Off the Rails – The Rise and Fall of the Streetcar

Exhibit By: Jonmarc Ross

On the Road of a Thousand Wonders - Glissan Street Trolley Circa 1911

On the Road of a Thousand Wonders – Glissan Street Trolley Circa 1911        Image: Portland Archive

Once Upon a Time in a City

If you wander the streets of Portland Oregon you might catch the glint of buried steel track having worn its way to the surface over the years since they were paved over. These are the ghosts of the electric streetcars that were once ubiquitous in Portland and in major cities across America by the turn of the century and much of the early part of the 20th century. These icons of public transit connected people and linked neighborhoods to downtowns across the nation. The electric trolley provided a reliable and affordable means of transit for millions of Americans, yet by the 1950’s, they were all but gone.

A Colorful and Crowded History 

Horses and Dummies

In the early days of Portland Oregon’s history there were no paved roads, no automobiles; if you wanted to get around it was for the most part by hoof or by foot and with the climate being what it is this often made getting even short distances a muddy and unpleasant experience. As Portland grew they needed to find a solution. Here, transportation mogul Ben Holladay “The Stagecoach King” saw a golden opportunity to cash in on his wealth of transportation acumen and began his last great venture when he opened the city’s first horse drawn streetcar service. The first tracks were laid along First Street and began operation in 1872.

By 1888, four more companies were operating horse drawn streetcar lines in Portland, and another opened a line in East Portland. Portland’s early success with the “horsecar” laid the foundations for the nation’s third largest narrow gauge street railway system. The length of the line and the cost of maintaining the necessarily huge fleet of horses quickly drove these companies to search for other means of propulsion.

In 1887, the Willamette Bridge Railway Company built the first machine-powered transit in Portland. Their Mount Tabor Motor Line used trains of streetcars drawn by small locomotives disguised as another streetcar. The designers believed that the “dummy” engines would be less frightening to passing horses and would avoid local restrictions against the use of locomotives in city streets. Within five years, a half dozen companies had joined the effort to provide steam “motor” service. Thus began the short-lived era of the “steam dummies” or “mules”.

Portland Horsecar Garage Circa 1892

City & Suburban Car Barn at 23rd & Savior on June 20, 1892, Portland’s last horsecar run

Mount Tabor Steam Dummy Circa 1890

Portland Steam Dummy – Mount Tabor Line circa 1890

Portland Heights Cablecar

Postcard of the Portland Heights Cablecar 1892       Image:

Portland  Heights Cablecar Line 1892        Image: Portland Archives

Reaching New Heights

The Portland Cable Railway was organized in June of 1887 and was in charge of developing the cities first and only cable car line.  The King’s Heights cable car line opened in April of 1892 and was intended to connect the low-lying downtown with growing housing developments on Portland Heights. The King’s Heights line was a major feet of engineering. It was steeper than any cable car line in San Francisco and was the second tallest in the United States. The trestle ran a length of over 1000 ft. at a 20 percent grade. The line’s steep trestle quickly became a local landmark.

Through a series of mergers, the cable system came under the ownership of the Portland Railway Company. Portland Railway electrified the flat portions of the line, keeping cable traction only on the trestle. Cable cars continued to climb the trestle, connecting with electric cars, until 1904, when Portland Railway Company opened the famous Council Crest electric streetcar line along Vista avenue.

Thanks to Joe Thompson for providing this information:

Portland Trolleys Through the Years – Tap the center of the image to open Gallery       Images: Portland Archives

Portland Trolley Map circa 1943   Image: Portland Archives

The City Electric

With the advent of reliable electricity and the ability to power cars through overhead lines the streetcar was about to take another major leap forward. In 1888 the first electric street railway system opened in Richmond Virginia and November 1889, less than a year later, Portland Inaugurated its first electric trolley making it the third in the nation.

Time quickly proved the superiority of the electric streetcar and with an operation cost of just half that of the horsecar, change came swiftly. New railway companies and new lines sprawled across the city and out into the countryside. Within just two years the electric railways had successfully replaced the cities horse drawn lines and the last steam dummies were retired in 1903. Before long Portland boasted the third largest streetcar system of its kind in the United States.

The early years of Portland’s railway systems were crowded with dozens of private companies operating over 200 miles of track. Most of these rail companies were owned and operated by land developers and power companies and the lines served as means of transporting riders out to their planned developments and to amusement parks many of these companies had created at the ends of these lines as a means of attracting customers. As they had hoped, “streetcar neighborhoods” began cropping up all along these lines and even traveled to neighboring cities. In 1893 the Portland to Oregon City line opened and the Nation’s first interurban railway was born. Eventually these interurban lines would extend as far as Corvallis and Eugene.

