The section of Farmington Avenue west of the Center but east of Mountain Road doesn’t normally get much attention. It’s a relatively quiet residential area peppered with a variety of house styles that intersects at almost every block with a side street. Even at rush hour when there’s moderate traffic, it’s hard to imagine that at trolley once ran up and down this street.
In 1894, when the first plans for the Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company were approved, Farmington Avenue was sparsely populated with about 10 houses between today’s Pleasant Street and Mountain Road. These were mainly farm houses with large swathes of land. Up until that time, the intersection of Farmington Avenue and Main Street was where the action was, with a variety of fine houses (including the home of William H. Hall) built in today’s West Hartford Center.
In the late 19th-century, West Hartford experienced a population boom. With an ever growing influx of immigrants in Hartford, more established residents began moving west into West Hartford. Increased transportation – like the trolley – allowed businessmen to work in the Capital City but to live in the rural splendor of West Hartford.
The earliest form of mass transportation was the “horse railroad” begun in 1863. Steel rails were laid on major Hartford streets and train cars sat on the tracks and were pulled by horses. The Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company began laying down tracks on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford in 1894. Service began shortly thereafter, but there were still kinks to work out. The local churches were bothered by excessive noise and trolley cars jumping the tracks at different switches. And with winter’s arrival, patrons began appealing for stoves, fur robes, and better closed compartments within the cars.
Still, the introduction of the trolley along Farmington Avenue was an attraction for most. A trolley car house on the north side of Farmington Avenue, just east of Pleasant Street, which had been recently created to provide access to the newly laid out Fairview Cemetery. By January 1, 1895, two “special” trolley cars showed up at the car house with finished rooves and luxuriously upholstered cross seats. Around the same time, wires and poles were installed to allow for all of the horse-drawn cars to be converted to electric cars.
By June 1895, the trolley had helped spur a demand for building lots along Farmington Avenue. Real estate speculators purchased tracts of land and began to subdivide them into lots. Ironically, the lumber and other materials needed to build new homes on Farmington Avenue were often transported to the building sites by the trolleys. The growing attraction of the area is further demonstrated by the creation of the side streets Westland Avenue and LeMay Street. Laid out in 1905, Westland Avenue gained additional attention when Edward W. Morley, a nationally recognized chemist and professor, built a house at 26 Westland Avenue in 1906. George LeMay built a home “off Farmington Avenue at 1114” in 1905; by 1909, it was known as 9 LeMay Street.
Competition between trolley companies produced more alternatives, like branch lines. In 1899, Hartford & West Hartford Railroad was bought by the Farmington Street Railway. According to a 1901 book called Trips by Trolley Around Hartford, one could take the Hartford Street Railway from City Hall in Hartford to West Hartford Center (a 25-minute trip) for 5¢. If you
wanted to continue on to Farmington, you had to switch to the Farmington Street Railway in the Center, which ran every half-hour in the summer. It cost 10¢ to make the 25-minute trip to Farmington or 15¢ to reach the street railway’s terminus in Unionville (a 40-minute trip).
The year 1914 is considered to be the height of the trolley industry in America. In that year, 14 billion people rode on trolleys throughout the United States. There were now over 200 miles of trolley track in Hartford County (the lines being consolidated into The Connecticut Company). It’s no surprise, then, that residential development on Farmington Avenue grew significantly around this time, as more people began to take advantage of the easy transportation the trolley provided and moved farther west. The majority of houses built on Farmington Avenue between Westland Avenue and Garfield Road date from 1915-1930.
Additional side streets were drawn out [by 1917: Sunset Terrace, Wardwell Street, and Ellsworth Street (later changed to Garfield Road)], even if no houses had been built on them yet.
As romantic as the trolley seems to us today, they did not come without problems. To make way for them, the landscape of Farmington Avenue was changed. The street was widened and trees were removed, to be replaced with poles and wires. The road was now not as passable for horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bicyclists. And once automobiles came into vogue, accidents involving the trolleys became common. The local residents – who might have moved to the area because of the promise of easy transportation – began to complain that the trolley did not stop frequently enough on Farmington Avenue. Passengers would wait at the designated area only to find a streetcar filled to capacity whizzing by with shouts of “Take the next car!” trailing behind.
The advent of the automobile correlated directly with the decline of the trolley. As more people drove to work, the use of the trolley diminished, eventually to be replaced by buses. The streetcar service from Hartford to Unionville ran until 1934, when trolley lines through Hartford County were reduced mainly within the City of Hartford. By 1941, The Connecticut Company had retired its last car.
But here in West Hartford, the trolley had done its work. The development of Farmington Avenue from a patchwork of individual farms to a seamless community was only possible with the advent of the trolley, which attached the neighboring tracts into accessible strands of homes. Individual real estate and land decisions were made by the older generation as they retired away from town and sold off the land to prospective buyers; however, the increase in improved transportation, including the automobile, helped provide Farmington Avenue with a support network of side streets that coincided with the housing boom. Real estate companies and like-minded developers capitalized on these waves to provide a supply of “modern” suburbia to Farmington Avenue, a perfect storm that pushed residents from farmland to sidewalk to side street within three decades.