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TECO subsidized the ride in the heyday of streetcars

By SAM CORSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


TAMPA -- In the late 1800s, Tampa had no automobiles and no paved roads. But it did have 21 1/2 miles of streetcar tracks.

By the early 1940s, 168 streetcars traveled 9,000 miles a day over 53 miles of track. Annual ridership exceeded 21-million. The cars ran nearly around the clock.

Harry Cunningham watched the streetcars rumble through Seminole Heights in the 1920s as the line passed his family's orange grove, the dusty street paved with oyster shell.

"Every time the darned car came by, why, there'd go the shell," recalls Cunningham, 90. "We had to keep the windows closed."

During World War II, Cunningham drove streetcars for Tampa Electric Co., which owned the entire system. Gasoline was rationed, and the streetcars were packed. He shuttled businessmen, shoppers, shipbuilders and cigar workers from Port Tampa to Sulphur Springs, from West Tampa to Ybor City and to all points in between.

"We really used to pack them in," Cunningham said of the war years. "During the rush hours, you couldn't sit down."

The ride cost a nickel, unless you went outside the city limits. That cost another nickel.

Riding the streetcars "was a joy," recalls Bob Martinez, the former Florida governor and former Tampa mayor who grew up on the Ross Avenue line in West Tampa. "They were safe and reliable transportation. . . . Most people lived within reasonable walking distance of a streetcar line. They were built to follow the cigar factories and other job markets. It caused business to locate along them."

It all came to a screeching halt early one morning in the summer of '46.

A combination of forces -- social and economic -- worked against Tampa's streetcars.

The nickel ride was a boon to riders and an article of faith for Peter O. Knight, the man most responsible for establishing the streetcar system and turning TECO into a corporate titan.

"Peter O. Knight always said he'd never raise rates," recalls Cunningham. The fare remained a nickel for 50 years.

TECO used revenue from electricity customers to subsidize the operation. "Knight was always cognizant that public transportation must meet the needs of the people," Tampa cardiologist Peter O. Knight IV says of his grandfather. He viewed the electric lighting business as an acceptable form of subsidy for the city's transportation needs.

But in 1943 a court concluded that electric customers could not be forced to pay for streetcars. It was the beginning of the end for Tampa's streetcar system.

In January 1946, TECO put the entire system up for sale. Only one buyer stepped forward -- a bus line called Tampa Transit, which had offered to buy the system twice before, in 1939 and 1941.

Tampa Transit was a subsidiary of National City Lines of Chicago, which in 1946 was found guilty of anti-trust violations for colluding with General Motors, Firestone and Greyhound to replace trolleys with buses in cities across the country. Tampa's system was not part of that case. Each company was fined $5,000.

Tampa Transit paid TECO $85,000 for Tampa's streetcar system, which it quickly shut down and replaced with buses.

At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday Aug. 3, 1946, the last streetcar pulled into the car barn on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa Heights, now the home of Tampa Armature Works.

Money was not the only factor.

The post-war economy boomed, and automobiles grew in popularity. They also grew in size. Bigger cars meant less space in roadways for streetcar tracks, which generally ran down the middle of major arteries. Cars gave people the ability to move out to the burgeoning suburbs, where the streetcars didn't go. They also gave people freedom to go where they wanted when they wanted.

"People just didn't want to wait any longer," Cunningham said. "It just became more convenient to take your own car."

When buses replaced the streetcars, passengers at first didn't see a big difference in service, said Helen Benito, who rode streetcars as a girl from her home in West Tampa to school in Ybor City. "But then they stopped running as often. They didn't turn out to be like the streetcars."

By the late '60s, all the original track had been removed or paved over. A few of the yellow Berneys were converted to chicken coops and other odd uses. Many were shipped to South America for continued service. Others were simply burned.

Knight suffered a stroke in his later years that confined him to his home in Hyde Park, which overlooked a streetcar line. "Toward the end of his life," his grandson recalls, "he'd sit in a big armchair and watch the trolleys go by on their way to the Bayshore. I think it reminded him of the electric company and his contribution to it over the years."

Knight died on Nov. 26, 1946, less than four months after Tampa's last streetcar left the line.

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