Spokane’s Rich History of the Adoption and Destruction of Rail Transportation: Please Be Doomed to Repeat!
In April 1888, the first streetcar line in Spokane, Washington was built for Browne’s Addition, a neighborhood just one-mile West of downtown. The terrain is level and easy to maneuver for the less-powerful engines. It was built to attract mining and timber barons to the then-newly built mansions in the subdivision. It was drawn by horses and was second in the region only to Seattle’s streetcar line. Paying for itself in under 8 months though the fare was just 5 cents, the line saw immediate popularity and success. In the same year, a steam streetcar line had began as well.
The first electric streetcar in Spokane was built in 1889 and was attractive to the city specifically due to the abundant and cheap hydroelectric power and actually produced its own power from its own dam agreement with the local power producer. Spokane’s single cable car was in place by 1890 and ascended arguably the steepest hill in the city: Monroe Street hill going up the South Hill. By 1891, the company which started the streetcar business in Spokane with horses in 1888 had completely converted to electric cars. By the next year, all steam streetcars were wholly traded for electric cars due to convenience, efficiency, and to keep from scaring horses on the roads.
Within just 6 years, Spokane had gone from one horse-drawn streetcar line to half a dozen different independent companies vying for rights to serve lucrative areas all running solely on electricity.
Some interesting perks of the electric-only lines were the heated seats on most lines, and each stop received regular 15 minute service. The uncommon after-midnight “owl car,” introduced in 1901, served the theatres and clubs.
Because developers became disinterested with the popular streetcar service incentive to their subdivisions once all of the lots or houses sold, many chose to sell out to the local power provider: Washington Water Power Company. However, between 1922 and 1933, ridership plummeted 33%. In 1933, Spokane United Railways (the agglomeration of most of the companies prior) switched entirely to buses and never looked back. By 1936, the switch to the automobile was complete; On August 31st, the last electric streetcar made its last trip down its old rails sporting a funeral crepe. It was greeted by 10,000 residents, filled with hay, and solemnly set aflame. After it was destroyed, firefighters put it out and scavengers left very little for disposal of “faithful old car No. 202.”
Spokane has such an interesting commuter rail history. It has been undeniably successful once, and it can be again with the right mindset, the right investors, and the demand needed to sustain the system. Here’s hoping that this time, the only thing wiping out the new system would be teleportation.
What do you think it would take for a new commuter rail system to sprout in a mid-sized city like Spokane, Washington? What do you think it would take for a new or extended commuter rail system to start and/or be successful in your city?
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.