original artwork by Brandon Martinez
I have a horrible, humiliating fear of driving, especially in Miami. If anyone asks, I tell them I don’t have a car; the truth is I’d like a car but will hyperventilate at the wheel. Before rideshare services arrived in Miami, I’d take the Northwest 2nd Avenue bus to Barry University, where I volunteered at art classes for teenagers (who could definitely drive). The Metrorail was useful if I needed to go south, but I usually didn’t. I missed both the breadth of public transportation in other cities I’d lived in and the acknowledgment of pedestrians not as inconveniences or anomalies, but rather as part and parcel of city life. Miami roadways often feel apocalyptic: cars burst into flames, raging drivers threaten each other with guns. Post-Covid lockdown, traffic has increased—perhaps due in part to rapid gentrification and the arrival of new residents drawn to the city’s dearth of pandemic regulations. There’s plenty of development but none, it seems, designed to make the city more traversable.
Imagine instead that it’s 1925, the height of Miami’s land boom and one year before the Great Hurricane of 1926 (maybe in this vision, you don’t know what a hurricane is yet, or that one is coming). You’re on Miami Beach, exiting the original Nautilus Hotel near 43rd Street, full of tourists fresh from the swimming pool and warmed by the heat. You’re headed toward the nearby streetcar stop on Alton Road. Car 302 has beige doors with a navy trim band and roof to match; its yolk-yellow color is bright and radiant in the sun. Ten cents gets you inside, where it’s roomy and wide with comfortable wooden slats for seats. Ambling south along the strip of freshly planted palm trees and recently erected hotels, you exit at 5th Street and board another car to take you across the County Causeway to downtown Miami. Traveling over the bay, the water seems close enough to skim your feet, and you briefly fear you’ll fall in. On the mainland, South Florida’s hub is bustling with new residents, construction stretching upward. It appears the expansion will never cease.
Intermittently halted by hurricanes, recessions, and fires, Miami’s streetcar system ultimately ran from 1906 to 1940, along the way comprising five different companies and 100 cars traveling from mid-Miami Beach to its southern tip, across the causeway, through downtown Miami, up toward 36th Street, and back south through Coral Gables—which had its own system of coral-pink interurbans. These lines are profiled extensively in Edward Ridolph’s 1981 publication Biscayne Bay Trolleys – Street Railways of the Miami Area. Ridolph, who spent most of his life in Florida, published 9 books on trolleys in his lifetime, with the Miami treatise being one of his most comprehensive. Written with extreme detail and candid humor, the publication is part historical document, part love letter, part oral history. In the preface, Ridolph thanks by name “those men who actually ran the cars through the Miami area…and who willingly shared their memories of these long gone years,” and his family, “who put up with ten years of tracking down a long gone trolley system.” He never makes the case for the superiority of the trolleys over Miami’s current public transportation system, but that repeated use of “long gone” evokes nostalgia, even yearning.
Given their aesthetic charm and lack of pollutants, streetcars might be romanticized in hindsight—but Miami’s trolley operations were complicated. Ownership passed through families, holding companies, even the city itself. The Tatum family, “a pioneer family active in land speculation and real estate development,” secured a street railway franchise, and on July 25, 1906, when thousands of people “crowded into downtown Miami to celebrate the city’s tenth birthday…the Miami Electric Railway Co. was ready for business.” Without enough ridership, the system failed and was replaced in 1915 by a battery-powered line, which proved inadequate when the population finally increased. In 1922, it was replaced by electric trolleys with overhead wires. Meanwhile, on Miami Beach, entrepreneur Carl Fisher maneuvered contracts until the Tatum family leased operating rights over several of the company’s tracks. The beginning of George Merrick’s own Coral Gables system was close to downtown Miami, ensuring easy transfers. It was almost two decades before the region’s trolley systems ran smoothly and in tandem, unfortunately just in time for the 1926 hurricane.
Miami’s trolley system was impressive specifically for its late-in-the-game construction. Ridolph writes: “In just over seven years the city of Miami had taken a few miles of rusting, abandoned track and built it into a fleet…Although the totals were small in comparison with many American cities, they were impressive in that this represented the construction of a complete city street car system, something that by the mid-1920s simply was no longer done.”
