By Ed Wendell
It was 75 years ago this month that Woodhaven bid farewell to an old friend. Trolley cars, which had served Woodhaven along Jamaica Avenue for over 8 decades, trundled to a halt, replaced by a brand-new fleet of modern buses.
These days, there is a lot of nostalgia for the old trolley cars. However, the switch to bus lines was quite popular among residents of our community. “Woodhavenites Hail Bus Line as Jamaica Avenue Trams Go” read a headline in the Leader-Observer which praised the much faster service the buses offered.
“With the buses stopping at every other block instead of every other block as was the custom of trolley cars, a speed-up in transportation is already in evidence,” the article from December 1947 stated.
The Leader-Observer profiled trolley motorman John Horgan, who they described as being well-known in Woodhaven. He should have been well known as he was the oldest motorman on the Jamaica Avenue trolley line.
Over the 40 years that Horgan rode the rails on Jamaica Avenue, it was estimated that he traveled over 900,000 miles, or nearly 4 trips around the world!
Trolley service in Woodhaven started in October 1865 as horse-drawn coaches rode on tracks along Jamaica Avenue. The ride between East New York and 78th Street in the Union Course section of Woodhaven cost 10 cents, which was considered very high.
The horses and cars were kept in an old barn that used to be a part of the Union Course racetrack on the southeast corner of 78th Street and Jamaica, where Domino’s Pizza sits today. When the trolley car reached that corner, the driver would get off and walk the horse around to the other side of the car for the return trip to Brooklyn.
Once a passenger reached Woodhaven, they could catch an old fashioned stage coach to Richmond Hill or Jamaica for an additional 10 cents. Within a few years, the horse drawn trolleys were so successful that single-fare service was extended all the way to Jamaica.
In 1887 the trolley line along Jamaica Avenue was electrified with large generators now housed in the old barns of the racetrack. This was so successful that within a few years, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit took over and modernized the entire line.
With brand new trolley cars and reliable power, the standard for local travel would be in place for the next 60 years. The elevated trains would be built above the trolley lines in 1916 and the two modes of transportation co-existed for several decades.
In 1947, the Leader-Observer described the last trolley ride through Woodhaven:
“On Woodhaven Boulevard, a street cleaner leaned wearily on the handle of his broom as he watched a passing phenomenon. A train overhead rumbled a farewell, for they had been friends for a long time, with no misgivings.”
They described the “lumbering” trolley’s last run, and how it was easily passed by a fast bus trailing a cloud of evaporating diesel fumes. And they wondered just how long the elevated train would remain before being replaced by a modern underground subway.
75 years later, trolley cars have become a romanticized piece of nostalgia for those who never rode them, and a fond memory for those who were lucky enough to experience them.
The story of the old trolley line will be a part of “A Woodhaven Christmas Carol,” a candlelight historical walking tour of Woodhaven complete with Christmas caroling this Friday, December 16th.
We will be meeting up at Neir’s Tavern between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. before heading to Jamaica Avenue, stopping to sing holiday songs along the way. Email us at [email protected] for more information.
We will be making stops at Sal’s Pizza (for a song in honor of the late Dominic Brienza), Pop’s Cocina, the Tree at Forest Parkway before ending up at Geordie’s Joint at 80th and Jamaica.
Come out and enjoy a night of song and local history, everyone is welcome. The trolleys of Jamaica Avenue will be just one of the Ghosts of Christmas Past we’ll be conjuring up!