LIMA — Workers on the Market Street project near Mercy Health St. Rita’s received a reminder Thursday of Lima’s past when they unearthed buried rail ties.
The ties were part of the east-west route of an electric railway on Market Street that transported people to and from downtown Lima, said Charles Bates, the longtime curator of transportation for the Allen County Museum. The route ran between Cole Street and the Ottawa River bridge from the late 1800s to around 1939.
“We were one of the first electrified cities in the nation,” Bates said.
The electrified streetcars replaced the horse-drawn streetcars that appeared on Lima’s streets in the late 187os, according to The Lima News archives.
The track used by the horse-drawn streetcars was pulled up and new rails for an expanded, city-wide, electrified system put down. Author Harry Christiansen recalled those times in his 1971 book, “Ohio Trolley Trails.” He noted that on July 4, 1887, a driving rainstorm couldn’t keep Lima from witnessing the first electric car in use west of the Allegheny Mountains. “It was an amazing sight in those days to see something on the streets not pulled by an animal,” he wrote.
In 1892, the tiny trolley cars of 1887 were replaced with cars with controls at both ends. “These cars, which would hold about 30 persons — ‘if you stuffed them in’ — had a conductor (or ‘trolley boy’) who earned 5 cents an hour, and the $9-a-week motorman,” a then 92-year-old Charles Fisher told The Lima News in an Oct. 14, 1953, article.
Despite the long hours, low pay and working conditions, Fisher said, “If I were young, I’d probably do it again.”
In the early days of the electric streetcar, Lima residents weren’t so sure they would do it again. “As generators sometimes faltered and the trolley cars ran late or not at all, the citizens mounted a strident, vocal critique of the very same institution they had so proudly welcomed a few years earlier,” historical society member Jack Keenan wrote.
Lima was suffering the consequences of being a pioneer in “a technology understood by very few,” Keenan noted.
In the early 1890s, with new cars and new track, dissatisfaction lessened. The Lima street railway also got the first in a string of new owners in 1893. It would change hands again in 1896, when it went into receivership, 1899, 1904, 1907, 1909 and 1923.
Nineteen twenty-three also was the last year for the trolley boys, who were hired, according to Keenan, “to collect fares, spot riders waiting at the car stops along Market and Main streets, and to warn the driver of impending hazards.”
In January 1895, the car barn at Market and Cole streets burned along with much of the company’s rolling stock. Although the car barn was lost, the streetcar company added a unique transfer station in the Public Square that year, turning an octagonal bandstand into, in Keenan’s words, “a comfortable, enclosed waiting station.”
The destroyed car barn was hurriedly replaced by a new one at the corner of South Main and Water streets, bordering the Ottawa River. In 1906, a larger, brick car barn was erected on the south side of the 100 block of West Grand Avenue.
By the 1930s, the Lima street railway covered 12 miles and, Keenan wrote, “played a monumental role in the economic and social growth of Lima. The trolley lines nurtured the Lima suburbs and tied together the business, industrial and residential areas of a fast-growing municipality.
”They were the piston that drove the city,” he said. “They deserve to be remembered.”
Greg Hoersten, who writes the weekly Reminisce feature in The Lima News, contributed to this story.