Over time operating the railway system as a series of private venture became costly and hard to manage and many of the smaller rail companies were sold off and consolidated. By 1906 the three remaining companies came together to for one cohesive system, the Portland Railway Light and Power Company (PRL&P). The Public Utility commissioner appraised the new company’s property at $18 million. Within ten years, PRL&P operated 40 lines over 300 miles of track with 583 streetcars.

More information available at The Oregon Encyclopedia

For the Joy of the Journey

Streetcars were more than just a means of transportation for the citizens of Portland. At the height of their popularity in 1922 they were their own form of entertainment shuttling people for Sunday afternoon rides to the country for picnics, hiking and fishing. People also rode streetcars to racetracks, golf courses, and beaches. From early on “Trolley Parks” such as Council Crest and Oaks Amusement Park offered attractions including rides, side shows, dance bands, roller skating and more.

The Lewis and Clark Expo 1905

The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition 1905     Image: University of Oregon Libraries

Let’s Go to the Expo

With the celebrated opening of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition came the first true test of Portland’s Trolleys. The exposition attracted both exhibits and visitors from around the world and featured exhibits from 21 countries. During the exposition’s four-month run, the trolleys carried over 1.6 million visitors at a rate of 150 cars an hour.

Council Crest Amusement Park - 1907

“The Dreamland of the Northwest.”- Council Crest Amusement Park 1907 – 1927      Image:

“The park was conceived by the Portland Railway Light & Power Company to attract ridership on the newly completed Portland Heights streetcar line which opened to Council Crest Park in 1907. PRL&P summoned LaMarcus Thompson from Coney Island to build most of the amusements at the park.” – Learn more about Council Crest Dreamland here:

Oaks Amusement Park 1905

Oaks Park – Coney Island on the Willamette River       Image:

Oaks Amusement Park is one of the last “Trolley Parks” still in operation and among the 10 oldest amusement parks in the country. The park opened its doors two days before the start of the Lewis and Clark Exposition, on May 30, 1905. – Learn more about Oaks Park here:

Romancing the Red Car

Although one of the nation’s first major electric railway systems, Portland was not alone in its love affair with the streetcar by the turn of the century most major cities had a bustling network of trolleys moving millions of passengers. The largest and possibly most famous in the country was the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles, California. The Pacific Electric trolley, known to most as the Red Car, spanned from Los Angeles to Long Beach, along the coast through Orange County, across the Inland Valley and as far east as Riverside and San Bernardino and North to the San Fernando Valley on over 1,100 miles of rail – that is about 25 percent more than New York City has even now, more than a century later.

Pacific Electric Logo
Pacific Electric Railway Map circa 1925

Pacific Electric Railway Red Car Map circa 1925

Main Street LA PE Depot

Pacific Electric Railway Depot Main Street Los Angeles circa 1910.      Image: Creative Commons

Red Car Inland Empire Line San Bernardino Hotel

Red Car Line Expands to San Bernardino circa 1911       Image: San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum

A Downtown Los Angeles-bound Pacific Electric Red Car in Atwater Village, circa 1958.

Downtown Los Angeles-bound Pacific Electric Red Car in Atwater Village, circa 1958.     Image: Creative Commons

Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars circa 1926

Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars at Broadway and Fifth St. circa 1926       Image: Creative Commons

The Red Car system was the brainchild of Henry Huntington, a real estate mogul who is also the namesake and creator behind Southern California’s Huntington Beach, Huntington Park and the Huntington Library. After being ousted by the board of directors from his families business Southern Pacific Railroad for the hefty sum of $15 million (about $400 million today) Huntington left San Francisco and headed to Los Angeles where he purchased The Los Angeles Railway (LARy) “Yellow Cars” – which began serving the Los Angeles metro region in 1901. With the intercity system in place he began Pacific Electric Railway as a means of shuttling potential customers out of downtown to the vast real estate holding he owned throughout Southern California. To power all those Red Cars, he went into the Sierras and build an unprecedented hydro-electric power operation. Business was booming and eventually Huntington’s subdivisions began to stretch beyond the reach of the Red Car.

In 1911 Southern Pacific bought out Huntington’s Pacific Electric, though he retained the Los Angeles Railway, and consolidated their other holdings into the new Pacific Electric Railway making it the largest interurban railway in the nation. The company was not only the largest interurban, but was one of the most highly regarded within the industry. The new Pacific Electric maintained most of the original Red Car lines and for around15 years the Red Car was generally profitable, with about three fourths of its revenue coming from passenger service and the remainder from its development of freight service. Ridership slowly declined in the late 1920s but dropped sharply with the onset of the Great Depression. Pacific Electric lost half of its revenue between 1929 and 1933. Despite these losses the general service area remained the same until around 1938 when the Southern Pacific began a systematic reduction of passenger routes. Between 1938 and 1941 the company dropped several of its long distance routes: Los Angeles to San Bernardino, Riverside, Pomona, San Gabriel, Yorba Linda, Orange County, Redondo and Newport Beach.

