Electric Power for City StretsDespite the ubiquitous presence of railroads connecting American cities and towns, steam engines were not used in cities. Trolleys were a popular for form of intown transportation but they were pulled by horses. Cities were becoming increasingly civilized and modern, and while the horses did not generate massive amounts of steam and smoke, they did lay trails of manure along the tracks, and they congested the busy streets. A solution was needed for better transit systems.
In 1884, a brilliant 27-year-old engineer named Frank Julien Sprague left his job with Thomas Edison to start the Sprague Railway & Motor Company. Within 2 years his company had made significant improvements to the electric motor, and he convinced the city of Richmond, Virginia to hire him to build an electric trolley system. Over 6o communities in the U.S and Europe had tried and failed. It was no easy task. The city would have to have an electric generation plant and transmit the power along city streets without electrocuting pedestrians. In February,1888, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway began operation using overhead wires, and successfully navigating hills with a grade of more than 10%. Railway men from Boston saw this operation, and within a year, Boston too had an operating electric trolley system. Just 7 years later, 11,000 miles of streetcar track crisscrossed American cities, and shortly after the turn of the century, horse-dawn trolleys had become a thing of the past.