First Run of the Buses in Charleston

Last run of trolley cars in Charleston, Feb. 10, 1938

Eighty years ago tomorrow, what the News and Courier dubbed a “new era in public transportation” began in Charleston as trolley cars were replaced by motorized buses (“Program for Bus Service,” 1938). William D. Workman, Jr.’s collection offers images of the momentous event when, on February 10, 1938, Charleston’s 11 trolley cars made their final trip in a parade followed by the 13 new buses.

According to archivist and historian Nic Butler, public transportation in Charleston can be traced back to the first horse-drawn carriage service, which began in 1833. Over three decades later, after the Civil War, tracks were laid on the streets in downtown Charleston, and traditional four-wheeled carriages were replaced by a horse-drawn street railway system on December 15, 1866. This system was improved upon when the horse-drawn cars were replaced with electric trolley cars in the late 1890s.

The men protecting a car from the passing trolley demonstrates one of the many problems of electric streetcars on Charleston’s narrow streets.

The electric streetcars refined transportation when they were first introduced, but according to the News and Courier, as passenger automobiles became increasingly available, it became evident that a public transit upgrade would again be necessary in the near future (“From Omnibus to Omnibus,” 1938). Butler adds that the Charleston Transport Company’s purchase of a “motor omnibus” and a “taxicab style of motor car” in 1917 was “the beginning of the end for the trolley system.” 

Articles in the News and Courier reveal that Charleston tried to make the switch to motorized buses in the mid-1920s, but failed (“From Omnibus to Omnibus,” 1938). However, when the South Carolina Power Company purchased gasoline-powered buses in 1938, Charlestonians welcomed the sign of progress with open arms. The News and Courier reported that buses were considered “flexible vehicles” because they were not dependent on overhead wires and street rails. In addition to improved punctuality, the buses could also make additional stops on streets which never had trolley service (“Charleston Progresses,” 1938).

“New buses on the Battery, Feb. 10, 1938”

“First run of buses in Charleston, replacing trolley cars—Feb. 10, 1938”

The electric trolley cars had served Charleston for over 40 years when they made their final trip in 1938. After their last run, the News and Courier reported that the old cars were sold to consumers. Those in good condition were put to commercial and pleasure uses while others were salvaged for parts (“Program for Bus Service,” 1938). 

“1st bus passing last trolley in Charleston, Feb. 10, 1938”

By Mae Howe


Top to bottom: black-and-white illustration of eagle statue, text: "National Archives," divider, text: "National Historical Publications and Records Commission."Reprocessing and digitization of the William D. Workman, Jr. Papers photographs has been made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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