Streetcar comeback? Slow going, but on track
“The offer of the street railway management to give free streetcar rides to everyone all day Saturday - the last day of the
operation of the cars - brought out a large majority of the populace…”
- Colorado Springs Independent, May 5, 1932
The populace that day (April 30, 1932) included thousands of Westsiders, who most likely assumed streetcars would never run up Colorado Avenue again.
Never say never.
For the last nine years, a determined group of trolley/train enthusiasts with the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation has been plugging away at a plan that - someday - could mean the return of a working streetcar line to the Westside.
The tracks and accompanying overhead wires would start from the old Rock Island Roundhouse at 2333 Steel Drive (east of I- 25 and south of Fillmore Street), which is the foundation's headquarters and public museum. They would go south to the downtown, then travel up Colorado Avenue and into Manitou Springs.
The cars would turn around at the old “loop” at Ruxton and Manitou avenues that Winfield Stratton laid out in 1908 when he was upgrading and expanding the region's trolley system.
People would pay to ride the trolleys, which would follow a schedule and have regular stops, just like in the old days.
Standing between these dreams and reality are uncertain millions of dollars and a multitude of permissions. For the Westside, no construction is even envisioned until after the I-25 widening project - because of safety and easement issues related to the electrical wires.
If all this seems a little distant, the first to admit it are the plan's supporters. After all, they had once planned to have the Westside line in business by 1998. “We've been around so long I don't know how many people believe us,” commented Dave Lippincott, owner of the Surplus City on West Colorado Avenue and president of the foundation's volunteer board.
But he and his foundation colleagues are doing more than dream. Despite zero public funding and sporadic grants and donations, they have managed to acquire a number of streetcars - historic ones that are being rebuilt and newer ones from cities that still have streetcars, such as Philadelphia. A working Philadelphia trolley (a 1947 St. Louis Car Co. model that was in service from 1947-1982) runs up and down about 200 feet of track in the Rock Island yard. Volunteer mechanics have built a switch for the track, which is being tested this month.
“It's a major deal for us,” said Howard Noble, foundation vice president and executive director. “It's the first switch we've ever built. Now we can get two cars around each other.”
One of the cars being restored in the roundhouse is a 1901 Laclede model, one of seven that were specially ordered by Stratton before he died, Noble said. The interior details include cherry wood, etched glass, bronze metal and inlaid mother of pearl. “His instructions were for the best they could make,” Noble said. “Price was no object.”
After the Colorado Springs line shut down in 1932, its streetcars were either scrapped or sold to Pueblo. The '01 Laclede was found at a farm off Highway 115, being used for storage. Fortunately, most of the vehicle was under cover, so the wood was not in as bad a shape as it could have been, Noble said. The estimated cost to repair it is $350,000. A State Historical Society grant is covering much of the cost, with additional funding being sought.
In Stratton's honor, the foundation has gained permission to give its system the name his had: The Colorado Springs & Interurban Railway.
The first construction phase is gradually coming together. A right of way appears possible along the Union Pacific tracks south to Monument Valley Park. Construction of that line could start in 2006, Noble said. The next phase would go to the redevelopment area on the west side of the downtown around Conflu-ence Park. The city's plans there are not finalized yet, but the foundation hopes they will be by the time the Interurban line reaches Monument Valley Park.
Once downtown, “then we'd be in position to get on Colorado Avenue to go west,” Lippin-cott said.
It is not yet known how long the foundation will have to wait for the I-25 widening. The interstate segment to be built over Colorado Avenue - between Cimarron Street and Rockrimmon Boulevard - has the highest priority, however, and federal approval (currently being waited on) would allow construction to begin in spring or summer of next year, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. A completion date has not been set.
Once the Colorado Avenue streetcar line can be built, a question that needs to be determined is its logistics. The original trolleys ran down the middle of the street, and the tracks still exist beneath the pavement from 7th to 22nd Street.
“They were put in concrete after World War I,” Lippincott said. “In World War II, they started to tear the tracks out, but it was so difficult they just buried them. They've been cut through any number of times by Utilities, and the concrete isn't good.”
Both he and Noble agree there would be safety issues with tracks in the middle of the street nowadays. Noble said that design was OK in the early 20th century, because “people grew up with it (streetcar transportation) and respected it,” but the safest plan now would be two sets of track and overhead wires, one in the right-hand traffic lane for westbound streetcars and the other for eastbound.
Lippincott is not so sure: “If we put lines on the outside lanes, that's where the utility lines are buried - gas lines going west and sewer and water eastbound.” In addition, he said, “There's a crown in the street, which is not particularly good for trolley cars, so we'd have to reconfigure the profile of the street.”
Why streetcars at all? “They're very economical to operate,” Noble said. “They use little power, there's no pollution and they're fairly simple to maintain.”
The foundation started in 1982, initially to promote the book, “Pikes Peak Trolleys,” by James Cafky and John Haney (who is still a board member). Then came the plan to have a single working streetcar in a city park. By 1995, when the Philadelphia streetcars became available, foundation members' eyes started widening to the plans that exist today.
In all, the foundation consists of about 200 individuals and 80 corporate members, with about 30 active volunteers, according to museum information.
There is some irony for Noble in the streetcar effort. He is the former president of the Cadillac and Lake City railroad, which leased parts of the Rock Island railroad line from 1982 to 1990. The Rock Island Roundhouse was once the rail line's western terminus (before Noble's time). Now - albeit slowly - the roundhouse is becoming the focal point of a different sort of rail line, of which the retired railman has become a part.
“We feel we almost have a trust to put something like this back on the streets of the city,” Noble said.
Westside Pioneer Article