Last week’s H Street festival showed, once again, what a vibrant neighborhood this has once again become. Still missing in the picture are, of course, the light rail cars for which the tracks have been laid. And that’s a pity, because it was street cars that made H street what it was originally. Today, we’ll look at the first company to run tracks down the middle of H street for the transportation of Washingtonians.
The Columbia Street Railway Company was founded in 1869 by Henry A. Willard, who had also given his name to the downtown hotel still bears it today. In spite of the fairly grand name, this was not an enormous enterprise: They owned exactly one stretch of track, which ran from 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a block east of the White House, up New York Avenue to Mount Vernon Square, then down Massachusetts Avenue to H Street, then due east from there to H and 15th NE. And there were no nice, silent, electric-powered streetcars on this route: These were horse-drawn carriages running on tracks.
Nonetheless, they provided an important service, and allowed middle-class government workers to move well away from their jobs, and past the working-class neighborhood of Swampoodle (which was just north of Union Station) and into accommodations fitting to their lifestyle.
H Street responded enthusiastically. In 1874, the District government wanted to raise taxes on the streetcars, so Henry Willard had a report prepared in which it enumerated the benefits that his railway had wrought. The value of the land along H Street had doubled, while the value of the improvements thereon had gone up by a factor of two and a half– and this in less than 5 years.
At the end of the 19th Century, after a brief attempt at converting to cable cars – in fact, the last such conversion in the United States – the streetcars were converted to electric power. This only increased the value of the land, and over the next years, almost all the houses along H Street – which in 1900 had still been mainly residential – became businesses.
However, the Columbia Street Railway company would see none of these changes. Its owners had borrowed too heavily and found themselves in financial trouble. The Washington and Great Falls Railway bought up a number of lines that found themselves in similar straights and reformed as the Washington Railway and Traction Company. This marked the end of the Columbia Railway, but hardly the end of streetcars on H Street.
For the next 50 or so years, streetcars continued to ply the street, carrying passengers across the city, but as buses became more fashionable, streetcars began to go the way of the cable car, and well before 1962, when the last streetcar was pulled from the streets of DC, the H Street track was no longer in use.