Trams were last seen hurtling down the streets of Cork city and through its near suburbs over 90 years ago. Today, there is talk of bringing them back. The city had two tram schemes in the past. The first was horse-drawn and was relatively short-lived. The second was electric and ran for over 30 years.
The horse-drawn trams did not last long due to poor connectivity to the suburbs and hinterland. The scheme opened in September 1872 when the Cork Tramways Company laid over two miles of track which ran mostly through the city.
It cost £10,000 and was overseen by James Clifton Robinson. Robinson also introduced tramway schemes in London, Bristol, Edinburgh, New York, and Los Angeles, earning him the nickname of the “Tramway King”. When it closed in December 1875, its six horse-drawn trams were sold to Dublin United Tramways.
Things took off again in Cork toward the end of the 1890s when electric trams were introduced to the city. The Cork Electric Tramways and Lighting Company built and operated the scheme. The contractor was the Cork-born businessman and one-time Dublin MP William Martin Murphy, who subsequently became chairman of the company.
Poles carrying overhead electrical cables were erected all along the length of the route to power the trams. The power was produced at the generating station known as the Albert Road Power House. The red-brick tram depot next door could accommodate 25 trams. It now houses the National Sculpture Factory.
Passengers were first carried on the trams on December 22nd, 1898. The scheme proved a great success. In 1900, it carried over five million passengers. The bright green and cream liveried double-deck trams could carry between 43 and 48 passengers seated.
The top deck was open to the elements and they were probably not the most comfortable mode of transport in inclement weather, even if they were convenient for those living on one of the various routes that ran from the city to the suburbs.
The three routes ran from the Fr Mathew statue on St Patrick Street and covered a distance of almost 10 miles. One route ran from Blackpool in the north of the city to Douglas in the south. Another ran from Summerhill to Sunday’s Well and a third route ran from Tivoli to Blackrock. The fare was just one penny.
Over the years, accidents happened along the various routes. In May 1901, a 26-year-old man named Eugene Bastable from Commons Road and who worked at Douglas Mills, was walking home at around 10pm. He fell onto the rails and the tram driver was unable to stop in time. Bastable was struck and killed.
The English filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon captured the trams in action while on a visit to Cork in 1902. They placed a cinematographic camera at the front of a tram and recorded its journey on MacCurtain Street (then King Street) as it made its way down Bridge Street and over St Patrick’s Bridge to the Statue. The film shows bustling streets busy with cyclists, pedestrians and horse-drawn carts.
A number of strikes were called by the tram workers during the years of its operation. The tram strike of 1909 lasted for over two weeks, while the 1921 strike lasted for almost seven weeks. During the 1921 strike, electric power to the city was also affected for a time.
By 1920, the fares were fixed at a halfpence or tuppence depending on the length of the journey. Dogs could also be brought on the trams at an additional cost of a penny, but an advertisement stressed that “small dogs” only were allowed on board. Passengers could carry luggage on the tram at a cost of a penny per parcel.
The first car left at different times depending on the route with the earliest leaving Tivoli and Sunday’s Well at 7.45am. The last car left each of the termini at 11pm.
During the 1920s, the trams faced competition from private bus companies and by around 1930, it was decided to close the now loss-making tram lines.
The trams were actually closed down twice. The first time was on March 1st, 1931, when the Irish Omnibus Company took over, providing replacement bus services. However, they did not have enough buses to meet the demand and the trams had to run again for a further few months. The tram service ended for that last time on September 30th, 1931.
There is not much evidence of the trams remaining in the city but there are a couple of reminders. The old red-brick depot that housed the trams still stands, and in the suburb of Blackrock, tram tracks were rediscovered under the roadway in recent years. They were restored and are now incorporated into the new road as a reminder of Cork’s transport history.