Trolleys are once again rolling through Spokane’s streets, exactly as they did 85 years ago.
Well, not exactly like 85 years ago. Well, not even close.
Around 1910, in Spokane’s heyday of trolleys, at least 150 trolley cars clanked down the city’s streets, which is about 147 more than today.
In those days, everybody with a nickel rode the trolleys to work, to baseball games, to vaudeville shows, to the Natatorium Park. Washington Water Power’s trolley lines logged a whopping 24 million riders in 1910 (compared to 7.4 million riders on Spokane Transit Authority buses in 1994).
For another thing, today’s trolleys are not trolleys at all. They are diesel buses shaped like trolleys. A real trolley has two defining characteristics: It runs on rails in the street, and it is powered by electricity from overhead wires.
In fact, the term trolley comes from the “trolley pole” sticking out the top of the car, which touches the overhead wires.
These trolley poles and overhead wires were a ubiquitous part of Spokane life for more than 45 years. The trolley era began when the first electric trolley sparked its way down Main Street on Nov. 16, 1889, and ended in 1936 when the last trolley line was converted to a bus line. For many of those years, especially the years from 1890 to about 1915, the trolley was king.
In fact, the trolley shaped Spokane. For the first time, workers could live outside of strolling distance to their jobs. The first streetcar lines were built by real estate developers, who would run a trolley line out to, for instance, Browne’s Addition, and then commence to sell home lots.
“People weren’t going to buy unless you had public transportation,” said Charles Mutschler, an archivist at Eastern Washington University and co-author of “Spokane’s Street Railways, An Illustrated History.” “This worked in both working class neighborhoods, because everyone rode the trolley to work, and in upper-class neighborhoods, because you had all these maids and servants and day help, and they had to ride the trolley to get there.”
Spokane’s growth took place exactly at the moment when the technology of streetcars (defined as any public conveyance running on tracks in the street) was exploding around the country. There were several different kinds of streetcars, all competing to win the market: horse-drawn streetcars, cable cars (pulled by underground cables), steam-powered streetcars (pulled by small locomotives), and electric trolleys.
Spokane had all of them during one short burst of experimentation. A brief chronology shows how quickly electricity triumphed:
April 1888 - Spokane’s first streetcar, pulled by horses, rumbles down Riverside Avenue to Browne’s Addition.
June 1888 - Spokane’s first cable car line begins service, with one route heading toward Fort Wright, and the other heading up toward a new development on the South Hill called Cable Addition (a name that survives today on city bus routes).
November 1888 - The first steam-powered line begins operation up the South Hill.
1889 - The first electric trolley line begins, serving the East Central area. The horse-drawn lines immediately begin conversion to electricity.
1891 - The remaining horse-drawn lines complete conversion to electricity.
1892 - The steam-powered lines convert to electricity.
1894 - The last cable car line ceases operation, its route taken over by electric trolley.
The electric trolley proved to have obvious advantages over the alternatives, both in Spokane and everywhere else in the country.
“The problem with a steam locomotive was evident when it was sharing a street with all of those draft animals,” said Mutschler. “It made noises and steam and exhaust, and it did not endear itself to people who lived along the route. It spooked the horses quite easily.”
The cable car, while a high-tech innovation, was incredibly expensive because it required digging up the streets and putting in an underground cable. Also, when the cable went on the blink, every car on the route stopped, which turned out to be a critical problem. It survived only in places with steep hills, such as San Francisco and Seattle.
Electricity, on the other hand, merely required stringing up some wire.
By the mid-1890s, trolleys were clang-clang-clanging into every corner of Spokane, on a number of competing lines. It didn’t take long for people to abandon foot-power and horse-power. The fare was a nickel, a fair chunk of money in the days when wages were maybe a dollar a day. But trolleys proved irresistible.
“They were electrically heated, for one thing, which was a wonderful advantage,” said Mutschler. “In the winter, the thought of going to work by foot or by horseback doesn’t sound good compared to that underseat heating.”
The suspension was not overly gentle, nor were the rattan seats particularly plush, but the trolleys were fast, dependable and warm.
Warm, except for the poor motormen. They had to ride outside in all kinds of weather, wind whistling through their mustaches. Beginning around 1896, cars were built with the motorman’s station enclosed, but this innovation wasn’t entirely for the comfort of the motorman. It was to make it harder for the passengers to fall off.
