"Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley
"Ding, ding, ding went the bell
"Zing, zing, sing went my heartstrings... "
-- From "The Trolley Song," made popular by Judy Garland
The clatter and clang of the streetcar -- or, as some folks called it, the trolley -- once was a familiar part of daily life in Huntington.
The streetcars, of course, gave way to buses. And most people hereabouts called the big building at Washington Avenue and West 18th Street the "bus barn," even though the structure originally was built to house and repair streetcars decades before the first buses made their appearance on Huntington's streets.
Now the old building has been demolished to make way for a new service station/convenience store and, like the streetcars it once served, it has vanished into Huntington's history.
In Huntington, as elsewhere in the nation, the first streetcars traveled on rails but were horse-drawn. Putting the vehicles on rails meant that horses could pull a greater load and do so more quickly.
Then, Connecticut-born engineer Frank Sprague came up with the idea of putting the horses out to pasture and instead powering streetcars with electricity, drawn from a wire strung overhead. In 1887, Sprague began installation of a 12-mile electric railcar system in Richmond, Va. When placed in service on Feb. 2, 1888, it became the first electric railcar system in the world.
Huntington's first electric streetcars began operating later that same year, in December of 1888. Originally, the Huntington Electric Light and Street Railway Co. operated only one line -- from Guyandotte west to 7th Street along an unpaved 3rd Avenue, then chocked with dust in dry weather and covered with mud when it rained. The car made several runs a day, traveling back and forth over the single track.
Local lore has it that while Richmond was the first city in the nation to have an electric streetcar line, Huntington was the second.
In 1890, a rival streetcar company built what it called the Huntington Belt Line. It extended east along 4th Avenue, turned at 10th Street and headed south to 6th Avenue, then east on 6th Avenue to 16th Street and finally, south on 16th Street to 8th Avenue. In 1892, the same company was granted a franchise for a line extending west on 4th Avenue to Central City.
Although they initially were successful, Huntington's street railways soon were operating in the red. The same was true for those operating in the Kentucky communities of Catlettsburg and Ashland.
Huntington businessman Z.T. Vinson was convinced there was a profit to be made if all the existing lines could be acquired and service established that connected the three communities.
Vinson was a towering figure in early Huntington history. A lawyer by profession, he was also a shrewd businessman who helped establish both Central City and the city of Williamson in Mingo County. With his goal of a consolidated system in mind, he organized the Ohio Valley Electric Railway Co., took options on the lines in Huntington, Ashland and Catlettsburg and went looking for investors.
He quickly found an important partner for his new venture -- Johnson M. Camden of Parkersburg.
Camden had made a fortune in oil and real estate speculation before turning to politics. In 1881, the West Virginia Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. In 1882, he was instrumental in organizing the Ohio River Railroad, building a rail line from Wheeling to Huntington by way of Parkersburg and Point Pleasant. (The line later would be absorbed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.)
When Vinson convinced Camden to invest in his streetcar plan, the company's name was changed to the Camden Interstate Railway Co., which soon linked Huntington, Catlettsburg and Ashland.
It was about this time that the now-demolished storage and repair building on West 18th Street was built. The building saw its last buses decades ago. In recent years, it had housed a flea market.
Like streetcar companies in many other towns, the Camden Interstate Railway decided to establish a small park in an effort to boost its ridership on weekends and holidays. Crowds of fun-seekers would ride the trolley to the tree-lined park, located just west of Huntington in Wayne County. A dance pavilion was erected and a few simple amusement park rides were added. First opened in 1903, Camden Park would go on to become a popular Tri-State landmark. Today, more than 100 years later, it's West Virginia's only amusement park.
Camden died in 1908, and with him out of the picture, the streetcar system reverted to its previous name, the Ohio Valley Electric Railway Co.
Passengers flocked to the new system, which was steadily expanded. Two long sections of the east-west route through Huntington were double-tracked, the downtown loop was enlarged and the Ritter Park route was extended to Spring Hill Cemetery.
During Huntington's first decades, nearly all its residents lived in the narrow strip of land between the Ohio River and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway tracks. The area south of the C&O tracks was mostly open country, dotted by only a few houses. But as Huntington grew, the South Side evolved into one of the city's premier residential neighborhoods. And one of the things that made that possible was convenient, dependable streetcar service. In an era when few families owned an automobile, many people who moved to new homes on the South Side relied on the streetcar to get them to work each morning.
Huntington's streetcar system carried not just passengers but freight as well.
According to Huntington's premier historian, George S. Wallace, the region saw its first bus service in 1909. In his 1935 book "Cabell County Annals and Families," Wallace related how that came about:
"D.W.B. McCown, town marshal of Guyandotte, went out of office in the spring of 1909 and with an admirable foresight, but perhaps poor judgment, brought a truck and for a brief period operated a bus line for passengers between Huntington and Guyandotte in competition with the electric railway company. The venture was not successful financially but it has the distinction of being the first bus line in the county."
Notwithstanding that early failure, the advent of bus service eventually doomed the street railways.
In the mid-1920s, the Ohio Valley Electric Railway organized a new affiliate, the Ohio Valley Bus Co., and began offering bus service between Huntington, Kenova and Ironton, Ohio. In 1928, Ohio Valley Bus established a bus line along 11th Avenue. In 1930, it started a Monroe Avenue line. And it 1933, it inaugurated bus service to the new Veterans Hospital that had opened in Spring Valley.
Fred W. Samworth became Ohio Valley Electric's president and general manager in 1933. Samworth, who had come to Huntington from Delaware in the 1920s, was convinced that buses, not streetcars, were the answer to the city's future transit needs and resolved to convert completely to bus service.
This was accomplished on Nov. 7, 1937, when the last streetcar made its final run and Huntington became the first city in West Virginia to be served entirely by buses.
James E. Casto was a reporter and editor at The Herald-Dispatch for more than 40 years before he retired in 2004. He's the author of a number of books on local and regional history. His latest is "The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937" (Arcadia, $21.99).