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Old trolley tracks discovered on N. Main

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Traces of Columbia's mass transit history are being uncovered and rediscovered on the city's northern edge.

Sections of railway for the city's trolley system, which operated from the mid-1880s to the late 1920s, recently were unearthed during road work along Main Street near Elmwood Avenue.

"They're pretty much the old trolley tracks," Dana Higgins, Columbia assistant engineer for construction, said of the lines that once were part of the city's mass transit system.

Columbia's trolleys initially were pulled by horses. In May 1893, however, they were converted to electric power, Columbia historian John Hammond Moore writes in "Columbia & Richland County," a book chronicling development from 1740 to 1990.

The system served several areas, the book notes, including the State Fairgrounds, the Main Street business district and Columbia's two railroad depots.

By the beginning of the 1900s, the tracks extended north to Eau Claire and covered Shandon, Five Points and the area leading to the State House. Service eventually expanded south to the mill villages and farther into Shandon along Devine Street.

John Sherrer of Historic Columbia Foundation said the electric trolley system was largely responsible for the development of the city's early inner-ring suburbs, adding the uncovering of the tracks offers a connection to the area's past.

"It really is a fascinating kind of story," Sherrer said. "The fact that the trolley tracks are still there is just a reminder of what it was like to live in Columbia several generations ago."

By 1915, the system was operating 100 cars over nearly 25 miles of track. By 1918, it transported 11 million passengers, Moore's book explains.

But in the next several years, the trolley system faced competition from cars, taxis and motor buses - all of which offered more flexible schedules.

Service officially ended on March 11, 1927, and was replaced by buses in 1936.

Today, buses remain the area's primary form of mass transit. Many travel along the same routes once served by trolleys.

Workers plan eventually to pave over any of the exposed trolley tracks during the Main Street beautification and streetscaping project, which is in its first phase.

But Sherrer said the tracks are a reminder of the importance of public transportation.

A viable mass transit system, he said, is one of the elements of successful urban living.

"It's unifying. It helps bring together different communities," Sherrer said. "It takes the guesswork out of where you're going to park. Mass transit also makes good environmental sense."

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