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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Historic Yakima trolley car restored, though route challenges continue

By Joel Donofrio Yakima Herald-Republic

During a year of restricted routes and the resulting lower revenue, the Yakima Valley Trolleys organization received a welcome spark of good news this summer.

The mechanical systems of an original Yakima Trolley car made in 1930 by the Brill Company have been restored and are now operating, said Larry Fournier, treasurer and board member of the Yakima Valley Trolleys organization. Mechanic Russ Wentworth was instrumental in the effort.

It “has been sitting in here for years not operating and we got it operating a couple months ago,” Fournier said Sept. 26 as he walked through the group’s facilities at Third Avenue and West Pine Street in Yakima.

Members of Union Pacific Historical Society who were meeting in Pasco in July made a special trip to Yakima to see the Brill Master Unit Car No. 21 roar to life.

“It would be an amazing improvement to our excursions. The goal is, a) to get the route back open to Selah and, b) to do it with the Brill Master Unit,” Fournier said. “But there are challenges.”

Among those challenges are finishing the restoration of the Brill Master Unit (particularly a flat spot on one of its wheels), recruiting more volunteers to help operate the trolley cars on their runs, and repairs to the rails, overhead wires and bridge between downtown Yakima and the city of Selah.

Motor operators and money

Trolley lines, once common across the country, are a rare sight in 2023. Fournier and YVT President Ken Johnsen say the summer trolley runs between Yakima and Selah – which have been taking place more than a century – are a unique and important asset in the Yakima Valley.

“We only know of one other interurban trolley operation still running in the United States, and that’s in Iowa,” Fournier said. “(Yakima trolleys) have been in operation continuously since 1908 in one form or another. We’ve been an excursion operation for the last 35, 40 years.”

The trolleys remain operational due to a longstanding partnership between the city of Yakima and the volunteers of Yakima Valley Trolleys. City council member Patricia Byers said she is grateful for the thousands of volunteer hours YVT members have put in to keep the cars running.

“The trolleys are such a unique, historical aspect of our community – they’re a hidden gem in Yakima that I think more people need to know about,” Byers said.

“It’s something we need to perpetuate. It’s an important part of our history here in the Yakima Valley, a great family activity and it’s a lot of fun, too,” she added.

Most years, YVT operates a red Portuguese car on a route around downtown and between Yakima and Selah on weekends during the summer months through the end of September. It also has a museum adjacent to its trolley barn at 306 W. Pine St. and hosts special events, including for the Halloween and Christmas seasons.

But this year, structural concerns found on the Naches River bridge between Yakima and Selah shelved that route, and ridership suffered with only the Pine Street downtown route available, Fournier said.

Between the loss of the Selah route and the continued recovery from pandemic-related restrictions, revenues have fallen from $46,000 in 2019 to an estimated $10,000 for 2023, Fournier reported. He said with the city’s help paying for some expenses and insurance, YVT can sustain itself financially through down years such as 2023.

“Our ridership is lacking because we’re not running to Selah,” Fournier added. “People in Yakima … who are interested in trolleys have ridden the Portuguese car a mile and back so many times on Pine Street, it’s just not something they want to do.”

Another key issue is having motor operators available to run the trolleys, especially for the longer runs to Selah when they are available again.

“Our biggest challenge is manpower. Right now we’ve got one or two people who can work as motormen, plus a volunteer (Jim Moore) who comes from Seattle,” Fournier said. “And our one mechanic, Russ Wentworth – without him, we’d be done.

“I’m 85, and it’s really hard for me to drive the Portuguese car – you’ve got to stand up the entire time, they’re herky-jerky. Going to Selah on one of those, after you’ve done about three runs, well it’s just too much for me anymore,” he added. “We need to get more, younger people volunteering, especially to be motormen.”

Trolley line issues

While City Engineer Bill Preston has kept the City Council updated on issues and potential repairs needed on the Naches River bridge, its closure is not the only issue keeping trolleys from running on the Selah route.

