On June 11, 1938, the Tacoma Railway & Power Company runs streetcars through Tacoma for the last time, concluding with a raucous citywide party covered by Life magazine. The final day of the trolley system's operation, which Tacoma's mayor declares a public holiday, is a celebration attended by more than 10,000 people and highlighted in a four-page photo spread in the July 11, 1938, edition of Life. With the company's blessing, revelers strip the 21 streetcars for souvenirs, and the last streetcar to run is ceremonially burned on its return to the car barn. The 76-mile streetcar system will be replaced the next day by motorized buses with rubber tires, marking the first time since 1888 that Tacoma is without trolley service.
Tacoma's trolley service had been beloved and reliable transportation for half a century, as highlighted by the extravagant and nostalgic celebration marking the end of service and the new era of motorized buses with rubber tires. Life documented the party that filled the streets on the evening of June 11, 1938, as revelers stripped 21 streetcars bare for souvenirs in just two hours, snagging everything from the coveted brass whistles and seats to electric light bulbs. The magazine reported that the final hours were "complete chaos" ("Life Goes ...").
The merriment included a barbershop-chorus version of "The Old Streetcar Ain't What She Used to Be," led by Tacoma Railway & Power president Curtis Hill. Social groups and businesses chartered many cars for their own parties, decorating the sides with signs, paint, balloons, and confetti. The Girls Advertising Club won the $50 prize for best-decorated streetcar.
The evening ended in a fiery display when the last streetcar into the car barn was ceremonially burned at 1 a.m. the following day in accordance with the proclamation from Mayor John C. Siegle, which declared "May God have mercy on its soul" ("Life Goes ...").
The day that began with the streetcar cremation was the first since 1888 that Tacoma was without trolley service. The city-owned Tacoma Municipal Belt Line Railway, which had operated an electric-trolley line since 1915, had shifted from streetcars to buses a month earlier in May 1938.
50 Years of Streetcar Service
Half a century earlier, the first streetcars of the Tacoma Street Railway had rolled down Pacific Avenue on May 30, 1888, from the Northern Pacific passenger terminal to the Old Town neighborhood north of downtown Tacoma. Horses pulled bright-yellow, 14-passenger streetcars with upholstered seats. On the same day, a steam motor (a method of streetcar propulsion soon abandoned) began propelling streetcars on the C Street line. Another horse-drawn line started up on Tacoma Avenue. Riders flocked to these lines, which were quickly extended. Other tracks were hastily laid.
These streetcar lines quickly abandoned the horse. Tacoma's first electric streetcar zipped down Pacific Avenue on February 10, 1890, and "the people went half wild," according to an early Tacoma historian (Hunt, 473). The next Sunday, more than 4,000 passengers jammed the new electric streetcars. New lines began springing up all through Tacoma.
Yet like the horses and steam motors, electric streetcars were eventually seen as obsolete with the advent of new motorized buses with rubber tires, not confined to metal tracks. In December 1937, Tacoma Railway & Power cemented the demise of the streetcars when it ordered 85 motor coaches to replace the trolleys. By then eight coaches were already in service.
But the streetcars did not disappear without a fabulous sendoff. Life magazine's pictures document the public burning of the last streetcar after it rolled into the car barn filled with revelers coming from a Gay Nineties dance at the Winthrop Hotel that was part of the festivities. In the words of the mayor's proclamation, the old trolley was to be "suitably cremated with public ceremony," and the magazine reported that as it was, "some of the 10,000 celebrants looked on, many of them sentimentally sobered for the moment" ("Life Goes ...").
And as for the cars that were stripped, but not burned? The Seattle Times had earlier reported that the abandoned trolleys would be sold for $40 each ("Tacoma to Ride ...").