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1873 Streetcars start rolling

In 1873 a franchise was granted to a company called The Madison Street Railway. The franchise was for “animal power” only streetcar system. Tracks were laid down the center of the street from just below Depot Street (now Cragmont) going east to Church Street (now St. Michael’s Street) they turned south to about Ferry Street. At each end of the track there were turntables for the purpose of rotating the cars for a return trip. For years mules plodded along the track in fair weather and foul, pulling the cars from one end of town to the other. Cars started from opposite ends of the track and at a point there was a place where they converged and at that point was a switchover track. It was a place where double tracks were laid and the two cars would veer from the center of the street to the side on these tracks and in this manner they could pass each other. It was a way keep more than one streetcar on the tracks at one time. If one streetcar was a little late, the other had to wait for it so that they could make the switchover. Otherwise, the mules would come nose to nose with no way to continue. Most of the time there were four cars on the tracks at one time and synchronization was critical. With four cars on the track and no breakdowns or accidents, a person could usually expect to catch a streetcar at 15-minute intervals. The fare was five cents and, amazingly, the fare remained the same throughout the era of the streetcar in Madison.

In 1896 plans were made to transition from mule power to electricity under the company name Madison Light and Railway Company which was incorporated January 24, 1896. The mules were still employed while new tracks were laid and while a new power plant was set up. For a short period there was no service and people had to depend on “shank’s ponies” for transportation.

Early electric streetcars were a noisy and sometimes aggravating proposition. From the top of the car extended a pole which made contact with an overhead feed wire. Where the contact pole met the feed line, sparks snapped and rained down and there was a distinctive buzz as the electricity shot through the line and pole. The cars rattled along and the conductor yanked a cord which pulled a bell clapper and the resulting clang, clang, clang announced the approach of the trolley. Yes, sir, if you ever heard a street car, you never forgot the sound. It ran on a double track and occasionally a car “jumped” the track and had to be pushed back on. Young boys were known to have placed “torpedoes” (firecrackers) on the track which exploded as the car ran over them, tending to scare the wits out of conductors and passengers alike.

The electric streetcars ran in Madison until late 1919 when falling revenues and a planned street renovation caused the company to petition the city for withdrawal and shortly thereafter the cars were heard no more.

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