Tracing the Tracks: The Rich History of Tampa’s Streetcar Unveiled
The history of Tampa’s famed streetcar, which runs through the heart of Water Street Tampa.
By Ray Roa Photos by Adrian O’Farrill
Late last September, Tampa and Ybor City received news that its beloved streetcar would remain fare-free for at least one more year. The service has been free to ride for the last five, and while it travels on just 2.7 miles of track between Centennial Park in the historic district and the Whiting Station near Hattricks tavern in downtown, its windows into Tampa’s can see much further than that. And as phase two of Water Street Tampa development gets underway this year, residents and visitors who listen carefully enough can hear how the trolley whistles echoing off a new generation of high-rises are connected to more than 130 years of history.
Tampa’s streetcars were Florida’s first. Like the modern version, the lines initially ran the streets in between Ybor City and the Town of Tampa (known today as downtown). That was in 1885, two decades before the first cars were registered in Florida. The streetcar’s earliest riders were blue collar folks commuting to and from work in cigar factories, the port, and in the phosphate industry. At the time, the service connected two radically different neighborhoods, each dominated by a specific demographic and politics. Downtown was mainstream and conservative, while Ybor was diverse and politically-radical. While it was not a unifier, the streetcar still brought people together.
“It definitely was a connector,” Rodney Kite-Powell, Director of the Touchton Map Library and Florida Center for Cartographic Education at the Tampa Bay History Center, tells Current. The trolley was how to see the city and show off its many sides, and while folks with chauffeurs may have never taken a ride, most everyone else did.
“Generally speaking, everybody’s going to be on that same car at some point, going around town. It was such an important part of his life in Tampa,” Kite-Powell adds.
That first iteration was pulled by a steam-powered train operated by the Tampa Street Railway Company. The advent of the electric streetcar in 1887 set in motion a rapid expansion of public transit.
When multiple companies started operating trolleys locally, a rate war soon pushed the price of a ride down to as low as two cents, driving Tampa Street Railway and Power Company into bankruptcy. The company was purchased by Consumer Electric, which nearly went belly up itself, before its founder Peter O. Knight reorganized as Tampa Electric Company (TECO). By 1913, almost 30 years after the first trolley hit the streets of Tampa, TECO was the city’s lone provider of electricity and public transportation.
At the height of its existence, there were more than 50 miles of track that connected West Tampa, Ybor City, the port, plus neighborhoods like Seminole and Tampa Heights, Hyde Park, Port Tampa, Palmetto Beach and even Ballast Point where there was an amusement park and pavilion. Fares topped out at a nickel, and Kite-Powell said children even took the trolley to school and paid just half the fare. One train schedule archived at the history center shows the first car on the Tampa Heights line leaving before 6 a.m. and the last one running at half-past midnight. During rush hour, the cars came by every 9-10 minutes (today it runs every 12 minutes during peak hours).
Manny Leto, a lifelong Tampeño and Ybor City historian, tells Current both of his grandmothers used the streetcar throughout their lives. One rode it from West Tampa to the neighborhood of Gary, just outside Ybor, to work in a Del Monte canning plant. But it wasn’t just for work.
“My other grandmother has told me a story about riding the streetcar to the Tampa theater, apparently with a girlfriend, to go meet some boys on a date,” he says. So you see this level of independence that the streetcar provides, especially for young women from what was primarily immigrant communities riding into downtown, or riding into other parts of the city using the streetcar.”
Census data from 1920 and 1930 says Tampa’s population ballooned from 51,608-101,161 in that decade, which undoubtedly boosted ridership. At the height of its popularity in 1926, the TECO streetcar line carried nearly 24 million passengers. To put that in perspective: today’s streetcar carried just over 1 million passengers last year, despite the city’s population being 387,050 in 2021.
But no story is spotless, and there were ugly times in the streetcar’s history.
Segregation was a part of life on the trolley, and as Kite-Powell points out, at the end of each line, when the front of the trolley became the back, both white and Black passengers had to change seats. By the 1940s, the advancement of the automobile industry had shifted the conversation about public transit, with taxis and buses taking an outsize role, and that competition led to neglect of the trolley system. Politics, power, and labor struggles didn’t help.
The end of the line for Tampa’s streetcars arrived at 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1946 when, as University of South Florida researcher Meeghan Kane wrote, “the last of the 168 streetcars that had traveled 9,000 miles a day over 53 miles of track came to a halt.” The final car was retired at the old trolley barn that is now Tampa’s Armature Works. The streetcars were mostly stripped, gutted and shipped in parts to other sections of the globe.
It took another 38 years before Tampeños started talking about streetcars again thanks to the Tampa & Ybor Street Railway Society founded in 1984 (former mayor Dick Greco, immortalized at trolley stop No. 10, was a big backer). The group lobbied hard for the trolley’s return, and, not without controversy, won when roughly $32 million was dedicated to bringing trolley tracks back.
Trolley bells returned to Tampa, tolling again in 2002. A second phase wrapped eight years later, which is what riders experience in the trolley line that passes through Water Street today. And the streetcar might’ve been growing as fast as the neighborhood around it had it not hit another speed bump.
In 2018, Hillsborough County voters elected to increase their own taxes to collect money for transportation. In two years, the “All For Transportation” penny-tax collected $472 million and was projected to round up about $276 million annually for the life of the 30-year measure. The state announced plans to send tens of millions to streetcar expansion and modernization. But it was all harpooned by a lawsuit from Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, which ended with the Florida Supreme Court striking the charter amendment in its entirety. A retry from transportation advocates narrowly failed at the ballot box last year.
Still, the streetcar rolls on.
Today, TECO operates “The Birney,” a fully-restored original Tampa streetcar that survived the line’s death knell in 1946 and wears No. 136. There’s one, classic open-air breezer that you need a lot of luck and great weather to catch (TECO ran 50 breezers back in 1914), plus close to a dozen replica streetcars designed after the original Birney Safety streetcars that dominated local lines for 20 years last century (the numbers on the replicas start at 428 since the final car on this system was No. 427). And with the recent $700,000 Florida Department of Transportation grant to keep the trolley fare-free, residents and visitors can still experience a slice of Tampa’s transportation glory days—and hang on to some hope for the future.
From a civic standpoint, Kite-Powell still sees potential for the streetcar to expand and reach back all the way into Tampa Heights, in a nod to its glory days. And while some have labeled the trolley as “heritage tourism” that just carries tourists (local and otherwise), the fact is that workers are part of that ridership.
The TECO streetcar is still a great connector, and as Water Street rises around it, its bells and whistles still have many stories to tell.