Hopefully, we are getting better, we’re applying the stuff we have learned and things are improving. We are progressing as a society. We are evolving as a culture.

Technology plays a huge role in that advancement. And when it comes to local transportation, history has shown us that the trolley car was a vehicle of change.

With few physical reminders of its existence, trolley car transportation in Lebanon County is now all but forgotten. But trolley cars played a key role in Lebanon becoming what it is today.

The original public transportation, trolley cars once ruled the streets of what is now the city of Lebanon, and they connected the city with the smaller surrounding towns in Lebanon County — and Lebanon County with the hustling, bustling outside world. Trolley car transportation helped modernize Lebanon, and the timing of its heyday, around the industrial revolution at the beginning of the last century, was everything but coincidence.

A view down North 8th Street with a trolley track in the middle of the road. (Randy Jaye)

“The trolley car really was the beginning of modern transportation,” said Randy Jaye, a noted historian who grew up in Lebanon. “During its heyday, and near the end, it was replaced by even more modern transportation. But for a period of about 40 years, it brought Lebanon into a more modernized transportation world. Trains were for long trips. Trolley cars were for more short, local trips.

“The trolley car was used for everything, transportation-related,” added Jaye. “People used it to go to work. They used it to go to recreation areas. There was joy-riding. They used it for shopping and visiting friends and relatives. It also transported a lot of local freight, as well.”

A car stopped on east Cumberland Street around 1925. (Lebanon County Historical Society)

Trolley cars were prevalent in the city and county of Lebanon from 1891 to 1942. It was a much slower time, but local residents had many of the same values and needs that they do today.

Lebanon’s trolley car system serviced many of the city’s main streets, like Cumberland, Lehman and Oak.

Depending upon the destination, cost of the average ride was less than two bits.
“You couldn’t go everywhere,” said Jaye. “But they had extensions to West Lebanon. You could go to Avon and you could go to Schaefferstown. Eventually, they had stops all the way to Lancaster County. In the city of Lebanon, there were several stops as well. It was a fairly robust transportation system, especially in the city. It was probably faster and easier to get to Annville and Palmyra than it is today.

“There were many towns around the country that had trolley cars at that time,” Jaye added. “Lebanon was just a microcosm of what was happening around the country.”

At that time, trolley car companies were founded from the areas they served. In 1899, the Lebanon and Annville Street Railway Company and the Lebanon and Myerstown Street Railway Company merged to become the Lebanon Valley Street Railway Company.

The Hummelstown-to-Campbelltown line ran through Hershey and connected with the city of Lebanon. The Ephrata and Lebanon Street Railway Company connected Lebanon County with Lancaster County.

“Trolley car tracks were a narrower gauge, but they were similar to railroad tracks,” said Jaye. “They didn’t go real fast, probably five to six miles an hour. It depended on the cars you were taking. There were bigger cars in bigger cities.

This view was also made into a postcard. (Jaye)

“There were a lot of maintenance issues, just like anything mechanical,” continued Jaye. “They had to service them like anything mechanical. There used to be a car barn in Hebron where they housed the trolley cars at night and did repairs. Frequently, they jumped the tracks. There were accidents with automobiles and pedestrians, but they were just signs of the time.”

Car 13 at 7th and Lehman Streets. (LCHS)
Two cars at 9th and Oak Streets around 1941. (LCHS)

Before the rise of trolley cars, local residents used horses, horse and buggies, horse-driven wheeled carts or even stage coaches to get around. But it was the practical application of electricity that made trolley cars possible.

“Electricity was the main catalyst,” said Jaye. “They came into existence at the beginning of the commercial use of electricity. Trolley cars were one of the things that came out of it. It was a huge leap in transportation, especially in local transportation.

“All of a sudden, it replaced the horse,” Jaye continued. “You could go from Lebanon to Annville in 12 minutes. It was a big, big deal. You could get on a trolley car, get connections and go to Philadelphia. They were also used to transport a lot of milk and butter from Lebanon to Hershey.”

Eventually, the development of the automobile, buses, and trucks put trolley cars out of business.

Cars from the Lebanon Valley Street Railway Company in storage after their withdrawal in July 1930. (LCHS)

In July of 1930, the Lebanon Valley Street Railway Company withdrew its trolley cars from the streets of Lebanon City, then in January of 1942, the Hershey Trolley made its final run to Lebanon, at Ninth and Cumberland Streets. In 1946, local buses started servicing the former trolley car stops in Lebanon.

“When happened to the trolley cars was technology,” said Jaye. “Cars, buses, trucks and roads started to improve. They antiquated the trolley cars, and they eventually fizzled out. They basically made trolley cars obsolete. All the tracks got torn up and paved over. Some of the remnants of the structures might still be around, but I don’t know of any of them.

“Now, from the people I’ve talked to, trolley cars are more of a romantic memory than a practical form of transportation,” Jaye added. “It seemed like an easier time.”

Snow could pose an issue to the trolley system and its small rails. (LCHS)

While Lebanon’s trolley cars have been gone for more than 70 years now, there are a handful of select cities across the country which still operate trolley car systems. But those trolley cars serve more as tourist attractions or reminders of the past than practical modes of transportation.

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“I’m not sure the younger generations know about trolley cars,” said Jaye. “They’ve become relegated to history and memories. There are still older people who remember riding on trolley cars in Lebanon, but not many. Before World War II, you could still jump on a trolley car in Lebanon.

“Along with train systems, trolley cars gave people the ability to travel frequently, and it was affordable,” continued Jaye. “They gave people an opportunity to go to places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. They opened up opportunities for people overall.”

Technology comes and goes.

Looking east on Cumberland Street from 9th Street. (LCHS)
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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...