Spokane's Streetcars

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/25/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8080
See Additional Media
From 1888 to 1936, streetcars played a clanging and colorful role in the history of Spokane. The city's first streetcar was pulled down Riverside Avenue by a team of horses. Within two years, steam-powered streetcars, cable cars, and electric trolleys were rolling through the city's streets. Within six years, Spokane's streetcars had all been converted to electricity, which was the most efficient form of streetcar in a city known for abundant hydroelectric power. Streetcars also played an important role in the city's expansion. Real-estate developers built the early streetcar lines as an incentive for homebuyers to purchase lots outside of walking distance of downtown. One streetcar company developed a huge new amusement park, Natatorium Park, with a roller coaster, a swimming pool, a baseball stadium, and gardens as a way to increase trolley traffic. By 1910, ridership was up to 24 million riders a year. Accidents were common; the worst occurred in 1915 when the Division Street Bridge carrying two trolleys collapsed into the Spokane River, killing five. Ridership began to decline around 1915 because of competition from jitney cabs and personal automobiles. In 1922 the two remaining trolley companies merged and became Spokane United Railways. Ridership declined another 33 percent from 1922 to 1933, at which point Spokane United Railways began to convert all of its routes to buses. The last trolley rolled through Spokane in 1936, but even today the old rails peek through the cobblestones of some Spokane streets.

Horse Power

Spokane's first streetcar line was the Spokane Street Railway Co., built specifically to sell lots in Browne's Addition, a new development of houses and mansions on the city's western edge. This development was about a mile away from downtown, considered too far away to walk. So the developers hired A. J. Ross to build a horse-drawn streetcar line out to the middle of Browne's Addition. Horse-drawn streetcars on rails had been in use in New York since the 1830s and were considered efficient and reliable.

Ross began laying track in 1887 and the line opened for business on April 15, 1888, in a gala event: "A very large crowd gathered on the sidewalk to see the car start," wrote a reporter who was present. "The car itself was gaily festooned with the American flag. Photographs were taken. There was great enthusiasm all long the line" (Morning Review). The newspaper reported that it was the second street railway in the territory; Seattle had the first.

In the case of Browne's Addition, a reliable streetcar line was deemed necessary not only to transport homeowners to their downtown shops and offices, but also to transport maids and house servants to their jobs in the new mansions being built by the city's mining and timber barons.

Steam and Cable

The Spokane Street Railway was an immediate hit. It paid for itself within eight months, at a nickel a fare. At least four competitors followed right behind; one company filed articles of incorporation three days after those horses hauled that first streetcar. Most of them, in a clear sign of change, used fancier new technologies.

Two companies, the Spokane & Montrose Motor Railroad Co. and the Arlington Heights Motor Railway Co., used steam streetcars, pulled by small steam locomotives. The locomotives were housed in streetcar bodies, on the theory that they wouldn't scare horses in the street (a theory that proved false). The first steam streetcar chugged to life on the Spokane & Montrose line on November 17, 1888.

The Spokane Cable Railway was a cable-car line in which cars were pulled by a cable buried beneath the city streets. Cable cars had already proven to be a success in San Francisco, where steep grades made horse- or steam-powered streetcars unsafe. The Spokane Cable Railway ran one line south up the steep Monroe Street hill to a new housing development called Cable Addition, and another line north to Twickenham Park on the Spokane River. The first cable car clanged uphill in 1890.

The Electric Streetcar

The Ross Park Street Railway Company was the first to adopt the technology that would soon rule in Spokane: electricity. The electric trolley car had been perfected in 1888 and was just beginning to sweep the country. The trolley got its name from the "trolley pole" that jutted up from the roof of the car. The pole touched an electric wire strung up over the middle of the street. The Ross Park line generated its own electricity from its own powerhouse on the Spokane River and began regular operations on November 16, 1889. "My but that car was crowded," remembered J. A. Meyers, a passenger who pushed his way on board one of the inaugural runs. "It was so slow getting under way most of us thought we'd have to get out and push" ("He Rode First Trolley," Spokesman-Review).