The overhead wire for the trolley line in the Selah gap has been missing for roughly 15 years since it was stolen in the mid-2000s, Fournier said. While the Portuguese car made the run powered by a generator, the larger Brill car has two poles and would need overhead wires to get to Selah.

“Somewhere around 2005, 2006, 2007, a gang of thieves stole the overhead wire in the Selah Gap. We’ve got two miles of wire that need to be replaced,” Fournier said.

Before restoring the wire, the group wants to make sure there’s alarm system that would prevent future theft.

“Nobody can find an alarm system where if you cut the wire, it would trigger an alarm … so that’s why the wire isn’t up,” he said. “We can’t run the Brill car to Selah without the wire.”

The wire only will be needed once trolley cars can cross the Naches River bridge again – or even get to the bridge. Sixth Avenue track repairs are needed where it crosses Fruitvale Boulevard, and city officials are hopeful they can be done this month.

“In August of 2022, the city ripped up the track across Fruitvale,” Fournier said. “They promised to restore in April, then they moved it to July, and now it’s October. That would allow us to run to the bridge.”

In August, Preston told City Council members only one of the two tracks is in place across Fruitvale, with the missing track’s space covered with a temporary asphalt patch to allow cars to drive over it safely. Repairing the crossing, including $11,000 for ties, would cost $35,000, Preston said.

Mayor Janice Deccio and council member Byers asked Preston to focus on fixing the Fruitvale crossing, but Preston said the contractor who has done trolley line repairs in the past is unavailable until the fall.

Johnsen, the YVT president, said in August that funding for the Fruitvale crossing repair should not be a problem.

“I have personally contributed $11,500 toward the cost of materials, and with the help of (former state Sen.) Jim Honeyford, we have obtained a $25,000 grant from the state toward the cost of repairs,” Johnsen said. “The problem seems to be a lack of personnel to complete the project.”

Last week, Byers told the Yakima Herald-Republic, “I am hoping we can move forward on the Sixth Avenue track repairs this year. That would provide (YVT) with a boost for the rest of this fall and for the early part of next year.”

Bridge repairs and possible changes

The Naches River bridge remains a contentious and potentially expensive issue. In recent years, members of the William O. Douglas Trail Foundation have asked the city to make the bridge part of the 80-mile trail.

Foundation members have proposed one-way pedestrian walkways and fencing on either side of the trolley tracks, on the outside of the bridge. The city’s Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee endorsed the trail foundation’s request one year ago, and in April the City Council voted 5-2 to move forward with environmental reviews and engineering project permitting for the walkways.

Johnsen, Fournier and other YVT board members – along with City Council members Byers and Matt Brown – oppose the idea of moving forward with the walkway plans.

“There’s a lot of liability issues there,” Fournier said. “Right now, there’s a no trespassing sign on that bridge, for pedestrians, and we want to keep it that way.

“If we open it up to the trail association, it opens it up to the general public,” he added. “The homeless already are using it, but at least they’re doing it as trespassers. They can’t sue us if somebody falls off, or gets their foot caught in the ties and breaks an ankle.”

Johnsen also is concerned that any changes to the bridge could have an impact on a pending application to have Yakima Valley Trolleys and its rail lines recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Members of the William O. Douglas Trail group have disagreed, saying the project would be mutually beneficial, and way to highlight local history.

The cost and scope of the needed bridge repairs also is the subject of disagreement between the city and YVT’s board of directors.

In August, Preston presented City Council members with the results of Olympia-based Sargent Engineers’ study of the bridge. It recommended repairs to the south abutment and various areas of the bridge itself totaling more than $267,000.

Johnsen noted two engineering firms have inspected the Naches River bridge – Sargent, which he called a “general engineering firm” and a railroad bridge engineering specialist. These assessments produced differing recommendations, he said.

The railroad bridge specialist hired by YVT believes that while some abutment work is needed, it would be safe to operate trolleys over the approach in its present condition for now, Johnsen said.