Historical Markers
First Electric Cars Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

First Electric Cars

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
Courthouse Square, Adams and Spruce Streets, Scranton

Dedication Date:
September 15, 1948

Behind the Marker

On November 29, 1886, ice and snow covered the streets of markerScranton. This did not, however, prevent engineers of the newly formed Scranton Suburban Electric Railway from beginning trial runs of their innovative electric "street cars." In four and a half minutes, Car No. 4 traveled five blocks, from the intersection of Franklin and Lackawanna to Adams and Spruce. Operating the car was Charles Van Depoele (1846-1892), an inventor from Chicago who had developed the overhead collection system that powered the cars. Although a short circuit halted a second run, the company began business the following day, with cars running from the city center to Green Ridge, making this one of the first commercial electric-street car services in America.

A man stands next to a trolley.
flip zoom
Scranton Suburban Electric Railway car No. 4 on its test run, Scranton, PA,...
In 1886, Scranton was a city on the rise. It was the second-largest iron producer in the United States, the rail transportation hub of northeastern Pennsylvania, and center of the Commonwealth's booming anthracite-coal industry. Three decades later, National Geographic would proclaim that "no other city of its class in the world was richer that Scranton!" In this booming industrial metropolis the need for quicker, more efficient transportation for its growing populace motivated businessman Edward B. Sturgis to expand and improve street service in the city.

Horse-drawn street railways had been transforming American cities since their introduction in the 1830s, by providing a fast and affordable alternative to walking. Horse drawn street cars helped cities expand. But they also had their problems. The animals had to be fed and stabled, the distance and speed at which they could pull cars was limited, and their manure-and all too often their dead bodies-littered the streets and were breeding grounds for diseases. In 1872, an outbreak of disease in the eastern United States killed thousands of horses, limiting railway service and drawing renewed attention to the need for a more effective and sanitary means to power the cars.

Steam-powered cars appeared in Philadelphia in 1872, but the smoke and cinders that the engines emitted offended passengers and city dwellers alike. In 1882, the city boasted its first cable cars, which were moved along the tracks by gripping to a continuously moving cable that was wound by a giant wheel pulled by a steam engine.

This is a view of Chestnut Street from a high vantage point showing the double horsecar tracks with horsecars on them. The skating rink is a large red brick building, surrounded by a lumber yard. Next to that is the "L. Power Wood Working" business. Left, across the street on the corner is an unidentified tavern. The #20 horsecar has Fairmount Park as its destination. There are several pedestrians in this scene.
Horsecar lines at the intersection of Chestnut Street and 23rd Street, Philadelphia,...
In the early 1880s, several inventors, including Thomas Edison, conducted experiments with electric railways. In Allegheny, Pa. (now Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhood), Joseph R. Finney tested a two-wire overhead system in 1882. And in Newark, N.J., English-born inventor Leo Daft developed an overhead system that used a device with wheels called a "troller" that ran along the wires to collect the current. But it was Charles Van Depoele who developed the first system powerful and practical enough to run the first commercial street cars.
Horse-drawn wagons and carriages, an electric trolley car, and pedestrians congest a cobblestone Philadelphia street.
Street traffic on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, PA, 1897.

Born in Belgium in 1846, Van Depoele immigrated to the United States in 1869. A prolific inventor, he secured patents for many of his creations. On August 25, 1885, he patented an electric railway. Soon after Van Depoele registered his patent, Edward B. Sturges engaged him to design an electric street railway in Scranton for his new company, Scranton Suburban. Scranton Suburban constructed the line between July and November under Van Depoele's direction. At the same time company engineers installed 15-horsepower motors on the front platforms of two Pullman cars. The initial system also employed the "trollers" that Leo Daft had developed for the Baltimore street-car system the previous year. When these repeatedly detached from the cables, Van Depoele replaced them with a pole device.

Soon, other horse-car lines in Scranton switched to electricity, and cities across the Commonwealth and the nation were adopting electric railway systems. Electrified trolley systems expanded cities, gave rise to street-car suburbs, and linked cities to towns, and to amusement parks and baseball stadiums built near their terminuses. By 1923 Pennsylvania had more than 4,625 miles of electrified street-car lines. The nickels and dimes paid by urban streetcar riders made some of the owners of traction car companies and the political machines that sold the franchises very wealthy and powerful men, including Philadelphia Transit Company president Peter A.B. Widener (1834-1915) whose vast art collection, one of the finest in America, was later divided between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The electrified street cars that transformed American cities were common in Pennsylvania into the mid-1900s, when buses and automobiles, replaced them. The Scranton Suburban streetcar company remained in business until 1954.
Back to Top