Milestones:Richmond Union Passenger Railway, 1888


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Richmond, VA, U.S.A.
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Richmond Union Passenger Railway, 1888

Richmond, VA Dedicated February 1992 - IEEE Richmond Section

In February 1888, the electric street railway system designed by Frank Julian Sprague for the Richmond Union Passenger Railway began operating in Richmond, Virginia. Sprague's Richmond system became the lasting prototype for electric street railways because of its large-scale practicality and operating superiority. This system, which combined Sprague's engineering innovations with other proven technical features, helped shape urban growth worldwide.

Richmond Union Passenger Railway.jpg

The IEEE plaque may be viewed on weekdays in the main atrium of the West Hall of the Engineering Building of Virginia Commonwealth University, 601 W Main St, at the corner of Main and Belvidere. There is also a Virginia State historical marker at the site of intersection of two of the trolley lines, on North 5th Street between Marshall and Leigh streets, in Richmond, Virginia, in the park next to the Richmond Colosseum.

In the fields of electrical engineering and urban transportation, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway produced immediate, profound and lasting beneficial impacts around the world. In 1888, Frank Sprague accomplished in Richmond what his professional peers and industry observers said was impossible. He convincingly demonstrated that electric power could be successfully harnessed to achieve the sustained operation of a large-scale street railway system.

The Sprague system configuration of electric street railway components used in Richmond in 1888 became an industry prototype which was used on the great majority of all subsequent electric street railways. It is interesting to note that the Thomson-Houston Company, Sprague's closest competitor, modified the earlier Van Depoele system to include many essential design features of the Sprague system of electric traction. General Electric, Westinghouse and others also developed systems of electric traction which were based on the Sprague prototype.

Prior to the opening of the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, there were seventy-four attempts in more than sixty communities in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe to demonstrate the feasibility of electric street railway service. These pre-Richmond experimental attempts produced marginal to unsatisfactory results. These earlier operating attempts are described in detail and compared with the Richmond Union Passenger Railway system in an extensively documented research study prepared by W. Earl Long, the former Transportation Coordinator for the City of Richmond.

The Sprague system in Richmond showed a skeptical general public and elected political officials that electric traction was convenient, reliable and safe. In that era, the use of electricity was widely viewed with great suspicion and in some cases open hostility .The Richmond electric street railway system was a convincing public demonstration implemented on a large scale under extremely difficult topographic and operating conditions. After a trip to Richmond on September 7, 1888 to observe the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, the Boston City Council was so convinced of the results that they returned home and gave final approval for the second large-scale street railway electrification project. The electric street railway system built by the West End Railway Company of Boston confirmed the success of Sprague's Richmond system prototype.

Electric street railways patterned after Sprague's Richmond system helped to shape the growth of cities, towns and communities around the world. After the opening of the Richmond system, the relationship between land use and transportation was greatly reinforced. The cores of central cities grew and prospered as neighborhoods and streetcar suburbs developed along electric street railway lines. These lines served as an economic catalyst that directly linked consumer markets with marketplaces, and workers with work places. They also functioned as a catalyst for community social and cultural activities by linking cultural and recreational resources with their patrons.

Electric street railway systems, like the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, were not just a means of affordable transportation for hundreds of millions of passengers. They became local institutions and an integral part of a way of life in the communities they served. From birth to death, the lives of generations of people around the world were closely intertwined with and influenced by electric street railways. The Sprague system demonstrated to hesitant cable car and horse car operators that it was feasible to build electric street railway systems that were large enough to provide significant transit service and to be operationally practical. The Richmond system was orders of magnitude larger than earlier experimental electric street railways. It was over 3 times larger than the average electric railway built up to that time with over 8 times as many self-propelled electric streetcars.

The Richmond Union Passenger Railway stimulated a worldwide urban transportation revolution. The revolution that began on the streets of Richmond was so intense and rapid that in a little over a decade animal-powered street railways (the dominant form of street railways before Richmond) had all but disappeared. The magnitude and intensity of the revolution that began in Richmond is almost without parallel in the history of technological change. Sprague's Richmond Union Passenger Railway system launched the rapid development of a worldwide electric street railway industry which evolved as a major part of the electric power industry of today.

The Sprague system dramatically pointed out to the financial community that it was economically feasible for private investors to finance the construction of large, all-new electric street railway systems, including track, vehicles, power plant, and overhead electric distribution. By 1895, almost 900 electric street railways and nearly 11,000 miles of track had been built in the United States with funds provided by private investors. Electric street railways based on the Sprague system prototype were built almost exclusively with private capital.

For well over half a century after the opening of the Richmond system in 1888, privately owned and operated electric street railways provided dependable public transportation without government subsidy. During much of this period, judicious use was made of urban streets for moving people. Since the mid-1930's, public policy changes have placed much greater emphasis on the movement of vehicles than on the efficient movement of people. These changes in public policy were major factors that led to the elimination of electric street railways and to the near extinction of privately owned and operated public transportation systems.

After more than a century, the electric traction technology perfected by Sprague in Richmond in 1888 continues to be operationally practical, cost effective, user friendly, and environmentally sound. Instead of disappearing into folklore and legend, the Sprague system prototype has survived adverse public policy changes and is being increasingly used around the world as an integral part of balanced transportation systems and is embodied in the design of many modern Light Rail Transit systems. Its enduring transportation service qualities, passenger appeal, and economic development potential have also resulted in the reintroduction of historic electric street railway lines that use restored vintage and replica streetcars.

Electric street railway service in Richmond ended on November 25, 1949 -almost sixty-two years after the worldwide electric street railway revolution began on February 2, 1888. Fortunately for future generations, the electric street railway technology patterned after Sprague's 1888 Richmond prototype lives on and may survive indefinitely. This enduring transportation technology is a lasting gift to the world from Frank Julian Sprague and the citizens of Richmond, Virginia.

Frank Sprague (1857-1934) was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a former research associate of Thomas Edison. Sprague is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in the same state where his spectacular technical achievement in 1888 stimulated a worldwide urban transportation revolution.

Sprague's prototype electric street railway system in 1888 may well be the greatest technological achievement in the history of the City of Richmond, Virginia. This achievement has now been permanently acknowledged worldwide by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in its award of an Electrical Engineering Milestone for the Richmond Union Passenger Railway.

Further Reading

The Birth of Electric Traction: The Extraordinary Life of Inventor Frank J. Sprague published by the IEEE History Center Press

For those readers and researchers interested in reading more about his work, The Frank Julian Sprague Memorial Library at Grand Central Terminal, New York City. maintains a research collection of historical, economic and technical literature on electric railways, as well as books and papers from Sprague’s personal collection. Extensive collections of the papers of Frank Sprague are also in the New York Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York City, and in the J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Geenville, N.C.

Papers of Frank Julian Sprague - Archival collection of Sprague's papers housed by the IEEE Archives containing correspondence and records from 1912 to 1935.


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