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Nashville now and then: From here to there

Above: Inauguration of electric streetcar service, April 1889. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Below: One more form of transport came into vogue in the 1880s and '90s -- the bicycle. But these were luxury goods when this ad ran in the Banner in May 1894. The price of the cheapest bike here, $50, works out to more than $1,000 in today's dollars.
04-27-2007 2:32 PM

Streetcar chic

He was a real live wire, old Marmaduke B. Morton. In 1930, 32 years after he took over as managing editor of the Nashville Banner, Mr. Morton published his reminiscences of "The Colorful Eighties in Nashville" as a twelve-part series in the paper. The 1880s were his years as a cub reporter in town, and this young journo had a keen eye for detail — or a vivid imagination, or a little of both.

Here's his account of the advent of electric streetcar service in Nashville at the end of April, 1889:

Suburban and municipal rapid transit came with a rush in the late eighties. The dummy lines, which were suburban railroads, with little engines, called “dummies,” came first, but were quickly followed by electrification. The Glendale dummy line was the pioneer in 1887. James E. Caldwell was the driving force in this enterprise, associated with Oscar Noel Sr. (sic: can't be Oscar French Noel Sr. of Nashville; he was born 1884)

Then in rapid succession came the Nashville & West Nashville dummy line, of which Volney James was president and the Lischey Park dummy line, promoted by E. R. Richardson and associates. In 1889, the street railway system was electrified....

The electrification of the street railways was a great occasion. Nashville was among the first cities in the country to adopt the trolley. While the wires were being put up, everybody was speculating on how the trolley could run on the main wire without being obstructed by the supporting cross wires. John W. Thomas had seen an electric line and attempted to explain this difficulty with more or less success — principally less. He called the trolley a “troller,” and he may have been correct at that.

When the great day came and the first electric car, handsomely finished with plush upholstering, appeared, the streets were crammed and jammed with a curious crowd to see the lightning harnessed. Everybody was afraid of these half-tamed thunderbolts of Jove. Some feared that the wires swung all over town would bring down the lightning from the clouds during thunderstorms and burn everything up; and were reassured with the statement that the wires were really a protection against lightning. Then the wires, just having been put up, and none too securely, would sometimes fall into the streets and create great excitement. One old gentleman on Church Street poked a live wire with his umbrella and got a shock.

In those days most of the street sprinkling was done privately by the property owners along the streets. The sprinkling was the task of the boys of the family. These were warned through the press not to squirt a stream of water on the trolley wire, as the electricity would run down the stream and strike them. It is safe to say all these young sprinklers tried the experiment at least once. Then everybody was told that the electricity in the cars would interfere with the time-keeping qualities of the watches, and that the only preventive was to be very careful and also to have a non-conductor plate put in the watches. The jewelers did a thriving business for a while.

The colored people were much exercised. It was said it took less electricity to kill a horse than to kill a Negro, and more to kill a white man than to kill a black man. The black man thought this unjust, but was none-the-less careful. Horses looked on the new contraptions with terror, and it was said every time a horse came up behind a car at a certain spot on Church Street he got a shock....

And now the trolley cars are in the sear and yellow leaf. The trolleyless cars are after them. Boys and girls now living will see trolley cars in the museums. (Nashville Banner, October 26, 1930)

Nashville as a hub, you say, American?

On Friday, May 1, 1931, scheduled air passenger service began for the first time in the Nashville area. The arrival from Cincinnati of a tri-motor Ford aircraft at Sky Harbor Airport, south of the city, kicked off American Airways' new service that featured Nashville as the hub of routes connecting Cincinnati, Atlanta, Louisville and Chattanooga.

"Postmaster Ollie F. Minton. Congressman Joseph W. Byrns of the Sixth Congressional District and officials of the Chamber of Commerce have cooperated in securing the passenger plane service," the Tennessean reported. "Plans for the air line were discussed at a meeting of American Airways officials, Charles Barham, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and J. W. Rowland, former president, at the Chamber of Commerce Saturday."

What would Jurkovich do?

Think the business of marketing a city to outside investors, through economic development boosters like Tom Jurkovich in Mayor Bill Purcell's office, is something new? Think again.

When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt decided to give a pile of money for the founding of a university that would bear his name somewhere "in or near Nashville," he set plenty of ambitious minds to work conjuring new definitions of "near."

At the end of April 1873, Nashville was in real danger of letting the Commodore's university slip away in the face of competing bids from the city of Edgefield across the river and from more distant locales such as Murfreesboro, McMinnville, Memphis and Knoxville. With a decision due in early May, Nashville's leaders displayed serious concern about what the choice might be. A recollection a few years ago told how it all turned out.

In the markets

And finally, let's turn to stocks of local interest this week in 1928. (Bid/ask quotations furnished by our friends at thriving Caldwell & Co., 400 Union Street.)

  • Shares of nine local banks are in play today, including Broadway National Bank at a bid of $290 and ask of $295, Commerce Union Bank at $207/$212, and Fourth & First National Bank at $325/$330.
    In the manufacturing sector, Nashville stove-maker Phillips & Buttorff is trading in the $110/$115 range, while its competitor Gray & Dudley is at $85/$86.
  • Transportation stocks of note include the Nashville & Franklin Inter-urban Railway Co. at $20/$30 and the Nashville & Decatur Railroad at $39/$40, as well as a transportation/energy stock, Nashville Railway & Light, at $95/$100.
  • Among the retailers, H. G. Hill Co. common shares are going for $110/$115 and preferred for $105/$107.
  • In the entertainment sector, shares of the Hermitage Hotel Co. are priced at $85/$88, while in the property business, Bransford Realty Co. comes in at $48/$50. (Nashville Tennessean, May 2, 1928)

"Nashville now and then" is a week-by-week look back at Nashville's economic, political and social history. Your thoughts, suggestions and questions are always welcome — leave them in the comments section below, or e-mail


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