The Boston subway system was America’s first — its first underground train carried passengers in 1897, seven years before New York’s — and it forever changed the city and the concept of big-city transportation.
And it might never have happened without Richmond.
A new documentary makes the case that mass transit’s pioneering path came right through our fair city.
The name to remember is Frank Julian Sprague, a young inventor with big ideas and a total belief in himself who was a major force in the development of the electric motor. It was his celebrated work in Richmond — the almost miraculous construction of an electric streetcar system in less than a year — that made him a star and caught the attention of a wealthy financier in Boston who hired him to electrify Boston’s streetcars, which led a few years later to the subway.
“His story is just so fascinating,” said filmmaker Michael Rossi, who wrote, produced and directed “The Race Underground,” an hourlong documentary that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the PBS series “American Experience” (WCVE-23 and WHTJ-41). The film, based in part on Doug Most’s book of the same name, is primarily about the how the Boston subway came to be, but Sprague gets a few solid minutes.
“He’s a brilliant guy ... who comes of age in the age of electricity,” Rossi said in a phone interview from his home in Newbury, Mass. “He has a very large ego and thinks he can change the world and essentially wants to be Thomas Edison. He’s champing at the bit to be a part of this.”
And Richmond gave him his chance.
“It was astounding,” said John Moeser, a senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It would not be an exaggeration to say it was a world wonder.”
Educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sprague went to sea in the late 1870s and early 1880s — right around the time Edison was filing a patent for the first practical incandescent lamp — and he filled sketchbooks with drawings of inventions he dreamed up. The sketches included an electrified subway system inspired by a visit to the London Underground, where coal-powered steam engines spewed soot and created an unpleasant experience for passengers.
Sprague saw great promise for the electric motor, and he went to work for Edison for a brief period. However, motors weren’t part of his assignment, so he left to strike out on his own. Electricity was still so new that it was viewed as pure magic by some and exceedingly dangerous by others, so Sprague’s task was not only to prove that an electric motor was capable of powering a railcar but that it could do so without killing and maiming and burning down the town.
He didn’t do so well in that regard with an audition for a potential investor in New York City, almost catching the man on fire when the motor malfunctioned during the demonstration. Undeterred, Sprague knew his motors would work, but he needed a proving ground and he needed it fast because he didn’t have an endless supply of money. That place turned out to be Richmond.
The Richmond Union Passenger Railway Co. hired Sprague to build an electric railway system, but the terms were ridiculous. The company wanted an entire system — 12 miles of track, 40 railcars, a power-generating plant and overhead electrical lines, all in a city of hills that represented a substantive challenge for horses as well as these new motors — built in 90 days. It was absurd, but Sprague agreed and, though it ended up taking him eight months, Moeser said, it was a remarkable feat when it was completed in 1888. Not only that, when it was done Richmond had a functioning streetcar system and a model for the rest of the world to follow.
Boston industrialist Henry Whitney, who was looking to electrify his horse-drawn streetcar lines in Boston, visited Richmond to see how the electric streetcars worked. Sprague staged a bodacious demonstration of one car after another going up a hill to prove its capabilities. Whitney was sold, and Sprague was hired to work on the Boston system.
“There’s certainly no doubt his demonstration to Whitney and its success was an important turning point in the history of mass transit in America and in the history of mass transit in the world,” Brian J. Cudahy, a transportation historian, says in the film.
Adds Clifton Hood, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in the film, “There’s a search for a practical mechanical mode of transportation, and what Frank Sprague’s invention means is that we’ve ended that search. We’ve found it. It’s a big distance from this little railway in Virginia to the Boston subway, but you can envision going there now.”
In Richmond, the streetcars served the area well. They enabled the city to grow and the suburbs to develop until cars and buses took over and the system was dismantled in 1949. For some reason, officials decided to signal the end of the streetcar era by burning many of the streetcars.
Now, a new bus rapid transit line that would act something like streetcars without rails is in the works for Richmond. The build-out envisioned would take place over decades, making what Sprague achieved in the 1880s even more remarkable.
“There were places that had (electric) streetcars before Richmond, but no city had a streetcar network, so that really put Richmond on the map,” Moeser said. “That was cutting-edge stuff. It was just unparalleled, and Frank Sprague was a genius that accomplished all of that in such a short period of time.”