The CAT Story: Getting Around

The Beginning

From 1890 to 1892, Virginia experienced the greatest economic boom it had ever seen. Within Albemarle County, real estate development skyrocketed, fueling the transportation industry. Charlottesville citizens began to use public transportation when they needed to travel. Residents from different neighborhoods united as they journeyed to the center of Charlottesville or beyond the county.

People began to migrate to Charlottesville in large numbers, doubling the population in a reflection of the national trend of urbanization from 1890 to 1920. Travelers demanded a better means of transportation both within the city and throughout the surrounding areas to accommodate their new environment. These pressures, as well as a general sense of enterprise, influenced the often rapid changes in transportation technology in our community.

The Early Days of Transportation

Despite the existence of well-traveled roads, Albemarle County remained untouched by major improvements in transportation until the mid-1800s. In the 1840s, a convention was held on "James River Improvements" and delegates initiated the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal. However, turnpikes leading to railroad depots instead of the canals rendered the canals obsolete. Major floods in 1870 and 1877 dealt the final blows to commercial travel on the James River and Kanawha Canal, and businessmen turned to the railroad as the dominant means to transport goods.

In retrospect, developers might have used canals, railroads, and turnpikes all in an integrated network. However, the urgent quest for efficient transportation to meet the county’s needs resulted in only one dominant system of transportation, the railroad. Despite this early development, Albemarle County did not serve as a substantial rail or canal center before the Civil War.

Early Charlottesville residents used an omnibus line for local travel. The omnibus, essentially a large cart drawn by horses or mules over unpaved streets, was the city’s earliest form of public transportation to operate on a schedule. It was established in 1883 and ran from Charlottesville to the University of Virginia. A one-way trip cost 10 cents, less than the cost of a pound of butter in those days.

The Railroad Arrives in Charlottesville

By the 1830s, proponents trumpeted railroad technology as instrumental to progress for Albemarle County. The advent of the railroad began to transform the county from a secluded agricultural community to a bona fide example of the Industrial Age. The Louisa Railroad Company’s spate of railroad construction helped businesses to flourish, boosted the economy, and introduced new consumer goods into Charlottesville. Businessmen established depots to ship their products to markets along the rail lines, further stimulating local trade.

In 1850, completion of the Virginia Central Railroad connected Charlottesville with Richmond. More than 400 slaves, some purchased specifically for building the railroad, made up the construction crew. When completed, the connection was described as:

an important link in the connection of the metropolis with the West. The traveler may now leave Richmond soon after six in the morning, arrive in Charlottesville at one, and reach Staunton the same night. - Quoted in the Virginia Historical Register, 1851

The first engines were small wood-burning trains running at speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour. That meant a trip to Richmond took about five hours. By 1860, first- and second-class passengers were traveling every day on "mail trains." To speed their trip along, second-class passengers helped load wood at train stops.

The Railroad Boom in Turn-of-the-Century Charlottesville

With the construction of national rail lines, including the Chesapeake and Ohio around 1868 and the Southern Line in 1894, people hailing from all over the country converged in Charlottesville. These travelers helped to meet the demands of the local economy by making purchases during their stopovers at Charlottesville’s Union Station. In 1920, for example, the Southern railroad made sixteen stops per day there. New people meant new ideas as well as increased purchasing power. As a result of this influx of fresh capital and enterprising spirit, Charlottesville citizens came to consider themselves more sophisticated and progressive.

The Price of Modernity

On November 4, 1897, Albemarle residents witnessed the first local rail accident. Three miles east of Charlottesville, near Shadwell, Train Number 4 derailed going around a curve. Five people died, several cars were demolished, and many people suffered injuries. Investigators found the cause of the accident to be a broken axle.

A City Divided

Two crossing rail lines - the Southern, running north-south, and the C&O, running east-west - created "The Junction" at the Union Station, still present today. The intersection of these two lines formed four quadrants, which in turn resulted in four different areas of development: the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville downtown area, a segregated section where African-Americans lived, and a fourth undeveloped area. This separation of neighborhoods meant that the development of the University and the city center occurred independently.