Electric trolleys soon proved to be superior. Horses were skittish, high-maintenance, and had to be replaced often. Steam locomotives were loud, smoky, sooty, and slow to fire up. Cable cars were enormously expensive because they required digging up streets to install the cable. And when the cable went dead (which happened often), every car on the line went dead. Electricity was especially attractive in Spokane, which was built on the falls of the Spokane River. Hydroelectric power was abundant and cheap.

The Spokane Street Railway retired its horses and converted entirely to electricity in 1891. The steam-powered lines converted to electricity in 1892. The cable cars went out of business in 1894, their routes taken over by electric trolleys. So within six years of that first horse-drawn ride, all of Spokane's many competing streetcar lines went electric.

By the middle of the 1890s, trolleys were rumbling into every corner of Spokane. It didn't take long for residents to abandon their old-fashioned modes of transportation, foot power, and horsepower. The fare on most lines was only a nickel, affordable even to workers making around a dollar a day.

People soon discovered that trolleys had clear advantages over horseback, especially in winter. Many trolleys had electrically heated seats. The trolleys were convenient even by modern standards; cars rolled by at least every 15 minutes on many routes. A special "Owl Car" service, beginning in 1901, ran downtown after midnight to serve the patrons of Spokane's many variety theaters, saloons, and gambling houses. It also served some of the city's more respectable citizens. When the Owl Car service was cut back 15 years later, the city's Spokesman-Review newspaper opined that it would pose a particular hardship for the city's lodge members.

The early years show a record of almost constant wrangling. The streetcar companies argued with city fathers over rights-of-way; with the street department over maintenance; and amongst themselves over the most lucrative routes. But the developers who built most of these streetcar lines lost interest in the streetcar business once their lots were sold. By 1899, most of them had sold out to a company that had a natural, long-term interest in electric streetcars: the Washington Water Power Co.

This company operated several dams on the Spokane River and had plenty of electricity. The company also coveted the trolley lines' network of street poles, which it could use to string up wires for electrical service. The power company also took over ownership of Natatorium Park, formerly Twickenham Park, begun a few years earlier by the Spokane Street Railway as a way to increase ridership.

Getting their Jollies on the Trolleys

The power company soon developed this into Spokane's premier amusement park, with a huge public pool, thrill rides, and garden paths for courting couples. The company made money off customers on the way to the park, at the park, and on the way home from the park. In 1924, a barnstorming Babe Ruth hit a home run at the Natatorium's baseball park; the Spokesman-Review reported that the trolleys after the game were jammed with hundreds of dust-smudged boys. Many of them clutched autographs of the Babe himself.

Kids seemed to especially love the trolleys. Small boys were notorious for jumping on the back or sides of the car and trying to hitch a free ride. Every trolley had a "fender" on the front, like a low-slung lawn chair, which served to sweep up stray bicyclists and children. Kids were also notorious for greasing the rails on Halloween, which meant that the trolley wheels would spin in place, unable to get traction, while gangs of kids hid in the bushes and laughed.

Many trolleys had an open platform at the rear where men -- and only men -- could stand and smoke. Women and children sat inside where a sign proclaimed, "No Smoking! It Is Absolutely Forbidden to Expectorate!" (Parent). To many residents, trolleys were a familiar and friendly part of everyday life. Sometimes, a conductor "stopped to tell a housewife that her husband had sent word when he'd be home for lunch or clanked the bell noisily to let a worker know he had overslept" ("Trolleys Roll Last Mile," Spokesman-Review).

Wrecks and Disasters

Accidents were common, especially when Model Ts began to crowd the streets in the 1910s. As one old motorman once put it, a car always got the worst of it when it collided with a 30-ton electric streetcar.

The worst accident in Spokane's streetcar history occurred before dawn on December 18, 1915, as two trolleys crossed the Division Street Bridge over the Spokane River. Suddenly the bridge deck collapsed violently, plunging the Astor Street car into the icy waters. Then a steel girder came slashing down from overhead, shearing the top off of the half-submerged car. Several passengers were killed instantly and the others struggled to escape.

"As I was trying to climb out the car window, someone down in the car grabbed me by the feet and nearly pulled me back," said one survivor. "His hold was finally released and I was able to climb on out. The screams of those pinned down there in the car were awful. I was the last man out of the car alive" ("Disaster on Division," Spokesman-Review).

