Streetcars arrive this week
Streetcars arrive this week; make public debut in July
Portland drivers will be reintroduced to them gradually
it's been a half century since autos pushed trolleys into history
By Bill Stewart The Oregonian
April 2, 2001, 2001
The era of the streetcar has arrived in Portland -- again.
The vanguard of a seven-car fleet will be unloaded this week from a cargo
ship in Vancouver, Wash., then trucked to its new home beneath the westside
ramps of the Fremont Bridge.
In late May, four more of the cars will be making the same trip, from Plzen
in the Czech Republic, so that when public operations begin on July 20, the
fleet will include the five streamlined Skoda units, with the other two cars
expected in mid-2002.
It's been half a century since streetcars last rolled down the city's
streets, and given such a long hiatus, Portland motorists are being
reintroduced to them gradually.
Thus far, outings on the newly completed line have been limited to one of
the city's Vintage Trolleys being towed over different segments of track to
check on traffic clearances and, more recently, to test the overhead power
source and the signals.
Now it will be the real thing, as operators -- already certified as MAX
light-rail drivers -- start using the first new Skoda car to practice.
City Commissioner Charlie Hales crusaded for several years to get the
streetcar line. He thinks the future could include two or three more lines
east of the Willamette River but he is quick to add that the trains are not
"When neighborhoods -- like Hawthorne -- say, 'Boy, we really want one of
those,' I ask if they want to bulldoze the existing buildings and replace
them with five-story mixed-use buildings," Hales said.
Compared with Tri-Met's light-rail routes, the streetcar has drawn
relatively little opposition. Hales notes that the line was planned by a
citizen committee, and that property owners are taxing themselves, not
asking the entire region to boost property taxes, to pay for it.
The streetcar line, which is a loop from Northwest Portland through the
Pearl District to Portland State University, covers almost five miles. But
odds are high that it will grow. The Portland City Council has set aside
$500,000 for preliminary engineering to extend the line down Southwest
Harrison Street to RiverPlace and the Marquam Bridge. From there, it will be
poised to go through the middle of the proposed North Macadam community
between the Marquam and Sellwood bridges.
After that, everything is a guess. But a lack of money has not chilled
dreams of business leaders and residents of the Central Eastside, Lloyd
District and the Hollywood neighborhood, where Hales' five-story buildings
are on the way.
Although the new streetcar system is seen by supporters as a way to help
Portland deal with increasing growth, the early streetcars -- before they
were killed by the automobile -- paced Portland's growth.
According to the Portland streetcar history "Fares, Please," the first lines
started in 1871. They were rail routes plied by passenger cars pulled by one
or two horses. The term "trolley barn" or "car barn" dates to the days when
barns for the horses were built next to trolley storage areas. One advantage
to the horse trolleys was that horses didn't break down or short out when
periodic floods filled First Street.
The lines were owned and operated by rival companies. At one point, downtown
Portland was a puzzle of tracks, and several of the busier intersections
needed switchmen to avoid conflicts. Some of Portland's first telephones
were installed at key intersections.
But horses got tired and needed help on some hills. Also, routes lengthened
and passengers sought faster travel. So the local companies switched to
steam power. Small "steam motors," their exteriors made to resemble an
undersized passenger car, accelerated travel and helped suburbs -- now
Portland neighborhoods -- grow. But they were noisy, smoky and stank.
So, around 1891 came the electrics, some with their own power plants. Some
new lines were tied to new developments, such as Laurelhurst and its trolley
line, in deals between developers and trolley companies.
Trolley lines also found freight-hauling to be lucrative. Businesses on
trolley lines added spurs to the backs or sides of buildings, and between
people-hauling trains, boxcars were moved into place for loading or
The streetcar thrived well into the first decades of the 20th century. But
eventually, the nation's love affair with the automobile began to take a
toll. People found that cars gave them the flexibility to go directly to
church or shopping, which the rail-bound streetcar could not always do.
Also, a forward-looking populace began to think of the car or bus as modern
while the streetcar was viewed as old-fashioned. So the last of the first
generation of streetcars ended service in the 1950s. Street repair projects
continue to unearth rails like buried dinosaur bones.
Now, in a reverse way, the auto is making the streetcar more attractive.
Portland traffic is heavy and often slow. New developments often have few
parking spaces, and parking everywhere in downtown is expensive. Hales
predicts the entire city someday will go to a permit-only parking system.
All of those factors have people rethinking the way they commute.
"I think streetcars will become more attractive," Hales said. "But they
obviously aren't for everyone."