Reading Ridolph’s guide, I felt momentarily wistful: Accidents were so few! A trolley to the beach! Imagine streetcars, automobiles, and passersby in harmony! He describes a pre-developed Miami, before the arrival of streetcars, as a “virtually uninhabited fishing village...East across the bay was a string of equally isolated islands fronting the Atlantic Ocean, known mainly as the site of a coconut farm.” But truthfully, Miami–once a sprawl of waterways flowing from the Everglades–was already on its way to becoming an escape for the rich, white, and bored. Ridolph mentions the migrant farmers who cleared what became Miami Beach of its mangroves, sometimes with the help of imported elephants—hired by Fisher—and the dredging that connected those isolated islands. Today’s ongoing development is but a logical conclusion of the streetcar system, which was designed to cement the city’s reputation as a warm-weather haven and quicken its attendant boom.
Miami’s streetcar systems, and their eventual abandonment, were microcosmic of the city itself. Designated school cars (“one of the best remembered aspects of Miami’s trolley era,” writes Ridolph) were instituted in Miami during the 1920s, bringing students who lived along the Buena Vista and N.W. 2nd Avenue lines to Miami High on West Flagler Street at 25th Avenue. (Boisterous students meant the necessity of an extra crew member.) Miami Beach and Coral Gables were Sundown Towns, and all cars in each system were racially segregated for the entirety of their lifespan. Ridolph describes “the curious practice on the Miami cars…[of] the separation of the races according to weather conditions,” with Black passengers riding in the cars’ open sections during the mild winters—and confined to the closed areas in the sweltering heat of summer. On Miami Beach, one of Fisher’s elephants “managed to get her trunk through an open window,” rousing a sleeping passenger who injured himself in fear and subsequently sued Fisher (the suit was settled). Double tracks were not possible for most of the cars, given the narrow width of downtown Miami’s streets, and eventually they were crowded among pedestrians, automobiles, buses, legally questionable jitneys, and each other. Both the Miami Beach Railway and the system in Miami proper were nearly totaled by the Great Hurricane of 1926, and while they slowly recovered by year’s end, the hurricane of 1935, the Great Depression, and a widespread push for a bus system slowly rendered the system obsolete.
Why did buses seem more sensible? They co-existed with Miami’s streetcars but were not particularly profitable—passengers didn’t want to ride them and companies didn’t want to pay for them. But after the city’s rapid growth, streetcars were becoming inadequate, and extending the rail system would cost $100,000 per mile. The Miami Beach Railway eventually petitioned the State Railroad Commission to substitute buses, which was approved in October of 1939—much to the joy of Mayor of Miami, E.G. Sewell, who was likely enticed by General Motors, then on a countrywide campaign to promote the superiority of combustible engines. (This is not mentioned in Ridolph’s book, though he notes that Mayor Sewell was an “ardent and vocal opponent of the [street]cars since the early 1920s.”) As Ridolph writes, incredulously, “the fact that the buses were competing for space with auto traffic, rather than operating over private right of way, was rather oddly described as modern progress.”
Like the beginning of Miami’s trolley system, the end of it was marked with fanfare—this time, a funeral parade on November 14, 1940. One City of Miami car, the Birney 214, was “covered with black crepe paper and bunting, palm fronds, and a funeral wreath” and driven by rail superintendent T.J. Clements, “costumed as Father Time.” Service continued until just after midnight on the 17th, the official end of the city’s streetcar era. Draw a throughline from this moment to, say, the expansion of I-95 through Overtown in the 1950s and ’60s, resulting in the calculated displacement of the neighborhood’s Black residents, or to today, during the inexhaustible expansion of Miami itself, displacing its longtime inhabitants while the city remains uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise—partly because it is a city of dredged sand, of barrier islands and canals. We continue to edge this place closer to its original incarnation; still, it maintains its status as a forever-playground. This was the dream of folks like Flagler and Fisher, though they never recognized the nightmarish possibility of Miami eating itself, destroying what made it desirable in the first place: diversity, lushness, a landscape so preternaturally beautiful that it’s best appreciated on foot, by boat—or through the wide-open window of a streetcar.
Below is a digital flipbook version of
Biscayne Bay Trolleys: Street Railways of the Miami Area (1981)
by Edward Ridolph. Enjoy!
Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer born in Brooklyn, raised in Ft. Lauderdale, and based in Miami.
Brandon Martinez is a sociologist and illustrator from Miami. When he's not crunching numbers, he's drawing your favorite postmodern masterpiece or tending to a butterfly garden.