The Tramways of
P O N C E
The island of Puerto Rico was one of four territories surrendered by Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba gained its independence, but Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines became possessions of the United States. Puerto Rico's first public railways were the urban lines that opened in Mayagüez in 1875 and in Ponce and San Juan in 1880. Ponce's electric tramway, which began operation in 1902, was one of relatively few in the Americas that used meter gauge track (meter gauge has never been used in the United States). It may have been the only tramway in the world that operated only 4-axle open cars.
Proposals for a street railway in Ponce began in 1864 [see Archivo: Inventario in BIBLIOGRAPHY, below]. But no progress seems to have been made on any project until 27 March 1878, when Ponce resident Juan Nepomuceno Torruellas secured a franchise to build a steam-powered tramway between Ponce city and its harbor [see map]. Four small locomotives were imported from Hughes Locomotive & Tramway Engine Works ("Falcon Works") in Loughborough, England, and four passenger cars came from John Stephenson Co. in New York, U.S.A. The Sociedad del Tranvía de Ponce inaugurated its 4 km meter-gauge line on 17 June 1880. Revenue service began the following October. The extremely rare photograph below, taken in 1880, shows a locomotive and passenger car (almost hidden) at Plaza Las Delicias in downtown Ponce. The view is north [col. Dave Deyo]:
The next photograph, probably taken in 1879, shows one of the four passenger cars at the John Stephenson factory on East 27th Street in New York, before it was shipped to Puerto Rico [John Stephenson Collection]:
The line ran from the depot at Calle Guadalupe down Calle Atocha, Calle Marina and Av. Hostos to Calle Comercio in Playa – almost a straight line, without turns [see original 1880 map and all-time map]. But the railway was poorly constructed, maintenance was lax and Torruellas neglected to pay the fines imposed. The Spanish government withdrew his contract on 18 April 1883 and the line closed, after less than three years of operation. An 1885 survey by José Jimeno Agius notes an animal-powered tramway in that year, but no confirmation of that operation has been found [see Jimeno Agius in BIBLIOGRAPHY]. Ferrocarriles de Puerto Rico extended its steam railroad from Yauco to Ponce in 1892 (and was reorganized as American Railroad of Puerto Rico in 1902).
The development of Ponce's second, better-known electric tramway was a complex affair, since it began during the last years of the 19th century as Puerto Rico was morphing from Spanish colony into territory of the United States. Two Ponce residents, Vicente and José Usera, presented a plan to the Spanish government in 1896, but the American government that took control in 1898 rejected their claims and, after an auction, awarded a franchise to another resident, Enrique Chevalier. The latter sold his rights to W. S. H. Lothrop of the Boston banking firm De Ford & Co., which had been appointed Puerto Rico's fiscal agent. De Ford & Co., the Usera brothers and seven others submitted bids in another auction in 1900, but the Lothrop franchise prevailed and was confirmed in February 1901 [see document signed by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt]. Lothrop hired the Massachusetts engineering firm Stone & Webster to build the electric line.
On 27 November 1901, through its subsidiary Columbia Improvement Co., Stone & Webster ordered eight double-truck 12-bench open passenger trams from J. G. Brill Co. in Philadelphia (Brill orders 11550 and 11574). The cars had even numbers only, 2-16, and numbers 14 and 16 were trail cars without motors. Ponce Electric Co., and its subsidiary Ponce Railway & Light Co., were registered in the state of New Jersey on 4 January 1902. The undated photograph below was taken in Ponce [col. AM]:
Ponce's second tramway began carrying passengers on 28 April 1902, a year and four months after the inauguration of the island's first electric tramway in San Juan. The line duplicated the former steam route, but in addition the electric cars followed a large counterclockwise circuit in the city and ran east along Calle Comercio in the port [see 1902 map and all-time map]. The electric tram depot was on Av. Hostos a short distance south of today's Av. Las Américas [see all-time map]. (The structure still stands today.) Track gauge was 1000 mm, the same used by the earlier steam line and the American Railroad, with which PR&L shared track in the port area. The only other meter-gauge electric tramway north of the South American continent was in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
This photograph of the tram depot on Av. Hostos shows motor cars 8 and 4 and trail car 14 [Stone & Webster Public Service Journal, Boston, July 1908, p. 60: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]:
The postcard below, which was mailed from Ponce to Boston in 1905, shows a tram headed south down Calle Marina [see 1902 map]. That's Plaza Las Delicias on the right [col. AM]:
The tram in the next view is in same spot as the tram above, but is seen from the opposite direction. Plaza Las Delicias is on the left. A small section of the famous striped firehouse is visible extreme left. Compare this photograph to the view at the top of this page [postcard, col. AM]:
Car 2 is traveling north on Calle Mayor [see 1902 map], near the north end of the circuit around the city center [col. AM]:
Number 6 is going east on Calle Reina Isabel, on the north side of Plaza Las Delicias [see 1902 map]. In the final years of operation trams ran both ways on Calle Marina and terminated at Plaza Las Delicias. They no longer followed the big circuit around the city [postcard, col. AM]:
J. G. Brill records indicate that it built 6 motor cars and 2 trail cars for Ponce. But Poor's Manual of Railroads of 1912 reports 6 motor cars, 3 trail cars and "3 other cars" operating in Ponce. The origin of the four additional vehicles is unknown. In any case, the passenger trail cars seem to have been converted into motor cars about 1913 [see next picture]. The McGraw Electric Railway List of 1918 reports 8 motor cars and "4 other cars"; the 1924 directory shows 8 motor passenger cars, 2 motor freight cars and 2 trail freight cars. Since the 1918 list indicates "5-7/20 gauge", one questions the accuracy of the McGraw data.
