Streetcar Ghosts

Yes, Portland once sported one of the most substantial streetcar networks west of the Mississippi. The Willamette Valley had electric rail from Oregon City to Vancouver in the early
1900s. Our current 18-mile long Springwater Trail is a former rail line. The Kenton neighborhood in North Portland, built by the Swift Meatpacking Company, was anchored by a streetcar line along Denver Avenue.

The blog Cafe Unknown has a great post on remnants of Portland's streetcar system here and a post about the city's fleeting experiment with electric buses in the 1940s.

Martha Bianco's dissertation, Private profit versus public service : competing demands in urban transportation history and policy, Portland, Oregon, 1872-1970, takes a comprehensive look at Portland's streetcar system and other aspects of urban transporation from a public policy perspective. It is available at PSU's library. She has also published several articles including, “The Decline of Transit—Corporate Conspiracy or Failure of Public Policy?: The Case of Portland, Oregon,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter 1997: 450-474.

Belmont Street at 33rd Avenue, circa 1915

All of these images and more can be accessed here.


Anonymous said...

I live near SW Berta Blvd which runs on the right of way of the Red Electric interurban line. I would love to know more about and its alignment as went west. SW Multnomah Blvd was also an interurban line which ran to a junction at Garden Home near the current Thriftway store. Any info you have or can point to would be appreciated.

Scott Cohen said...

Don't know if you seen this information yet.

In fact, has good info and great pics on many aspects of Portland's past.

To get really in-depth, I'd start with Biancho's body of work (mentioned in the post and in a couple of other spots on the blog). She has done a significant amount of scholarly work investigating streetcar systems. Even if her dissertation or articles don't have what you are looking for, I would bet her sources could give you many good leads.

Good luck!

Alantex said...

Thanks, Scott, for the links -- lots of neat old stuff there. I was disappointed in the maps, though. They are mostly just the sort of vague maps printed in schedules -- all the stations and towns named, but almost no detail on the actual route. I suppose that old topo maps might show the actual location of the rights-of-way. One map did show a route through downtown Portland, but it then changed to the same old vague black line with white circles designating the stations.

Ideally, what I would like to see is map with modern streets overlaying the old rail lines. In a few places it's pretty obvious, but in others, modern development has completely obliterated the old roadbeds.

Scott Cohen said...

The type of information you are looking for is the exact kind of work that I don't think anyone has done. Namely, looking at the geography of old streetcar lines and the impact on the city's urban development through time. I think its an interesting question. How has the early streetcar network affected neighborhood and transportation development in the city? We know, of course, that those old lines are no longer, but how have they affected how the city is laid out?

Alantex said...

Sounds like a great Doctoral dissertation for someone (or several someones). And, unlike a great many of other historical documents, old maps aren't particularly easy to digitize and display on a computer monitor. So, most of them are mouldering away in file cabinets in historical societies and libraries.

Someone should be digitizing maps as least as fast as books are being saved to disk. Books are printed in the thousands and hundreds of thousands. Maps have very small print runs, are frequently used in the field, where they may be damaged or destroyed, and require bulky, specialized storage cabinets for proper filing. Maps cannot be easily photocopied or reprinted without specialized equipment.

The chance of the last copy of an old map rotting away to unrecoverable fragments is much greater than the chance of a book suffering the same fate.

If large-scale map digitization is going on, I would love to know about it, but I'm not aware of any such projects.