The Era of the Streetcar - 1887 to 1935

On April 13, 1887, the Jeffersonian-Republican announced that the town of Charlottesville "will have its own street railway." The first streetcars were pulled by horses or mules and many more people enjoyed this new means of access to downtown, to Fry’s Spring, or to the University. The Charlottesville and University Street Railway Company constructed the street railway with funding from private local capital. The new technology revolutionized Charlottesville by appreciating the value of outlying property, spurring on urbanization, and altering approaches to city growth by making development more controlled and deliberate.

On January 12, 1895, the Charlottesville City and Suburban Railway Company operated the city’s first electric streetcar. Town denizens and University students responded enthusiastically to this symbol of modernity; more than 2,000 fares were collected in the first two days of regular operation. The editor of The Daily Progress remarked that his only complaint about the new cars was that the ride ended too soon. He proudly proclaimed,

Their hum as they swiftly passed through the streets has a very business-like sound and it is only necessary for the wide-awake citizens of Charlottesville to close their eyes in order to imagine that they are in one of our metropolitan cities. - Daily Progress, January 13, 1895

Managing Mucky Roads

While the railroad and streetcar systems increased the general efficiency of transportation, pedestrian travel was still the norm. In 1870, sidewalks made entirely of wooden boards were laid along the main streets of the city. Stepping-stones at street crossings connected the sidewalks to the road, keeping shoes clean and ladies’ skirts from dragging in the muck and manure of the dirt road. In 1875, private money funded the laying of asphalt sidewalks. City leaders hoped the sidewalk improvements would allow people to traverse the city entirely on foot.

The Good Roads Convention

At the turn of the twentieth century, the public took bad roads for granted; clouds of dust billowed up from roadways in the summer, and the roads turned to seas of mud in the winter. Surprisingly, the movement for better roads - ones that could endure all weather conditions - was initiated by bicyclists and railroad stakeholders.

During the late 19th century, "Good Roads Associations" sprung up in many states. At the national level, in 1893 the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Office of Road Inquiry, which evolved into today’s Federal Highway Administration. The Good Roads Convention of April 1899 provided the direction Albemarle County needed to improve traveling conditions on its roads. The Convention, attended by over 200 enthusiastic citizens, came to a consensus on the road levy, increasing it from eight cents to eighteen cents per one hundred dollars of property. Of the levy fund, $10,000 would be set aside for yearly maintenance while $17,000 would remain for ongoing, permanent improvements.

The "Good Roads Train" arrived in Charlottesville in April 1902 as part of an expedition sponsored by the Southern Railroad and the National Good Roads Association. The expedition train improved segments of roadways at each stop, with the hope of inspiring the public to encourage local officials to undertake more road projects. Charlottesville supporters built a section of the road from the C&O station through Belmont as part of a highly anticipated "Jefferson Memorial Highway" to improve access to Monticello.

Charlottesville citizens convened local Good Roads meetings in 1899 and 1902. Many prominent community members, including General Fitzhugh Lee, Mayor C.W. Allen, and Chairman of Faculty at UVa, Dr. D.B. Barringer, advocated the Good Roads Movement. The growth of Charlottesville and the arrival of the automobile in the early twentieth century greatly strengthened the movement, and by 1920, the goals of Good Roads advocates had been realized.

Automobiles- Motoring into the Twentieth Century

J.P. "Dry Goods" Ellington purchased the first automobile in Albemarle County in 1906, triggering the automobile craze. With his purchase, Ellington became the proud owner of number 494 of the first 500 automobiles in Virginia. Enthusiasm for automobiles spread quickly. Although automobile use was limited in the early decades of the twentieth century by various factors, including weather, road quality, and money, by 1922 more than 1,800 cars existed in Albemarle County, along with 363 trucks. This amounted to one vehicle for every 17 persons in the county.

