29 October 2007

[pdx_transit] Streetcars: The Future's Looking Rather Familiar


Emboldened by the success of the downtown streetcar line, city leaders want to expand service into a network that would crisscross the city. -Dylan Rivera, Oregonian writer

We read with a certain distilled sense of irony the article in The Big O today about the buzz to extend the Portland Streetcar into a citywide network, but we're far from cynical about it–as a matter of fact, we couldn't be more pleased and excited. As anyone who's familiar with Portland history–and Portland transit history in particular–knows, before Portland was known for transit, Portland was known for streetcars.

So, it's kind of sardonically funny that one of the next big possible innovations in metro transit technology is something that was quite widespread less than 100 years ago, even though its encouraging and quite exciting.

As far as we're concerned, it's fun riding the train. We didn't get to ride the train at all growing up; we grew up in Silverton and Salem. Trains carried frieght, and you waited at "RRXINGs" in your car whilst the train held you up. The first experience of riding a train we had–other than the one at the Zoo or at Pixieland, when it existed down by Lincoln City–was the MAX, and that was when it ran from downtown to Gresham only (and we were touched even then by the irony of the exuberant rediscovery of urban rail in a city where urban rail once ruled–but, again, this didn't prevent us from enjoying what is truly a neat trip. Rail still rules).

Returning to the present, we are additionally sardonically amused my the following passage:

About 140 miles of the city's busiest streets show potential for new streetcar routes, said Patrick Sweeney, project manager for the Portland Office of Transportation. Those streets have dense enough housing, employment and shopping -- and are zoned for more.

We at The Zehnkatzen Times and our Editorial Department (which at the moment consists of me, an old map, and a bottle full of coool, puuure Bull Run water) are nothing if not civic-minded, and we reached back into our archives and believe we've found a great starting point.

One of our dearest posessions is a 1940 promotional folder for the Portland Traction Company's trolley, streetcar, and bus network. Though I can't find the reference right now, I believe someone of the ilk of Kim MacColl pointed out how Portland's early growth was along streetcar lines–then, as now, prime real estate. In 1940, PTC's network of streetcars, electric trolleys, and motor coaches looked like this:

The yellow solid lines and green dotted lines are the trolley net–those routes that had lines above the street with which the rolling stock drew motive power via a pantograph. Withal, we don't think that's a bad place to start.

I offer this up for the public good, though if the proper authority would deign my considerable research worth paying for, we can deal. Contact information can be found on the sidebar, up near the top there.

In all, the map folder is an incredibly dear thing. Then as now, we weren't afraid to beat our chests about our innovative transit; we called it then The World's Finest Trolley System, and we exhorted both residents as well as visitors to use our system to see the town. Festooned with photos of possible destinations as the Saint Johns Bridge, the "Theater District" (SW Broadway when she was our own Great White Way) and the quaintly-referred-to-as "Jewish Synagogue" (we are so far unaware of other faiths with synagogues), it's a piece of period style and flair, and we love this map.

Regrettably it's too big for us to scan, but let us share one more bit of it, the Portland Traction Company's glimpse of life in the Rose City in 1940:

Can you imagine that one of those little kids climbing on the bus in the picture in the lower left is Ramona Quimby? We sure can.

We've always wanted to compile a more complete library of Portland Transit ephemera, schedules and maps and such, but, sadly, those are most impossible to find it seems (we accept donations though. We could put together a most skookum display...)

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