The enclosed parts of the cars had big signs that proclaimed: “No Smoking! It Is Absolutely Forbidden to Expectorate!” However, smokers could stand out on the open platform and ply their habit. Under the social rules of the day, this was de facto a men’s section.
“As a small boy I enjoyed standing here with the men,” the late Spokane motorman Clyde Parent wrote in his memoirs published in “Spokane’s Street Railways: An Illustrated History.” “But unless my father was with me, the conductor always chased me into the main part of the car, where I had to sit with the ladies.”
Small boys (and girls) not only tried to sneak into the smoking section, but they were notorious for trying to hitch rides on streetcars. Every car had a “fender” on the front, like a big low-slung lawn chair, that worked to sweep up stray children or cyclists.
All of the cars had gongs, which according to Parent, “got so dirty they clunked more than they clanged.” They also had loud air whistles, for use only in emergencies, or for when the motorman felt like making a particularly emphatic point to a stray auto driver.
The level of service was remarkable, with trolleys on many routes running at least every 15 minutes. There was even an “Owl Car” service, beginning in 1901, which departed from Howard and Riverside long past midnight for use by theatergoers and other late-night revelers. When the Owl Car service was cut back in 1916, The Spokesman-Review noted that this would pose a hardship for, among others, lodge members.
And when the trolley lines wanted to boost ridership, they simply created new destinations, which is how Natatorium Park (Spokane’s amusement park) came to exist. The Spokane Street Railway Co. started it, beginning in about 1893, and it was then taken over by Washington Water Power when the utility company took over most of the trolley lines in Spokane in 1899.
Natatorium Park was an ideal moneymaker for WWP. The company made money taking people to the park, getting people into the park, and taking people home from the park.
Accidents were common on trolleys, especially when autos began to crowd the roads. As Parent said, “The light flimsy autos usually folded up like an accordion when they tried to occupy the same space as a steelframed 30-ton electric rail car.”
However, even a 30-ton trolley car couldn’t survive the disaster that occurred on a snowy December morning in 1915. The Division Street Bridge collapsed, with two trolley cars on it. One trolley, bound for Hillyard, ended up tilting at a crazy angle with one end on the riverbank. No one was hurt in that car. The people in the other trolley were not so lucky. The car fell into the river and was crushed by a falling girder. Five were killed and 12 injured.
By that year, 1915, the trolley era was already in decline. Ridership had peaked in 1910, and already the trolleys were facing competition from autos and jitneys, which were essentially that which operated on a fixed route and schedule. By the 1920s, the bigger buses were the wave of the future.
The trolleys were doomed anyway, but the situation was not helped by the trolley companies’ almost constant wrangling: wrangling with the city fathers, wrangling with the street department, wrangling with each other. This wrangling was almost inevitable, considering the fragmented history of the companies in Spokane.
Trolley ownership in Spokane paralleled the trends in the rest of the country: A number of separate lines were started by real estate developers, who quickly sold out to different transportation companies, which were then snapped up by one big utility company.
In Spokane, the utility company was Washington Water Power, which bought up every line but one in 1899. However, that one other line, which became the Spokane Traction Co., was a fierce rival, sometimes operating lines on the same streets. Competition had its advantages, but as ridership declined, it also meant that instead of one healthy trolley company, there were two struggling ones. Spokane’s trolley lines didn’t become unified until 1922 (becoming the Spokane United Railways), and by then it was too late.
From 1922 to 1933, ridership dropped 33 percent. The Spokane United Railways looked into the future and saw that it consisted of rubber tires and diesel fumes. The company in 1933 immediately began conversion to buses, a process completed in three years.
Some people were sorry to see trolleys go, but not too many.
“Most people viewed it as a positive change,” said Mutschler. “It was nice to have the wires off the street, nice to have the trolleys out of the traffic pattern. The buses were new and updated. The newest streetcars were 20 years old.”
In fact, for most Spokane residents, it was a matter of supreme indifference.
“They didn’t care one way or the other,” said Mutschler. “They drove their cars to work.”
On Aug. 31, 1936, the last trolley made its final clang. Today, nothing is left except a few rails, still visible on city streets that have somehow escaped repaving.
And now, of course, there are the new downtown “trolleys,” which, in a salute to the old days, have an odd item attached to their roofs.
It’s a “trolley pole,” strictly for decoration.