Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
Today, the Tristate Transit Authority’s historically-styled “trolley buses” are a familiar sight around Huntington with the clanging sound of their bells filling the downtown air every day as they warn passers-by of their approach.
But did you know that electric streetcars were the framework around which the early city was built?
According to local historian James Casto, the first electric streetcar in the world began operation on Feb. 2, 1888 in Richmond, Virginia. Local lore suggests that Huntington, West Virginia, had the second streetcar in the world as service began in December of that same year. However, efforts to confirm this have come up empty.
Huntington’s early rail lines were a disjointed collection of separate entities with two competing companies, the “Huntington Electric Light and Street Railway Co.” and the “Huntington Belt Line,” fighting for dominance in the city. It was a similar situation in the surrounding communities like Ashland, Kentucky, and Ironton, Ohio.
By 1900, the competing railways were doing each other enough damage that everybody was operating in the red financially. But one local businessman, Z.T. Vinson, saw the potential for consolidating the companies into one interconnected route called the “Ohio Valley Electric Railway Co.” Without the disposable wealth to acquire the smaller railways himself, he solicited an investor in the form of U.S. Senator Johnson M. Camden of Parkersburg.
With a new company name of the “Camden Interstate Railway Co.”, the new line soon connected Huntington to Ashland by way of Kenova and Catlettsburg.
In the early days of Huntington, before Henry Ford created assembly line production and few households owned an automobile, people depended on the city’s streetcars to get them to and from work every day. But ridership dropped severely in the evenings and on weekends as people tended to stay home.
So, in 1902, to encourage more people to ride the streetcars on the weekends, the Camden Railway opened a small picnic area just west of Huntington in Wayne County. In 1903, a pavilion and a few amusement park rides were added. Today, more than 110 years later, “Camden Park” is still in use as the only amusement park in West Virginia and one of the oldest such parks in the United States.
After Sen. Camden died in 1908, the railway reverted back to its original name as the Ohio Valley Railway Co. and continued to expand with routes all the way to Spring Hill Cemetery and double-tracks in many parts of downtown.
While the electric rail continued to expand and thrive, the seeds for the future of Huntington transportation were being sown when, in 1909, D.W.B. McCown of Guyandotte, bought a truck and started offering bus service in competition with the streetcars. The venture ultimately failed, but the winds of change could be felt.
By the mid-1920s, Ohio Valley Electric had organized a new gasoline-powered division called the “Ohio Valley Bus Co.” By 1933, it was offering bus service all the way to the new veterans hospital in Spring Valley. That same year, Ohio Valley welcomed a new president, Fred W. Samworth, who believed that gasoline, and not electricity, was the future of public transit.
On Nov. 7, 1937, Mr. Samworth achieved his vision when the last streetcar ran from Guyandotte to the West End making Huntington the first city in West Virginia to be serviced entirely by gasoline-powered buses.