The undated postcard below shows former trail car 16 running as a motor car at the place where Calles Marina and Salud join to form Av. Hostos [see map]. The northbound track in the foreground will continue up Calle Salud. The American Railroad station is a short distance down the street on the left. Note the plantas aéreas on the telephone wires [col. AM]:
Detail of the postcard view above [col. AM]:
Avenida Hostos between Ponce and Playa [see map]. View is north. The electric tram line was on the west side of Av. Hostos [col. AM]:
On 3 January 1914 the tramway was extended from the Playa district to the muelle (wharf) on the Caribbean Sea [see map of port area]. This postcard was mailed in 1916 [col. AM]:
Detail of the view above (with post removed) [col. AM]:
Tram number 16 in a later (but undated) postcard view, after construction on the pier [see map of port area]. The curious thing about this photograph is that the terminal building looks newer at this later date . . . [col. AM]:
Close-up of the view above [col. AM]:
Operation continued normally through the 1920s, but bus competition increased and on 9 December 1927 Ponce Railway & Light Co. filed a petition with the Public Service Commission for abandonment of the line [see Stone & Webster Journal in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]. The 25-year-old Brill cars carried their last passengers on Christmas eve 24 December 1927. It was one of the earliest closures of an electric tramway in the hemisphere [see list]. Ponce Electric Co. was absorbed by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in 1937.
The "linen type" postcard below shows the pier around 1940 [see map of port area]. All rails and rail vehicles have disappeared [col. AM]:
The port area was extensively rebuilt in the latter half of the 20th century, without any trace of the structures shown on these old postcards. The area is served today by the standard gauge Chemex Railroad, which is the only industrial rail line on the island.
Maps linked on this page:
United States. 57th Congress, 1st Session, Senate. Document No. 76: Electric Street Railway, Ponce, P.R. Washington, 1901. Ordinance signed by President Theodore Roosevelt granting W. S. H. Lothrop permission to construct an electric tramway in Ponce. The first part of the 4-page document is reproduced here.
Stone & Webster Public Service Journal. Boston, 1907-1915 (continued as Stone & Webster Journal 1916-1932). This monthly publication has numerous articles, some with illustrations, about its electric power and railway installations in Ponce. See especially issues of 1907, 1908 and February 1928, which has an announcement of the tramway closure.
Poor's Manual of Railroads. New York, 1868-1924. The section on Ponce Electric Co. on page 2500 of the 1912 edition says that Ponce Railway & Light Co. operates 6 motor cars, 3 trail cars and 3 "other" cars (?) on 4.8 miles of meter gauge track. What were the "other" cars? What was the origin of the third trail car? See reproduction here.
Eduardo Neumann. Verdadera y Auténtica Historia de la Ciudad de Ponce. Ponce, 1913 [reprinted 1987]. The "Carros Eléctricos" section on pp. 114-115 briefly chronicles both steam and electric tramway development.
McGraw Electric Railway List or Directory. New York, 1910-1932. Annual surveys describe staff, installation and operation of electric railways in North America and the Caribbean Islands, including Puerto Rico. The 1918 and 1924 editions are quoted here.
United States Army Corps of Engineers. Port Facilities at Ponce, Porto Rico [sic]. Washington 1927. Nice map of the port area shows the route of the "trolly" line from Ponce Playa to the wharf . Reproduced here.
Roger Aponte Pargas. El desarrollo histórico del tranvía eléctrico de Ponce: 1898-1927. Ponce: University of Puerto Rico, 1987. Master's thesis treats the development of Ponce's electric tramway in detail.
Adolfo de Hostos. Tesauro de Datos Históricos. 5 volumes, Río Piedras, 1990-1995. Thesaurus of Puerto Rican history. The "Ponce – Tranvía" section on p. 391 of vol. IV notes important milestones in the city's tramway development. The "Tranvías de Sangre" paragraph on p. 572 of vol. V references the Jimeno Agius text of 1885, listed above.
Archivo General de Puerto Rico. Fondo de Obras Públicas. Inventario Sub Fondo Ferrocarriles y Tranvías. San Juan, 2005. List of railroad and tramway proposals. The Ponce tramway section on pp. 139-141 notes tramway proposals in 1864-1865.
Roger W. Aponte. Railroads of Puerto Rico/Ferrocarriles de Puerto Rico. Elaborate bilingual website with history, maps, photographs, articles, timetables, etc., of every railroad and tramway that is known to have existed on the island. Photographs of Ponce trams and links to old maps of both its steam and electric tram lines. Recommended.
Much of the information on this page is derived from research conducted many years ago by Ponce resident Roger W. Aponte. Without his help this survey would have been much less accurate and complete. The author wishes to express his profound gratitude to Sr. Aponte and also to Juan J. de Lara of Ponce, to Angel Rodríguez Cardona of San Sebastián, and to Dave Deyo of Somerset, Massachusetts, for their contributions and generous assistance in the preparation of this page.
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