Spokane's Trolley Cars

The steel rails that still peek through the pavement here and there in Spokane remind us of the days of trolley cars. At one time, the tracks that lay before you carried Spokanites to work, shops, restaurants, and leisure. Residents even had a safe ride home from the downtown bars and theaters with night owl service.

The first trolley cars in Spokane began in 1888 and allowed the city to expand out of the downtown core. People had the option to live away from the hub of shopping, working, and sometimes rowdy downtown. Trolley lines were created by local real estate developers to entice people to buy lots outside of the city's core, thus many lines preceded the building of homes further west into neighborhoods such as Browne's Addition. The first trolleys in Spokane were horses-drawn cars between downtown and Browne's Addition, and opened for business in 1888. The fare was just a nickel.

Horses needed a significant amount of care and had trouble on some of Spokane's steep streets. Companies began experimenting with steam, cable, and electric cars as early as 1889. Because of Spokane's proximity to the river, electricity was cheap. Electric trolleys proved superior to the loud steam engines, and the lines were easily moved compared to cable cars. By 1894 all of Spokane's trolley lines converted to electric power.

The real estate companies were not interested in running the trolley lines after their lots were sold, so the various trolley companies were sold to either Spokane Traction Co. or Washington Water Power Co. by 1903. For Washington Water Power it was good business. The company had the ability to supply cheap electricity to the trolleys because of their operation of dams on the Spokane River, and then make an additional profit from ridership fees.

At their height, electric trolleys and interurban railways carried passengers all across the Inland Northwest. A rider could travel from Cheney to Coeur d'Alene or from 38th and Grand on the South Hill all the way to Francis and Howard on the north side. In 1910 Washington Waterpower's lines boasted 150 trolley cars and 24,000,000 riders!

The arrival of the first automobiles in Spokane in the 1910s signaled the decline of the trolleys. In 1922, Spokane Traction Co. and Washington Waterpower Co. joined to become Spokane United Railways. Ridership declined significantly in this period due to the availability of cars, Spokane's population stagnation, and the companies seeking cheaper transportation alternatives to trolleys. Busses proved far easier for public transportation routes because they required no rails or electric lines to be hung, the routes could be changed easily, and also the companies would not be responsible for maintaining the roads where the tracks lay. Because of these reasons the last trolley car retired in 1936. Spokane United Railways car No. 202 made its final journey to Natatorium Park in a parade where the wooden trolley was filled with bales of hay and lit on fire.



Flat Wheels and Five Cent Fares
An excerpt of "Flat Wheels and Five Cent Fares" written and narrated by Randall A. Johnson, presented May 19, 1970. Audio courtesy of the Washington State Digital Archives, Voices of the Pioneers Collection. Edited by Allie Honican.
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