Streetcars - Table of Contents

Streetcars and Public Transportation in Buffalo
Streetcar Suburbs in the US (ca. 1880s-1920s)

Reprinted from
Elmwood Historic District (West)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination

Section 8, pp. 35- 41

By Jennifer Walkowski

Streetcars and Public Transportation in Buffalo

Note: Bold letters added by editor

In 1860, a new mode of transportation was established in the 11th Ward that encouraged and aided travel to and from the area. While the majority of travelers to the cemetery or the private parks took their own personal farm wagons or carriages in the 1850s, the cost of maintaining the vehicles and horses was an expense that not all Buffalonians could afford. As a result, walking was the primary means of travel in the first half of the nineteenth century, even among the middle and upper classes, and many people necessarily resided in close proximity to their places of business and shops.

The 1860 establishment of a horse car line created a new transportation option in the city. The Buffalo Street Railroad commenced operations on Main Street on June 17,1860. This line extended from “the Dock” at the Buffalo Creek northward to Edward Street by June 11th and was continued on to Cold Spring (likely terminating at the intersection of Main and Ferry Streets) on July 14, 1860. 95 Already by the mid-1860s, the impact of the horse car systems was felt in Buffalo:
A very material addition to the comfort and convenience of our citizens has been made by the Street Railroads. They have rendered distant parts of the city readily and cheaply accessible, and have correspondingly enhanced the value of lands outside its more settled limits.96

One of the biggest challenges towards realizing the vision and potential for the park and parkways system as a place of social and economic egalitarianism was in the relative lack of accessibility. While Olmsted had promoted accessibility to the already-populated centers with the design of his parkway system, linked into the existing street systems in the future Elmwood district area, it was still a difficult, expensive and tedious trip from the more settled areas of the city to the distant northern area.

Already by 1873, just a few short years after construction of the parks began, the Buffalo Park Commissioners made a plea to the city for improved public access to the parks. In their Fourth Annual Report, made in January of 1874, the commissioners reported that many of the visitors to the park arrived in private carriages, sometimes as many as 1,000 a day, but many people walked from the horse car station at Cold Spring. However, they noted, the walk was long and could be especially difficult in inclement weather. “A cheap and convenient line of stages or a branch from the horse car lines would be a great boon to this class,” the report noted.97

Improvements to the transportation system did not take long. The horse car line was extended from Cold Spring to The Park in 1879, providing an easier and more affordable means of traveling to and from the park.

The Buffalo Street Railroad also opened additional lines in the area, including a Ferry Street line in 1885 and a Forest Avenue line that connected to The Park in 1888.98

These lines helped to open up access between the downtown, Black Rock and East Side neighborhoods to the 11th Ward and the Elmwood district, which only a decade before had been seen as a distant region.

For the Elmwood Historic District, the most significantimprovement to Buffalo’s streetcar system was the establishment of a horse car line on Elmwood Avenue. Opened on July 1, 1889, this horse-drawn line ran from Virginia Street to Forest Avenue and immediately began to improve access to the park.99

This line also dramatically opened up the still largely vacant land in Buffalo’s 11th Ward for development, ushering in the era of dramatic real estate sales and speculation. Nearly immediately following its opening, advertisements began to appear marketing the new “Elmwood district” to prospective home builders and purchasers, marking the start of a boom in real estate.

Vast improvements were made to streetcar transportation in the late decades of the 1800s. The first experimental electric streetcar service was established on the line from Main Street and Michigan Avenue to Delaware Park, via Harvard Place, Delavan, Delaware and Forest Avenues in 1889 and was noted as being an immediate success. 100 The entire line of streetcars was converted to electric power beginning in 1891 and progressed quickly in the ensuing years.101

Elmwood Avenue’s line transitioned to electric service in 1892. The new electrified cars provided several benefits to travelers, as compared to the horse-drawn cars. The electric cars traveled more quickly, which meant that people could travel greater distances in an equal amount of time. Thus, people could live further away from their place of employment, making Elmwood increasingly attractive for residential growth. At the time, most workers worked and lived, often in tenements, “downtown,” but as their income and opportunities began to increase, they were able to afford single-family houses.

At nearly the same time, the New York Central Railroad established a line that circled the city of Buffalo, known as the Belt Line. The New York Central Railroad had operated a track in the northern area of Buffalo in 1880, known as the Niagara Falls Branch, which operated a station on Main Street, near the present Jewett Avenue. However, the New York Central’s expansion in 1882, which nearly encircled the city, was an attempt by the railroad to decentralize the industrial development that was occurring on the east side and create connections to factories in other locations in Buffalo.102

Tracks cut through largely unsettled areas of the city, running north of The Park and Forest Lawn Cemetery. Stations convenient to the parks in the northern areas ofthe city were located at Central Park, near Main Street and Amherst Street, and on Delaware Street, north of the park.

On December 24, 1890 a permanent electric streetcar line was opened on Main Street, running from Cold Spring and the New York Central Railroad Belt Line station near Jewett Avenue.103 This connected the passenger service of the Belt Line with the street car system, and allowed for better access to the park area. The Olmsted-designed park gave the railroad a reason for being in this area of the city.


The introduction of streetcars in American cities in the 1870s and 1880s had a dramatic impact on the urban landscape, encouraging new types of suburban residential living remote from the urban center. While slower and less reliable horse-drawn cars were the earliest incarnation of these systems and proved an improvement in transportation, by the 1890s electric streetcars were widely being installed that provided quick and relatively affordable alternatives to pedestrian travel for many urban residents, allowing them to look beyond the dense city core for housing. As a result, new residential areas, known as streetcar suburbs, developed in many American cities around the turn of the twentieth century.

