests. East Siders flocked to camps for and against the novel system. Carriage owners argued with speculators, and advocates of public transportation locked horns with those who demanded exclusive privacy. While the debate on Quality Hill raged, the tramway incorporators, including many prominent Rhode Island businessmen, did yeoman battle with the well-heeled Union Railroad, which wanted to keep its monopoly. The legislature and Providence City Council hosted a series of thirty-eight blistering hearings before the road reached completion in 1889.

Discussions before the Rhode Island Senate in the spring of 1884 drew witnesses and spectators. When several women testified the road would disturb the East Side, "A Believer in Public Accommodations" answered in a letter to the editor: "The ladies over east and on the banks of the river, who live in humble houses, and have no horses, carriages or drivers, and who for themselves and little families would enjoy the convenience and comfort of horsecars, were not present." Samuel J. Nightingale, a prominent real estate broker whose family attempted to start a horse railroad on Angell Street in 1869, had already sold several estates on Prospect Hill because of the potential tramway. George C. Tingley, a civil engineer for the Union Railroad, who testified as a private citizen living on South Angell Street, had investigated cable roads and found them to be safe.

Tramway advocates circulated petitions on Waterman Street along the proposed route. The newspapers dissected the results, gauging sentiment among private estates and renters, and even assessing feelings according to amount of property owned with street frontage. Residents overwhelmingly endorsed the project. The General Assembly granted a charter in April 1884 with a capitalization of $300,000. The company took another two years to organize properly and raise the necessary capital, almost exclusively from Rhode Islanders. The Providence City Council, under the auspices of its railroad committee, scheduled the next round of volatile hearings during the summer of 1886.

Besides the usual complaints and arguments, the hearings often elicited some new organizational challenge. Tramway owners intended to install a boiler to run the cable operation at 27 Angell Street. The Union Railroad had purchased land there from Walter Richmond, the president of the tramway. Residents, including famous local inventor, George Corliss, opposed the site as too close to private homes. They complained about potential noise rather than any physical danger. One of the councilmen asked Corliss somewhat sarcastically if the boilers would make any more noise than Brown University students in the area. Corliss replied, probably not, but rejoined that pupils usually kept quiet evenings and Sundays, unlike incessant boilers.


The Union Railroad and Providence Cable Tramway apparently entered into a gentleman's agreement to cooperate in this venture. Tramway supporters helped obtain permission for the road from the city council which approved the operation and route design. However, objections to the boilers delayed all construction, and in the spring of 1887 the Union Railroad procrastinated by investigating other cable systems. When a new sprocket operation proved unworkable in New York City and further dampened Union Railroad enthusiasm for the project, Walter Richmond decided to move ahead unilaterally. He coyly waited for the Union Railroad's contract with the city to expire after a year of inactivity. With a dramatic flair Richmond announced the cable tramway would extend its domain under his direction to Olneyville over Union Railroad tracks; an arrangement authorized under existing franchises as long as new carriers compensated the original line with rental fees worked out through an arbitration process. Furthermore, patrons on the competing tramway would enjoy an unbroken ride to Olneyville for a single fare.

At a public hearing sponsored by the city council's railroad committee, Walter Richmond lashed out at the Union Railroad's stalling tactics. He stated that the cable tramway was opposed solely by abutting landowners on Angell and Waterman Streets along the proposed route. "This petition," he declared, "is the outbreak of an impatient and disappointed community." He outlined a desultory and extortionist policy by Union management on the East Side. "Ten thousand dollars or no road were the terms," for constructing the Hope Street route. He reviewed earlier support for Union Railroad service in the area which the company never supplied. Residents still had to walk twenty-five minutes to cover a distance a tramway could pass in three minutes. As to complaints by some in the neighborhood against the road: "There will be objecting abutters—there always are—good men, who acknowledge the need and want of a road, but not on their street; rather on some other man's street."

Other prominent community residents and investors testified in favor of the tramway. Some wealthy backers suddenly realized the necessity for adequate transportation and advocated service for those on the East Side without private carriages. Others took the Union Railroad to task in assaults that grew with each succeeding year. The Honorable Benjamin Lapham assailed niggardly taxes paid by the Union Railroad, steady dividends, and stock value: "They have enriched themselves out of the city and its citizens." Samuel Nightingale, the real estate agent, described beggarly land values behind the Dexter Donation estate on the East Side which commanded only 1 to 6 1/2 cents a square foot.

Union Railroad superintendent David Longstreet, accustomed to occasional criticism from city councilmen, reeled from hostility by the city's elite. He defended the Union Railroad's request for a $10,000 payment to build the Hope Street line as reasonable in light of a $40,000 land acquisition bill. He counseled patience in constructing the tramway until all possible alternatives had been explored. He even offered to send the railroad committee to Philadelphia to attend an upcoming session of the American Street Railway Association to hear experts on cable roads. An opponent shot back: "If we wait until guarantees are given that the company will manage the road so as to never have an accident we shall wait for eternity." The operation in San Francisco, after all, had worked since 1872.

At the next hearing a more composed Longstreet resumed ideological battle. He attacked tramway advocates as a spoiled elite: "It is but natural that they should look after their own interests and provide themselves with an expensive cable railway as they would with an expensive carriage of any kind." He then tackled the topic most frightening to the Union Railroad: competition. "If you grant this petition," he implored railroad committee and city council members, "others will be emboldened by their success to ask you for like privileges." He predicted chaotic railway service. Competitors, he charged, would employ catchpenny workers, lame and blind horses, and faulty rails. "Then and not till them," he blared, "would the falsity of the communistic idea that it is possible to get something out of nothing be fully realized." And on it went.

At another hearing former Providence Mayor George Clarke (1869-70) sent a chill down the spines of Union Railroad stockholders when he backed the tramway and advocated free use of Union Railroad tracks to Olneyville, the system's most valuable franchise. This suggestion echoed Walter Richmond's earlier threat. Longstreet continued to stall, mentioning that electrical experiments might prove workable on the hill. He returned to the anarchy of any proposed rivalry: "We did not dream at the time... that they would ever ask permission to run over our line to Olneyville, as they are now doing for the purpose of getting money to prop up their scheme, or of forcing us to put up the money for them." The Union Railroad did not want to share tracks and establish a precedent regardless of compensation.


A few days before Christmas 1887 the railroad committee voted six to four to grant a charter to the tramway to build a cable road. The committee also permitted the new road to proceed to Olneyville. Longstreet had desperately tried to forestall this by agreeing to allow the tramway to use tracks from the bottom of the hill into downtown Providence free if only the Olneyville monopoly could be maintained. The tramway, according to city ordinance, had to finish the cable part of the route before using the Olneyville section. Two days after Christmas the full council endorsed the committee's decision. The Union Railroad monopoly was broken in Providence. Ominously another corporation, the Douglas Tramway Company, secured a charter from the General Assembly and approached the council for permission to build tracks from Eagle Park to Providence, partially over the rails of the Union Railroad.

A month after the council decision, Longstreet left Providence to direct railway consolidation and the electrification of the West Side Railway in Boston. He kept his considerable stock holdings in the Union Railroad. In August 1888, stockholders of the cable tramway held a private meeting to subscribe another $250,000 to the $200,000 already pledged. Joseph Bannigan, the wealthy rubber manufacturer and Irish-Catholic humanitarian, subscribed and took a leading role in raising further capital. By early September the extra money had been raised. In November preliminary construction work began in order to comply with a charter deadline before the end of 1888.

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 9: The Providence Cable Tramway becomes a reality
Part 10: The first trolley in Providence, 1892

This article last edited September 1, 2015

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