GALVESTON.COM: Treasure of Rosenberg: History of Trolleys in Galveston

During the month of August, the Rosenberg Library will display trolley memorabilia, including, among other things, a replica of the Galveston Flyer trolley and coins from the Galveston Electric company.

Galveston’s streetcars emerged as one of the earliest forms of public transportation in 1866 in the form of a mule-drawn carriage traveling back and forth along Market Street. The last of the mule carts were reused or dismantled shortly after the storm of 1900, although some accounts claim to have seen the last used between 1904 and 1919. Around the same time, Galveston Electric purchased a total of 103 electric trams for public transport. These carts operated using electricity from the cable lines that ran overhead. The Galveston Flyer model streetcar also emerged, which operated between Houston and Galveston from 1911 to 1936. Owned by the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway Company, they advertised four departures from Houston and three from Galveston each Sunday, offering various offers to encourage more use. These offerings increased the number of visible visitors to the island until the late 1930s.

For several decades, the island’s tram system sat idle, but a movement in the 1970s revived interest. A push to revitalize and improve Galveston as a tourist destination began a successful campaign in the 1970s-80s. Many attractions came out of this push, such as the Strand, Elissa, Railroad Museum, and Sea-Arama Marineworld. But of these, the return of the carriage elicited one of the biggest audience engagements.

Many opinion pieces were submitted to the Galveston Daily News in favor of the trolley return, with local residents and business owners believing it would bring many benefits to the island. Some examples of these dated January 15, 1987 included a small business owner who yearned for an increase in the number of tourists visiting the island, a teacher who wanted to educate people on how tourism-related business taxes funded the school district, and a staff member at the San Luis Hotel who was excited about the federal grant and the benefits the island would no doubt see.

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If people were in favor of the carriage return, it was not without cost. While the trolleys would bring in significant revenue by taking tourists to new attractions, it would also cost significant funding to create the rail lines to those attractions. The issue became such a matter of public opinion and debate that in 1987 Galveston’s first female mayor, Jan Coggeshall, and four of her city council members were subject to a recall election. Coggeshall originally inherited the tram reconstruction project in 1984 when it was chosen by voters following the death of the previous mayor, Gus Manuel. But the conflict of public opinion over the tramway grew as some favored the construction, while others were frustrated that the ambitious project was underway when areas of the island were in poor condition. Had Mayor Coggeshall and members of the City Council been recalled at this election, it is likely that the tram route would still have been completed, but not without significant delays. They survived the recall, however, and the streetcar line was officially opened in 1988. The line subsequently expanded twice to include routes to the city center and to the campus of the University’s medical branch from Texas.

In 2008, the carriage system suffered a major blow when Hurricane Ike damaged all four vintage carriages. After delays and out-of-state repairs, the Galveston Island Trolley officially returned in 2021. Unlike carts of the past, today’s “trolleys” are technically streetcars, as they no longer draw electricity overhead cables. Rubber-wheeled “carts” designed with the same vintage exterior can also be seen traveling the same historic lines as the trams, allowing more visitors to enjoy the route. Despite these differences, the tram route serves as both a tourist attraction and a convenient means of transport, just as it did in the past.

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The treasure of the month is located on the historic second floor of the library near the east entrance. It can be consulted during normal library hours, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 9:00 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, please contact Ivy Albright, Museum Curator at 409.763.8854 Ext. 125 or [email protected]

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