Street Cars

Image: 9th Avenue Elevated Railway. Source: Courtesy of Kume Museum of Art.

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. 

Image: Excerpt from New York Illustrated 1872. Source: Courtesy of Kume Museum of Art.

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.


Kunitake, Kume. “The Journey Through the Northern States, 1.” In Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young, 74-78. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Reeves, William Fullerton. The First Elevated Railroads In Manhattan And The Bronx Of The City Of New York: The Story of Their Development and Progress. New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1936.

Edahiro, Junko. “The Rebirth of Trams: The Promise of Light Railway Transit (LRT).” Japan for Sustainability Newsletter, no. 64 (December 2007).