Fri., Dec. 19, 2014
An underground history of Spokane trolleys
In today’s paper, we reported on a decision yesterday by the Spokane Transit Authority board of directors to let voters decide whether to increase sales tax by 0.3 percent to fund a plan that would extend hours and expand service to new areas, as well as fund a trolley-like fixed route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College.
The vote will come in April, and if it passes, it will be the first time in almost 80 years since Spokane had anything resembling a trolley. Recently, I’ve dredged up and read WAY TOO MUCH information on these trolley-like conveyances that plied the streets.
Since the Spokesman-Review is a newspaper and not a journal for an amateur historian, I kept most of it to myself. Still, with the STA news, I thought it might be appropriate to dump the contents of my notepad into a blog. Below is a chronological take on some of the lesser known facets of our trolley history.
According to a 1931 story in the Chronicle, the first record of street railway activity in Spokane was in 1886, when a charter for a horse car line was issued to H.C. Marshall and A.J. Ross. By the end of 1887, the city had 20 miles of streetcar track.
Electric street cars succeeded horse cars in 1889, just a year after the first horse car ran on Riverside by the Spokane Street Railway company and connected Browne’s Addition to downtown.
According to J.B. Fisken, who joined the Spokane Electric Light and Power Company in 1887 before it turned into Washington Water Power, the South Side Cable Company built a cable car in 1890 going south up Monroe, from fifth avenue to 14th, and it east to Bernard, where its car barn stood.
New car barns for the street railway company were given the green light to build in October 24, 1899, with an estimated cost of $40,000. The building took up an entire block between Boone and Gardner and from Jefferson to Adams. It had 11 tracks, housed 50 cars and was completed the summer of 1900. The Spokane Transit Authority continues to use the land for its bus barn.
In autumn of 1900, the South Hill saw the construction of the line that went up Howard and across Bishop Court, a dirt road that still exists but is generally avoided.
In 1931, the Chronicle delivered the first mention of what we now call buses in an article about the scrapping of the Manito streetcar line, “which is now slated to into the discard and be superseded perhaps by a trackless trolley.”
The last streetcar passed over the Monroe Street Bridge on the night of Oct. 2, 1934. The streetcar tracks were covered with asphalt, “making a smooth surface the entire length of the bridge.”
On Oct. 28, 1934, the paper reported that the South Hill saw its last streetcar. “South Hill Has No More Street Cars,” the headline blared.
A photo in the Sept. 14, 1935 edition of the Spokesman shows a work crew removing tracks on Howard and Riverside as a street car heads east on Riverside in the background, “one of its last trips along the city’s principal avenue.” The photos caption reads “Street Cars Soon Join Dodo Bird.”
On May 23, 1936, the Spokesman had an unsigned article titled, “Goodby, Street Cars.” It reads, in full:
By September 1, it is promised, Spokane street transportation will be completely motorized. The last rattling car will vanish into the limbo of the past. The remaining cars are noisier than ever, for, naturally, the Washington Water Power company has held down repair and reconstruction cost on conveyances soon to be junked. The history of street railway transportation in Spokane and other American cities is proof of the difficulty of far-range planning. Frontier Spokane considered it progress when the first little horse-drawn cars jingled along at four or five miles an hour. Then came the electric cars. They were small at first, running on light-weight rails, but grew gradually to accommodate more passengers, until their seating capacity exceeded the passenger coaches on steam railways of half a century ago. And now, presto! They are passing from the city streets, and within a few years one of these relics will be a curiosity. Too big for museum collections, they may pass entirely from public view. That should be a cautionary influence upon too over-eager “planners.” They should remember that it is eternally true that “man proposes, but God disposes.”
On Aug. 31, 1936, Car No. 202 was publicly “cremated in the big bonfire” at Natatorium Park to mark the final replacement of trolley cars with busses, “its formal demise via the torch.” The Spokesman estimated 10,000 people lined Summit Boulevard to watch it burn, and “many others thronged the lawns and paths in the park below, seeking a vantage spot.” The car reportedly had traveled 1,625,789 miles during its 26 years in service, and covered an average of 191 miles a day. Up to 60 people could fit on the trolley, and it was among the largest ever used in Spokane. The photo at the top of this post adorns the walls of STA’s headquarters, and it shows No. 202’s last journey.
At some point in the ‘30s, the trolleys were painted bright yellow and red to “make the cars more visible to speeding motorists.”
A 1936 article in the Spokesman reported that Spokane was “the first city on the Pacific Coast to take this modern step” of motorizing its transportation system.
At the end of World War II, there were 61,000 automobiles in the city, but the transit system was still going gangbusters, carrying 22 million passengers a year. The system soon bottomed out, reaching its lowest point in 1968, when just 2 million rides were given – but a 146-day strike left the city without a bus system, which contributed to the low ridership numbers. The strike led Mayor David Rodgers to form a 9-member committee to look into the transit system. In May 1968, voters agreed with the committee’s recommendations of making the transit system run by a governmental board, and service was restored.
In the 1970s, news of the streetcar’s revival began appearing in the news, as Portland and Seattle investigated using the quaint technology. On Jan. 27, 1981, an article in the Chronicle discussed the concept for a diesel powered, rubber tired street car that would ply downtown’s streets as a parking shuttle.
Which brings me to a final question: Will voters approve of STA’s plan and make what’s old new again?