Throughout much of history, being financially well-to-do carried the benefit of living near the center of the city. This was considered a mark of prestige and wealth and also afforded proximity to businesses and commerce. The concept of suburban living implied the nobleman’s villa or country estate, typically far beyond the city limits. Typically these estates, owned by only the wealthiest and most prestigious citizens, were refuges for outbreaks of disease or extreme city heat. Being on the outskirts of the city was relegated to the middle-class and even the working-class, who faced longer walks to the city center.

Several factors influenced the growth of suburban living in the second half of the nineteenth century. Population movement was occurring in the 1800s, partly in response to the growing commercial needs that dominated American city centers in the 1800s, pushing residential use increasingly away. City centers increasingly became associated with disease, crowded conditions, pollution from factories, and noise.

Those who could afford it constructed their homes far from the city center, traveling by carriage, a phenomenon seen on Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue.

Increasing immigrant populations in cities, which saw immigrants often settling in dense communities that shared a common language and heritage, filled many of these now vacant inner city neighborhoods.

Simultaneously, new advancements in public transportation in the second half of the nineteenth century dramatically shifted the relationship of the middle-class living in the city center, replacing foot travel with horse-drawn and later electric powered streetcars. By the 1890s, most of the wealthiest were gone from city centers and, thanks to improvements in affordable public transportation, the middle-class would soon follow.

Throughout the nineteenth century, idealized residential living was characterized by open space, natural landscapes with trees and plants, and single-family homes. These philosophies of ideal neighborhoods and communities were partially modeled on older notions of individual suburban mansions set on lush, manicured grounds as symbols of not only wealth and status but also of good health and tranquility.

These notions contrasted with the housing stock in many American city centers in this era which consisted of crowded multi- story tenement buildings, with multiple families packed into small units with little light or air. This type of housing became widely associated with disease, as the density, poor ventilation and often unsanitary living conditions all contributed to the rapid spread of illness such as cholera and tuberculosis.

Streetcar suburbs generated tremendous growth in American cities beginning in the 1870s, helping to decentralize the dense urban core and providing an affordable option for a growing middle-class. Streetcars made frequent stops at short intervals along their route, creating continuous corridors of growth along the lines as they radiated out from the city core. Commercial businesses frequently developed either at key intersections along the streetcar line, or along the route of the line itself, as the streetcar brought visibility and accessibility to the stores and shops. Apartment buildings also frequently occurred along these routes, providing a less expensive living option with good access to transportation, though closer proximity to the noise of the streetcar.

Beyond the streetcar route itself, developers took advantage of the cheaper land prices, lower building costs, and public transportation systems to create new middle-class residential development.

In addition to the streetcar lines, public utilities played a significant role in shaping the development and character of these early suburban developments. As properties were dependant on connections to utilities such as water, sewer, gas and later electricity, it was common for developers to divide lots into rectangular parcels with a narrow frontage on the street. This allowed for more houses to be constructed along a street, maximizing access to utilities, and also maximizing profitability for the developer or builder. These long, narrow lots with houses sited at a regular setbacks also resulted in the creation of a “front yard” and a “backyard,” drawing on the desire for surrounding oneself in the natural landscape; while these are now typical elements of suburban development, in the 1880s and ‘90s this was a new concept. Despite the relatively small lots and closely spaced buildings, residents in these new streetcar suburbs enjoyed more light, air, space, and better sanitary conditions than those in urban centers and older residential areas at this time.

As streetcar suburbs became more widely developed and settled, the desire to regulate and ensure the “quality” of these neighborhoods became common. In an era before true zoning regulations, the most common method for controlling the nature and character of the growth of the community was often accomplished through deed restrictions. Deed restrictions could stipulate the type, use and size of building that could be constructed on the land. In some instances deed restrictions even regulated the cost of the building or the architectural style.

The introduction of the automobile and its widespread popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century spelled the end of the streetcar suburb. Initially, automobiles were incorporated into the streetcar neighborhoods, spurring the conversions of barns or the construction of new buildings to serve as automobile garages. New driveways were installed on properties.

\However, automobiles and buses quickly began to dominate transportation by the 1920s, and as ridership declined, many streetcar lines were removed and replaced with buses to make routes more flexible. Like the streetcar of a half-century earlier, the increasedspeed of the automobile allowed for further growth and expansion away from city centers, creating new automobile suburbs even more remotely located. By the 1940s the majority of streetcar lines were removed, replaced by automobiles and buses, effectively ending the era of the streetcar suburb.

95 Larned, Vol 1, 145-148.

96 Sanford B. Hunt, The Manufacturing Interests of the City of Buffalo including Sketches of the History of Buffalo : With Notices of
Its Principal Manufacturing Establishments. (Buffalo: C.F.S. Thomas, 1866), 24.

97 Fourth Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, January 1874 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Warren, Johnson &, 1874), 19.

98 Larned, Vol 1, 145-148.

99 Twentieth Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, January 1890 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Courier Company, Printers, 1890), 32.

100 D. David. Bregger, Buffalo's Historic Streetcars and Buses (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2008), 9.

101 Larned, Vol 1, 148.

102 Mark Goldman, High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 178.

103 Bregger, 9.

104 Much of this discussion is drawn from United States of America, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Historic
Residential Suburbs, by David L. Ames and Linda Flint McClelland, National Register Bulletin: (Washington D.C.: National Park Service, September 2002). Also, Alan Gowans, The Comfortable House: North American Suburban Architecture, 1890-1930 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986).

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