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Wetzel Tyler Railway

By Borgon Tanner

The Bethany Trolley
Trolleys connected New Martinsville, Paden City, and Sistersville from 1903 until 1925. Photograph courtesy of Paden City Public Library, O.O. Brown Collection. Date unknown.

A transportation craze swept across North America around 1890. It started in the big cities and soon affected residents in many rural areas as well. Electricity was becoming widely available, and inventors discovered that it could power locomotives — or a single car. The electric streetcar was developed, replacing its horse-drawn predecessor.

By 1900 it was a small town indeed that couldn’t plan with pride for an electric streetcar — or “trolley” — that would soon be humming over the hill and running down Main Street. In 1901 there were 15,000 miles of electric railways in the U.S., and by 1902 practically all the street railways were powered by electricity.

Major cities contained many streetcar lines, and pedestrians learned to be wary of speeding trolleys. The Brooklyn Dodgers of baseball fame did not receive that name for their agility on the playing field. At the height of the streetcar era, the team was called the “Trolley Dodgers” in tribute to the maze of tracks criss-crossing Brooklyn.

lines in many areas became interurban lines, connecting towns, cities, and adjacent rural areas. An increase in farm incomes and literacy, spurred by the 1896 introduction of Rural Free Delivery (RFD), contributed to the decline of isolation for rural people. Farmers now felt the need for better ways to travel plus more frequent access to towns. Bad weather and poor roads could limit the range of any horse and buggy, so country people increasingly rode the trolley into town.

The trolley ran on two overhead wires that furnished power to motors situated beneath the streetcar. Later, most systems used just one wire overhead, with a trolley pole conveying power to the car below.

Within city limits streetcars provided the first dependable travel in the days before bus or automobile. In rural towns and the countryside, the trolleys and interurbans offered year-round transportation at low cost.

Stations were rare. Whenever possible, people waited at a place that offered shelter. Churches, stores, and public buildings were used in town. Out in the country, churches and houses provided shelter, while many waited trackside in any weather.

It was no coincidence that Sistersville was the hub of several electric railways. With income from oil and gas revenues, it was the wealthiest and most influential town in the upper Ohio Valley during the 1890’s and early 1900’s.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.