A mule-drawn streetcar on Main Street during the late 1880s.

Jacksonville’s affiliation with streetcars date as far back as 1879 when railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant and his associates formed the Jacksonville Street Railway Company. This investment would ultimately shape the historic urban core mixed-use districts we know and love today. Soon his mule-drawn streetcars connected downtown with Fairfield, LaVilla and what would become Riverside’s Five Points. In 1895, the streetcar system was converted from mules to electricity and extended north of Panama Park. Plant would also acquire Springfield’s Main Street Railroad, giving his companies 15 miles of streetcar lines throughout the city.

A Jacksonville streetcar shortly after being assembled by the Philadelphia-based J.G. Brill Company.

Significant growth came as a result of the Great Fire of 1901. With the core of the city largely destroyed, developer backed streetcar lines fueled the growth of streetcar suburbs such as Riverside, Murray Hill, Durkeeville, New Springfield, Brentwood, Ortega, Phoenix and South Jacksonville (San Marco). Popular 21st century commercial districts such as Five Points (Riverside), Park & King (Riverside), 8th & Main (Springfield), San Marco Square (San Marco), the First Block (Murray Hill), and Myrtle Avenue (Durkeeville) are all mixed-use commercial districts that popped up around streetcar lines serving their respective neighborhoods. Other streetcar stimulated corridors include LaVilla’s Broad Street, the Eastside’s A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, Lackawanna’s McDuff Avenue, the Rail Yard District’s West Beaver Street and San Marco’s Hendricks Avenue. In 1911, the Jacksonville Traction Company was established through the consolidation of several smaller independently operated streetcar companies. In 1912, over 13,828,904 passengers rode the system. In 1924, the opening of South Jacksonville’s line was celebrated by 10,000 citizens. The impact of the car line was immediate, leading to 100 percent increase in new home and business construction in one month. At its height, the Jacksonville Traction Company operated as Florida’s largest streetcar system, with over 60 miles of track throughout the city.

A map of Jacksonville’s former streetcar network. Courtesy of Robert Mann.

A streetcar junction at Springfield’s 8th & Main. Today, this intersection is one of the hottest up and coming commercial districts in the urban core.

The streetcar system’s demise came when it was acquired by the Motor Transit Company for $335,000 in January 1932. The Motor Transit Company then proceeded to shut down the streetcar lines, replacing them with new bus routes. On December 12, 1936, the Motor Transit Company achieved its goal in making Jacksonville the first of Florida’s major cities to cease all streetcar operations in favor of buses. In later years it was discovered that the streetcars were shut down and replaced by buses as a part of a General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Also known as the Great American streetcar scandal, the deliberate destruction of streetcars was a part of a larger strategy to push the United States into automobile dependency.

Remnants of the Main Street streetcar line surfaced in the recent reconstruction a bridge over Hogans Creek.

88 years later, the commercial districts built around Jacksonville’s defunct streetcar system have become some of the city’s most desired hotspots for pedestrian-scale vibrancy and investment validating the nationwide push to invest in fixed transit networks as catalyst for infill economic development and confirming our loss in dismantling our reliable public transit system.

Murray Hill’s popular First Block initially grew up around a streetcar line that connected the neighborhood with downtown.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com