History of Transit in the Harrisburg Area

The first known public transportation in Harrisburg began in 1865 with a horse drawn trolley that was said to be purchased used from Philadelphia. This first line ran between downtown Harrisburg and McClay St. In 1873 the Harrisburg City Passenger Railway Co. bought the previous company and began service. Over the next few years new track was laid and service expanded. In 1875 the Harrisburg and Middletown Omnibus Co. was organized to feed passengers to the trolley.

In 1886 the East Harrisburg Passenger Railway was chartered to provide service in the Allison Hill section of Harrisburg and in November of that year a single horse trolley was put into service. This service eventually was expanded to Steelton.

July 4, 1888 saw the first test run of an electric trolley in Harrisburg by the East Harrisburg Passenger Railway. On July 17 regular service with electric trolleys began on both the Steelton and Allison Hill lines. Harrisburg City Railway did not begin electrification until the beginning of 1891. However, before work commenced the East Harrisburg Co. made an offer to purchase Harrisburg City and in April of 1891 the two companies merged. Yet another streetcar company was formed in 1892, the Citizens Passenger Railway Co. with service to the Steelton – Oberlin areas and extensions into Harrisburg.

By 1895 it was apparent that the two companies were duplicating service and a merger was proposed. On June 18, 1895 the Harrisburg Traction Company was chartered.

At this time trolley service was being planned by the Cumberland Valley Traction Co. for the west shore of the Susquehanna River. On October 1894 the first trolley ran crossing the Walnut Street “Peoples Bridge”. By 1896 service had expanded to New Cumberland and out Simpson Ferry road towards Mechanicsburg. September of 1896 saw the implementation of service in Carlisle. Trolley service on the west shore continued to expand over the next six years to include Boiling Springs, Newville, West Fairview, Enola and Marysville.

Back on the east shore, to obtain greater capitalization, in 1903 the Central Pennsylvanian Traction Company was formed and the old Harrisburg Traction Co. was expanded with service to Linglestown, Hummelstown and Dauphin. This required a consolidation of shops and car barns located at various places through the service area. In 1904 the current Capital Area Transit facility on North Cameron Street was constructed and service began operating from this location in September of 1905.

Again, as a result of capitalization needs, the central Pennsylvania Traction Company was reorganized and Harrisburg Railways came into being on January 15, 1913. From this point on the Harrisburg Traction Company was more concerned with upgrading existing line and equipment and no further significant service area expansions occurred. While maintenance of the equipment was good, no new trolleys were acquired after January 20, 1920.

The continued decline in ridership that began in 1924 and the continued proliferation of the automobile marked the beginning of the decline of trolley service in the Harrisburg area. However, the Harrisburg Traction Company showed little or no interest in operating buses prior to the depression in the early 1930s. By 1933 a decision had been made to convert three lines to buses. Ten buses where purchased and delivered and put into service in September of 1933. In 1937 the company name became Harrisburg Railways and remained in use until 1973. As ridership continued to decline more buses were purchased and more trolley routes terminated.

Valley Railways also experienced a decline in ridership with a corresponding decline in service. The increased use of automobiles and continued paving of roads on the West Shore sealed the trolleys fate. Bus service was introduced on the Carlisle to Mechanicsburg line on June 23, 1930 with all trolley lines being abandoned on the west shore by 1938. The last trolley ran on April 9, 1938 between New Cumberland and Enola. All routes now were run with buses.

The last Harrisburg Railways Trolley was operated on July 16, 1939 on the Middletown line some 74 years after the introduction of horse drawn trolley service and 66 years after the introduction of electric powered trolley service in Harrisburg.

A fleet of 135 buses now provided public transportation in Harrisburg and East Shore communities.

Between 1939 and 1973 bus service continued with additional declines in passengers and revenue. While there was an increase during the Second World War, after the war car ownership and the movement to the suburbs caused continued declines. Valley Transit abandoned all routes on the west shore in 1970 and Harrisburg Railways began providing service on both sides of the river. By the early 1970’s only a few routes proved profitable and in 1973 Harrisburg Railway filed with the Public Utility Commission to abandon much of its service. At this point the City of Harrisburg along with Dauphin and Cumberland Counties formed a public authority with the express purpose of acquiring the assets of the Harrisburg Railways Company and continuing public bus service.

Further information concerning public transportation in the Harrisburg area prior to the advent of Capital Area Transit can be obtained from the following sources:

“Street Railways of Harrisburg” by Richard H. Steinmetz and Harold E. Cox
“Valley Railways” by C.L. Siebert, Jr. and Richard H. Steinmetz.
“Trolleys of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country” by John D. Denney, Jr.
“This Was Harrisburg” by Richard H Steinmetz, Sr. and Robert D. Hoffsommer
“Images of America – Harrisburg” by Linda A. Ries