“Ladies in red” was the nickname used for the streetcars of the Riverfront Line, which used to transport passengers via Canal Street to the French quarter, the historic city center, until August 28, 2005, when New Orleans was submerged by the flooding unleashed by hurricane Katrina. These were original vehicles from the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, but they had not been in use without interruption since the 1920s. They were, in fact, re-commissioned as a tourist attraction in 1988, after a long time off the streets. And even in its heyday, Perley A. Thomas Car Works was hardly one of the leading American streetcar makers, with a market share of no more than five percent. Its vehicles were, however, renowned for their quality and elegance.
Given the complete domination of individual transport in the urban environment of the United States today, it is difficult to imagine just how much streetcars were part of the scene on the streets of American cities for over four decades. The streetcar age began almost simultaneously in Europe and America, after a ten-year experimental phase, towards the end of the 1880s. In Germany, the technology had been pioneered by Werner von Siemens since 1879, and the first tramlines went up in Bremen in 1890. And in the U.S.A., Frank J. Sprague, now an almost forgotten name, set up the first streetcar line in 1887, in the face of major teething problems, in Richmond, Virginia. Just one year later, streetcar lines were under construction or in operation in 200 cities.
Taking the initiative: Perley A. Thomas builds his first streetcar line
Perley A. Thomas was born on September 11, 1874 in Ontario, Canada, and moved 50 miles south to Detroit in 1901. He found a cityscape where streetcars were already a familiar sight, linking factory and residential areas, and enabling the more affluent citizens to reside in the green belt of the suburbs. In the weekends, they also transported millions of the city’s inhabitants to the pleasure parks located at the end of the streetcar lines. But the market was very unevenly distributed: the leading streetcar maker, J. G. Brill from Philadelphia, had a market share of almost 50 percent, as compared with 20 and 15 percent, respectively, for the St. Louis Car Company and Cincinnati Car Company, and many small manufacturers had also found a place in the local market.
As a mechanic’s son, Perley A. Thomas soon found work in the city, in the Streetcar Department of Detroit United Railroad. In 1906, he moved to Cleveland to work for the Kuhlmann Car Company, a subsidiary of the Brill Company. While working there, he also attended an evening course to complete his qualification as a structural engineer. Then, in 1910, he received a highly attractive offer to take up a higher-ranking position as Chief Engineer with the Southern Car Company in High Point, North Carolina, which was looking to increase its market share. Here, he was able to make good use of his specialist knowledge and skills in woodworking, since at that time most of the body and fittings in streetcars were made of wood. But this did not mean he was left behind five years later, when steel structures began to take over. He was responsible for the design of 52 streetcars with an all-steel body, which the company supplied to New Orleans in 1915 for 3000 dollars each.
Thomas soon buys up his ex-employer’s assets
But it was not easy for a small-scale manufacturer to survive in the market against tough competition. The Southern Car Works had to file for bankruptcy just one year later, leaving Perley A. Thomas without a job. However, the young engineer found it difficult to remain idle, and a few months later, with a loan of over 6,000 dollars and money inherited by his wife, he bought up the assets of his former employer and started production in his own right. New orders were beckoning, because streetcars were required for more than weekend excursions to pleasure parks: in April 1917, America entered the First World War, and, in that same month, Thomas received an order for nine closed streetcars from the naval support base in Mobile, Alabama.
Production really started to pick up only at the end of the war, however, when the economy gained momentum, and Thomas received street orders from cities from New York to Miami, and even Puerto Rico and Havana. The secret of his success was a consistent commitment to the highest quality. Whenever he found any sign of slackness, employees were immediately out on their ear, but only to be invited back the same evening. He was particularly successful in New Orleans, where, in 1924, at the peak of his success as a streetcar marker, he sold 25 vehicles, also immediately picking up a further order for another 55.
Attractive offers from the competition
Then, however, the situation changed overnight, when a fire in the plant destroyed 14 of the vehicles already under construction. The President of the streetcar manufacturer J. G. Brill offered Thomas a five-year agreement for 5,000 dollars a year, or the entire amount as a lump sum, in return for an undertaking not to reopen the plant. Thomas rejected this offer, and instead spent an advance payment of over 100,000 dollars from New Orleans on repairing the damage, so that the streetcars could be delivered as soon as possible. With over 100 units – almost one third of the total production of Perley A. Thomas Car Works – New Orleans became the company’s most important customer, closely followed by Detroit, with an order for exactly 100 streetcars placed in 1929.
But the story was coming to an end. A further order for four vehicles was received in 1930 from Mobile, Alabama, but no sales were made over the next several years. The era of the streetcar in the USA was over.