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The former Charleston Consolidated Railway, Electric and Gas Company Car House is a historic building associated with city's old streetcar system. Originally built in 1897, it operated as a streetcar maintenance shop and storage facility, and was part of a complex of buildings that supported the system. Streetcars were an important means of transportation for Charleston residents and contributed to the city's growth. The system operated until 1938 when it was discontinued. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, the building is now home to a school called the American College of the Building Arts.

The Charleston Consolidated Railway, Electric and Gas Company Car House was originally built 1897. It is now home to the American College of the Building Arts.

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Streetcars in Charleston

Compared to other city's around the country in the 1880s and 1890s, Charleston was late to build an electric streetcar system. By 1896 there were two streetcar companies but both used horses. Charleston was unable to build an electric streetcar system for so long due to lack of funding and was the only city in the country with a population of 35,000 or greater without one. Finally in late 1896 the city authorized the Charleston Street Railway Company to build and operate an electric streetcar system. Tracks were laid down on many of the former horse-drawn routes. Two years later the company merged with another company to form the Charleston Consolidated Railway, Electric and Gas Company.

As noted above, the system played an important role in spurring economic development in the city in the coming decades. Tracks reached beyond the city limits into new areas including Hampton Park and the Citadel Military College campus. The Hampton Park neighborhood grew quickly because streetcars gave residents there easy access to jobs. The streetcars also helped residents to enjoy recreational activities, taking them to parks (Hampton Park had a dance pavilion, restaurant, and theater), the circus, baseball games, and other events.

After World War I, usage of trolleys began to decline. Residents started using personal cars and costs to operate the system increased. As a result, in 1938 the city transitioned to a bus system since buses could easily change routes if needed nor did they require tracks or overhead wires. The buses operated out of the former streetcar buildings. Bus service was curtailed in the 1970s and it appears that the buildings were vacated as well around this time. The Citadel bought the property in 1986 (for what purpose is unclear) but the city acquired it in 2001. The American College of the Building Arts, which was founded in 1999, moved into the old railway building in 2016 after a year or so of renovation.

From Integration to Segregation

The electric streetcar system in Charleston was segregated the entire time it operated. However, the horse-drawn streetcars were integrated. When service began in 1866, Black residents were forced to ride on the exterior platform of the streetcars (the company did not have Black-only streetcars). To protest this arrangement, in March 1867 groups of Black riders boarded streetcars and refused to leave until Union troops came and removed them by force. Others placed rocks on streetcar tracks. One Black woman, Mary P. Bowers, who boarded a streetcar and was removed, filed a complaint with the Freedmen's Bureau (the federal agency tasked with assisting freed Blacks and poor whites in the South), which compelled the company to integrate the streetcars in May. Instead of decreasing ridership as some believed would happen, the change increased the company's profits.

Over the course of the next three decades, southern states passed Jim Crow laws that implemented segregationist policies. In Charleston, when the electric streetcar system was built, it officially became segregated. Initially not everyone agreed with the change, including the newspaper the News and Courier, which stated that all first class passengers should be allowed to ride in the first class streetcars. However, segregation of the streetcars was enforced and remained so.

"Charleston Consolidated Railway, Electric and Gas Company Car House." South Carolina Historic Properties Record. Accessed April 16, 2021.

"Campus History." American College of the Building Arts. Accessed April 16, 2021.

King, Hilary. "Charleston Consolidated Railway, Electric and Gas Company Car House." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. February 28, 2017.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Jason W. Kaumeyer, via Wikimedia Commons: