Woodford County

Streetcars served Lexington well for half a century

If you've followed the ups and downs of LexTran since its creation in 1972, you might be surprised to know that Lexington has a rich history of public transportation.

That history is chronicled in the book Traction in the Blue Grass, by William M. Ambrose.

Omnibuses, which resembled oversized stagecoaches, first appeared on Lexington streets in 1874, offering rides for a nickel. They were succeeded by horse-drawn streetcars in 1882 and electric streetcars in 1890.

The first Interurban streetcars began running between Lexington and Georgetown in 1902. By 1910, lines to Paris, Versailles and Nicholasville had been added.

Lexington's privately owned streetcar and Interurban systems were always dicey financially, with companies coming and going amid recessions and labor strikes that sometimes turned violent.

In 1926, Lexington streetcars carried a record 7 million passengers. But as more people bought cars, ridership fell.

Motorized buses appeared in Lexington in 1925. General Motors promoted Lexington as an example of how its buses could be more economical than capital-intensive streetcar systems.

By 1932, Lexington streetcar ridership was off 40 percent from the 1926 peak. Interurbans stopped running in 1934, and the last Lexington streetcar clanged to a halt on April 21, 1938.

"The problem with the trolleys was they came along about the same time as the motorcar," Ambrose said in an interview. "That really did them in."

One legacy of Lexington's streetcar system is the power plant built to run it. That operation grew by also selling power to businesses and homes. Eventually, it became known as Kentucky Utilities.

Ambrose's book is available at the Lexington History Museum, which has an exhibit on Lexington public transportation.

Tom Eblen