The second streetcar, the Hillyard streetcar, had its front wheels on dry land but the back of the car was dragged backwards and down, leaving the car hanging at a perilous angle. The conductor and the only two passengers climbed up the aisle using the seats as steps and crawled out the front to safety. The people on the crowded Astor car were not so lucky. Five died and 12 were injured. Engineers later suspected that the steel bridge had been damaged by debris washed down in an earlier flood.

End of an Era

Meanwhile, fierce competitive battles raged between the only two remaining streetcar companies, Washington Water Power and the Spokane Traction Co., which sometimes operated lines on the same routes. An even more serious competitive threat had emerged by this time: the internal combustion engine.

By 1915, cars were beginning to fill the streets of Spokane. A new kind of auto taxi called a "jitney" began to draw trolley riders away. Spokane auto dealers rented their cars to enterprising young men who would cruise the trolley lines and pick up waiting riders for the price of a trolley fare. Why wait for a trolley when a jitney is there to pick you up? The trolley companies fought to have jitneys banned on the grounds that, among other things, they were "an inducement to immorality." Often eight or 10 riders would be jammed into one Model T, which meant women were sitting on men's laps.

The jitneys were soon banned, but it was too late. By 1920, autos had become affordable for the middle class. Ridership plummeted as more people drove themselves to work. In 1922, the Washington Water Power lines and the Spokane Traction Co. lines merged under the name Spokane United Railways, owned by Washington Water Power. Over the next 11 years, ridership declined 33 percent. In 1933, the Spokane United Railways decided to do what streetcar companies were doing all over America: convert to buses.

Buses had a number of pluses. They required no rails to maintain. Their routes could be altered at will. They did not clog up the traffic patterns as did streetcars. They required no unsightly electric wires.

By 1936, the conversion to the bus was complete. Some people were sorry to see the trolleys go, with their clanging bells and jaunty motormen. Many welcomed the modern age of buses. Others, however, saw it as a matter of supreme indifference. They drove their cars to work anyway.

On August 31, 1936, the last trolley was retired in a grand parade held by Spokane United Railways from downtown to Natatorium Park. About 10,000 spectators lined the streets to watch "faithful old car No. 202," bedecked with funeral crepe, rattle its way to the park. The Spokesman-Review reported a "gay crowd of Gibson girls and derby-hatted Beau Brummels blowing horns and throwing confetti."

At the Natatorium Park turnaround, bales of hay were piled inside the car. The old trolley was solemnly set alight, burning so fiercely that it reddened the sky above the city. "Six pretty girls in bathing suits and firemen's red hats sprang into action with the three leads of fire hose, two on a nozzle, and poured on the water that extinguished the flames," wrote a reporter. "Souvenir hunters tore into the car, rending it apart" ("Thousands See Trolley Blaze," Spokesman-Review).

Spokane now retains only two vestiges of its grand trolley era. Short stretches of rail, leading nowhere, still remain on a few quiet brick-paved streets. And in 1995, the Spokane Transit Authority introduced colorful "trolley" cars for its downtown shuttle service. They are actually diesel buses shaped like trolleys. For old time's sake, they are equipped with a fake "trolley pole" sticking up from the roof.

Sources: Chas. V. Mutschler, Clyde L. Parent and Wilmer H. Siegert, Spokane's Street Railways: An Illustrated History (Spokane: Inland Empire Railway Historical Society, 1986); "Rolling On," Morning Review, April 15, 1888; "He Rode First Trolley," Spokesman-Review, August 25, 1936; "Trolleys Roll the Last Mile," Ibid., September 1, 1936; "Thousands See Trolley Blaze," Ibid., September 1, 1936; "Clang, Clang Clang Went the Trolley," Ibid., May 21, 1995; "City in Transit," Ibid., January 11, 2004; "Disaster on Division," Ibid., January 29, 2006; "The Babe Goes Deep," Ibid., August 28, 2005. See Also: Randall Johnson, "Flat Wheels and Five Cent Fares," Pacific Northwesterner (Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1984) 17-23.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You