During the Second World War Some of these lines were temporarily reinstated while commodities like rubber and steel were redirected to the war effort and ridership surged to 109 million in the 1944 war year. Once the war was over Southern Pacific resumed the reduction of rail service and conversion to busses. In 1953 Pacific Electric sold its remaining Red Car Lines to a private bus line who later sold it to the  Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. The Last Red Car made its final journey in July 1961.

The Pacific Electric Red Car system has become legendary in the history of Los Angeles. But in reality Huntington’s Los Angeles Railway (LARy) “Yellow Cars” had a much higher ridership, in fact, nearly three times as high. At its height, the system ran more than 20 streetcar lines and 1,250 trolleys, running through the heart of Los Angeles and the nearby neighborhoods. After Huntington’s death in 1927 the LARy continued under the management of the Huntington estate until 1945 when it was sold to National City Lines – a transit company created and funded by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum for the express purpose of acquiring local transit systems throughout the United States.

For a deeper look at the Red Car History please visit Peter Gordon’s blog and read the essay  What Did We Give Up With the Big Red Cars?  by George W. Hilton

Red Car – LA to Yorba Linda

Image: Jack Finn Collection – pacific

Yorba Linda Station

Image: Jack Finn Collection –

Progress – Regress: What was Lost when the Streetcar Disappeared 

I grew up in Yorba Linda, a then small town in Southern California and for many years the view from my bedroom window was the old train depot, at one point the end of the line for the Pacific Electric Railway Red Car to our part of Orange County. I remember exploring the abandoned tracks and riding my bicycle along the lines until they would disappear under a road and then reappear somewhere else only to dead end into the side of a building or just vanish. The Red Car was long gone by the time I entered the world but I used to imagine what it must have been like to be able to walk out the door and be able to hop on a trolley and take it all the way to Los Angeles forty miles away. I remember asking my father if he had ever ridden on the Red Car. He told me the story of when he was a young boy: his friend’s father had been a conductor for the Red Car to Yorba Linda and on days he was working they would make their way up the tracks and catch the Red Car as it made its way back to the station from the outskirts of town. “I never got to ride it into LA from home. by the time I was old enough they had already closed the line down. I did take the Red Car to LA in college, but by then I had to catch it from  another city.” “Why do you think they closed the line?” I asked. “Progress…..REGRESS!” he replied. That was a reoccurring mantra in our home as my father watched the world around him change at lightning speed. The death of the Red Car and the rapid expansion of freeways and interstates didn’t just clog the roads with an excess of cars and choke out the skies with exhaust it dismantled my father’s entire world. Over the course of the years that followed he would watch as rolling hills covered with orange groves and avocado orchards would one by one fall to housing developments and strip malls while our main street became little more than a strip of decaying storefronts. By the time I was a child the only original store remaining was the hardware store that opened in 1927, the year my father was born, and by the time I reached college we saw the last orange grove in Orange County bulldozed to the ground. I remember that day and hearing those words of my father ringing in my ears “Progress…..REGRESS!” but in my voice this time.

Did losing the Red Car cause the destruction of world my father knew? No, but it was a significant marker that permanently changed the future and direction of our little town and that of many other towns and cities along those lines.

Red Cars Stacked

Old Pacific Electric red cars sit at Terminal Island junkyard, awaiting dismantling to become scrap metal. circa 1961                          Image:

Yellow Cars 1966

Decommissioned street cars, “Yellow Cars,” awaiting salvage on Terminal Island. circa 1966            Image:

Arroyo Seco Library Torn up Tracks

View showing the old streetcar tracks being torn up on Piedmont Street. The Arroyo Seco Library can be seen in the background. circa 1958            Image:

Car being scrapped in Chicago

Car 3217 being scrapped in the early 1950s. (Photographer Unknown – CERA Archives)

The GM Conspiracy

There are as many theories and opinions as to the demise of streetcar in the United States as there are websites and periodicals on the subject but there are certain documented facts that are hard to refute.

Beginning in 1937, National City Lines – a transit company created and funded by General Motors, Mack Trucks, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum for the express purpose of acquiring local transit systems throughout the United States, embarked on a nationwide campaign to press cities to scrap electrically powered streetcars and trolley-buses, which G.M. did not make, and to substitute gasoline powered buses manufactured by G.M., burning Standard Oil gasoline, and rolling on Firestone rubber tires. National City Lines soon controlled 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. The company began scrapping these electric systems and replacing them with diesel buses.

