During their stay in New York, the Embassy encountered the newly built streetcars passing along the thoroughfares and above the avenues. In his account of the scene, Kume remarks that, “Trains were also [sic] hurtling along in both directions on an elevated railroad supported on iron pillars more than twenty feet above the street.”
For much of the 19th century streetcars in New York City were horse drawn. It wasn’t until the late 1860s that companies began building elevated railways, supported by massive beams and powered by cables that pulled cars along the track. While the above-ground rail lines revolutionized train routes in the city, the cable-powered design quickly proved clunky and unreliable. Within a few years, they were replaced by steam locomotives. When the Iwakura delegates arrived, the newly renamed New York Elevated Railway Company operated a line between the Battery and 30th Street in Manhattan.
The subsequent decades saw the rise of electric-powered rail lines, and in 1895 Japan’s first tram system opened to the public. It didn’t take long for electric street cars to become a staple of transit in cities across the country, and by the early 20th century they transported 2.6 billion passengers a year.