To ensure safety, the local government passed regulations for automobile use. All vehicles were to be kept to an eight-mile-per-hour speed limit within town limits, and twenty-miles-per-hour beyond. At all street crossings, drivers had to ring a bell or horn and were required to stop for horses passing through. Roads were not yet numbered, so drivers used printed guides. Despite the safety measures, some people saw the noisy new technology as a threat to public safety, a fear confirmed by the first automobile-related fatality in the county. The tragedy occurred in June 1910 near Covesville, when Goulay Martin’s car struck and killed Willard Moseley, a child who was driving his cow along the highway at the time.

Taking to the Air

The first airplane seen in Charlottesville came in 1912 to great local excitement. Beckwith Havens exhibited his Curtis biplane, making two twelve-minute flights from Lambeth Field during the University’s Easters festivities. Spectators paid fifty cents to be admitted to the grounds; many of them came on excursion trains from the surrounding countryside. In December 1919, a stunt pilot came to town to entertain the crowds gathered for Court Days. Unluckily, his plane was skyjacked, and only returned several days later when the thief was apprehended in Baltimore.

In 1929, the Dixie Flying Service opened a short-lived airport and flying school on Garth Road. Later that year, local bookstore owner C.C. Wells became the first passenger to leave Charlottesville by air, departing from the airfield bound for New York. The airport was named Wood Field in honor of local World War I aviator "Buck" Wood, killed in France in 1918. For four years the airport shuttled passengers throughout the state, but by 1933 the travails of the Depression forced the Dixie Flying Service out of business, and Wood Field was closed.

In July of 1951, the city and county agreed to build an airport near Earlysville. The public airport opened in 1954. That original airport has been greatly enlarged to handle increasing demand and today regular flights leave daily for several major cities, and charter flights, private planes, and corporate jets use the facility as well.

Bussing It

In the mid-1920s, Sam Jessup brought bus travel to Charlottesville with his Virginia Stage Line Company, absorbed later by the Trailways Company. Bus service expanded in the 1960s, and many different bus companies used Charlottesville as a stopping point between New England and southern states. Currently, Greyhound provides bus service with 13 buses arriving and departing daily.

Municipal bus service was provided by the Yellow Transit Company owned by J.T. Graves. Subsidized by annual appropriations, the City of Charlottesville acquired the bus company in 1975. Formerly named Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS), Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) provides bus service in the City and some urbanized parts of Albemarle County. Since 1972, the University of Virginia has also maintained University Transit Service (UTS), a fleet of buses for travel within the University Grounds. Bus travel is now accessible within the City, portions of Albemarle County and beyond.

Transportation Today

The state of transportation today is one of the hottest topics in local discourse. The overwhelming dominance of the automobile as the preferred mode of travel has led to parking problems, pollution, and snarled traffic. Interestingly, attempts to address these issues parallel developments in the early years of the century. The free trolley service, introduced in 1999 from Downtown to the University, echoes the early omnibus system. Just as City leaders hoped to make foot travel easier in an era of mucky roads, today local planners are working to encourage pedestrian-friendly streets and sidewalks. On West Main Street, Greyhound and Union Station have been newly restored, encouraging more people to travel by bus and rail.

Future Transportation

As the population of Charlottesville and Albemarle County continue to grow, what do you think will come next? What will the community’s transportation system look like as the 21st century continues? Concerns for the environment, depletion of natural resources and quality of life issues will spark innovative ideas and technologies. Will alternative energy sources fuel a lightning-speed mono-rail system? Will future generations pilot flying cars and personal pedal trains? With the current development of personal and public rapid transit systems, today’s modes of transportation may quickly become another chapter in history.


Getting Around

Transportation in Turn-of-the-Century
Charlottesville and Albemarle
is presented by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, with special thanks to the following:

Anne-Marie Angelo
Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society
Heather Gordon
Institute for Public History, University of Virginia
Larissa Mehmet
Stefanie McQueen
Howard Newlon
Special Collections, University of Virginia

and the staff and volunteers of
the Albemarle County Historical Society.