“When National City Lines would acquire a transit system, the trolley rails would be ripped up, the overhead wires would be cut down, and the system would be converted to buses within 90 days.” – Brooklyn Historical Railway Association 

“By 1946, the Justice Department had caught on. It filed an antitrust suit against National City Lines for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry. But before the suit came to trial in Chicago, the consortium of big companies bailed out, selling their holdings in National City Lines. That essentially left it as an empty corporation. In 1949, the case finally came to trial. The verdict was mixed, with acquittals and convictions. Although they no longer owned National City Lines, the companies in the consortium were fined wrist-slapping amounts of $5,000 each, while individual company officials were fined $1 each, for a total of $37,007. By then, the far-flung suburbs were crisscrossed by cars, highways and a few freeways, and the so-called conspiracy plot simply applied the coup de grace to a dying system.” – Cecilia Rasmussen, LA Times

As in the video presented here the destruction of the Red Car system is frequently attributed to the GM Conspiracy and in some cases so is the demise of the Portland trolley system. However, neither the Pacific Electric Red Car in Los Angeles, nor the Portland Railway Light and Power Company were ever owned or contracted with National City Lines. They did buy out Huntington’s Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars and soon replaced many of those trains with busses but kept key line intact until they were eventually taken over by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (METRO) along with the remains of the Pacific Electric Railway in 1958. The agency removed the remaining five streetcar lines (J, P, R, S and V) and two trolley bus lines (2 and 3), replacing electric service with diesel buses on March 31, 1963.

In the Vox article: The Real Story Behind the Demise of America’s Once-Mighty Streeetcars Joseph Stromberg points out that “While it’s true that National City continued ripping up lines and replacing them with buses — and that, long-term, GM benefited from the decline of mass transit — it’s very hard to argue that National City killed the streetcar on its own. Streetcar systems went bankrupt and were dismantled in virtually every metro area in the United States, and National City was only involved in about 10 percent of cases.”

Portlands Last Interurban Burns 1959

Portland’s Last Interurban Trains – Portland Traction Co. car No. 4017 being burned for scrap, spring 1959.   Image: The Oregon Encyclopedia

The End of the Line

Whether by conspiracy or less nefarious causes the sad reality remains that by the dawn of the 1960s the electric railways that once sprawled across American cities were all but gone. So then, the question remains, if not at the hands of villains and saboteurs, what brought about the death of the electric trolley?

There are some obvious factors that played their part in the decline and eventual demise of the rail system. The rise of America’s love affair with the automobile began to take hold by the 1920’s and people longed for the freedom and comfort that owning a car provided. Further, with all these new cars on the road, sharing the same lanes as the trolleys in most cities, traffic began to slow the rail systems down and commuters found themselves stuck without the luxury of air conditioning or a comfortable seat and in many cases taking the trolley became frustrating and inconvenient. Then came the Great Depression and with it financial hardship for many of these privately held transit companies, the maintenance of the lines and streets they ran on often became too much and many began shifting to buses which were cheaper and more flexible. To make matters worse for the trolley, Federal, State, and Municipal Governments were pouring vast amounts of money into building new freeways and roads and began creating regulations that disparately favored the automobile over these privately held transit systems. The electric rail system had become an unbalanced house of cards and the winds of change continued to blow.

In his article for Vox Joseph Stromberg summed up this complex conversation in straightforward terms and I will let him have the final word:

“It’s also not exactly right to say the streetcar died because Americans chose the car. In an alternate world where government subsidized each mode equally, it’s easy to imagine things playing out quite differently. So what killed the streetcar? The simplest answer is that it couldn’t compete with the car — on an extremely uneven playing field.”

Burnside Bridge East circa 1940

The Age of the Automobile – Burnside Bridge East, circa 1940             Image: Portland Archives

Ride the Last Red Car – Los Angeles, April 1961

Want to Learn More? Check Out Some of the Videos and Articles Below

This is an Excerpt from the Oregon Experience: Streetcar City. To view the entire documentary click the link Oregon Public Broadcasting

San Francisco Bay Area Streetcars: “The March of Progress”

The following is an historic video from 1945 “Tour of the modern interurban trolley system of San Francisco’s East Bay and over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.” It predicted the bright postwar future of streetcar transit, with visionary images of advanced-design railcars. Just one year later National City Lines acquired 64% of the stock in the system in 1946 and by 1948 the streetcar lines were abandoned though the Key System transbay service continued to operate until 1961. Sadly, the fantastic future of the San Francisco streetcar was not to be.