Historical Context for the SW Portland Trolleys


Before and After Electrification

In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, electricity was revolutionizing industry, homes, and transportation around the world. The ability to generate, harness, and transmit electricity brought generators, motors, powerlines, incandescent lighting, telephones — and trolleys — into our daily lives. Oregon contributed its own innovation in 1889 when the Willamette Falls Electric Company in Oregon City activated a 14-mile electrical transmission line to Portland, the longest in America.

Before the full potential of this electrical novelty was realized in Portland, horsedrawn streetcars were a popular way to get around the heart of the city. Through the 1870s and 1880s, an extensive horsecar network had grown up on both sides of the river, with new bridges to accommodate them. But longer trips outside the city still required riverboats, carriages, or transfers to steam trains, which by 1883 were connected to the transcontinental railroad.

Horsecars line up in East Portland.

Steam trolleys, which could cover more ground and tackle Portland’s hills, provided service for a time to the growing communities on the east side of the Willamette, as well as one short-lived line through the West Hills to real estate opportunities beyond. Then, in emulation of San Francisco, a Portland company built three cable car lines, the most famous of which crossed a 1,000-foot-long trestle on its way to Portland Heights. Both these transit experiments proved to be impractical, and investors turned their attention to the cleaner and more efficient electric trolley.

Germany had been the first to put electric streetcar technology to practical, public use in 1881, and a number of U.S. cities had electric streetcar systems by the end of the decade. Portland’s first electric trolley trundled across the Willamette River on the new Steel Bridge to the transportation and industrial hub of Albina in November 1889, using power from wood-fired generators. The Metropolitan’s F Line went into operation two months later with its own powerhouse.

Electricity made it possible to design longer routes that reached out into the suburbs. Horsecar tracks downtown were converted and miles of new tracks were laid to accommodate brand new cars with overhead “trollers” attached to electrical lines. Compared to the steam railroads that had operated for some time on what is now Barbur Boulevard (Oregon & California, Southern Pacific) and south along the Willamette (Portland & Willamette Valley), the smaller, nimbler trolleys were able to run less obtrusively on city streets as well as cut through the timber and challenging terrain of the West Hills.


Southwest Destinations

At the end of the century, Portland was outgrowing its downtown area and spreading south, east, and north. The city’s 1880 population of 17,000 was on its way to becoming 90,000 in 1900, with the residents of East Portland and Albina adding to the total when those two communities officially joined Portland in 1891.

The horsecars first ventured south from downtown to the growing and vital neighborhood of South Portland, a dense immigrant community full of homes, shops, churches, and temples. That 2nd Street line was taken over by the Metropolitan Railway Company’s electric car, and extended to the city limits at about Hamilton Street. A half-mile beyond that was the bustling riverside settlement of Fulton, near where the Macadam Road intersected with Taylors Ferry Road. A sawmill, tannery, foundry, soap factory, blacksmith, and butcher did business there, along with a dance pavilion and a well-known gambling and drinking establishment called the Red House. Fulton was served only by riverboats and wagon roads, with Macadam Road as the main north-south arterial. Slavin and Taylors Ferry roads provided routes for people and goods to travel between the river and the dairy farms and growing communities to the west. The the arrival of the steam railroad in 1887, the electric trolley in 1900, and the Sellwood Ferry in 1904 further connected Fulton and the southern suburbs to downtown and to the east side of the river.

Colored engraving depicting the settlement of Fulton, on the Willamette River, c1890

Portland civic and business leaders chose a hillside just south of Fulton to introduce the city to the national rural cemetery movement. The beautifully landscaped River View Cemetery opened in 1882 as the premier burying place for Portland’s elite. The adjacent Greenwood Hills Cemetery on Boones Ferry Road, as well as two nearby Jewish cemeteries, were established in the same decade. River View encouraged people to come visit — to pay their respects, picnic, or otherwise enjoy the peaceful surroundings — and the electric trolleys gave them a scenic way to cover the six miles from the city.

Engraving from 'West Shore Magazine' - people recreating at River View Cemetery. Inset shows the superintendent’s lodge, 1884.

Further spurring trolley development was the creation of Fulton Park, a subdivision platted in 1888 on the hillside above the settlement of Fulton. Real estate development was a common incentive for many of the trolley lines in Portland, and the F Line was no exception. The Metropolitan Railway Company was started by the owners of Fulton Park, who also had banking and familial connections to River View Cemetery. By 1891, their F Line was serving both Fulton Park and the cemeteries. See [Fulton Park Real Estate Available!]


Interurbans, Automobiles…and Trolleys Again!

Very quickly, competing electric trolley companies laid tracks on both sides of the Willamette and up through North Portland to Vancouver, Washington. Consolidation during the 1890s and into the 1900s resulted in one huge company with 100 miles of trolley track in the metro area.

Trolleys lined up to carry fair-goers to Lewis and Clark Exposition, 1905.

The trolley infrastructure was put to the test, and thrived, when the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition opened in 1905 and attracted many more visitors than anticipated. Rail and electric resources were mobilized, with 125 cars on four lines rerouted to transport tens of thousands of visitors a week out to the four-month “extravaganza” on Guild’s Lake in NW Portland. It’s said that a trolley car left SW Morrison downtown every 30 seconds destined for the fair’s main gate.

Night scene at Lewis and Clark Exposition. 1905

The brightly lit 1905 Exposition was also a showcase for the electricity being transmitted from Oregon City. The public’s appetite for electric trolleys and electrified homes built to a crescendo, and by 1906 Portland General Electric had combined with two rail companies to form the Portland Railway Light and Power Company, which oversaw 28 electric trolley lines and numerous power plants. This and the growing demand for passenger rail service to the outlying areas set the stage for the larger and sturdier electric interurbans.

Technically East Side Railway Company started the first electric interurban service in 1892, between downtown and Oregon City, but unlike the west side lines, it carried freight as well as passengers. The passenger-only Oregon Electric Railway began running on the Metropolitan F Line’s old right-of-way in 1908, later extending its reach through Multnomah and Garden Home, where it split into routes west to Forest Grove and south through the Willamette Valley. Southern Pacific Railroad rerouted their noisy and smoky freight trains outside the downtown core, and in 1914 electrified their Fourth Street line (now Barbur), along which the iconic Red Electrics traveled west to Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove and south to Eugene. The SP also acquired the right-of-way along the west side of the Willamette River to run a Red Electric more directly through the Willamette Valley.

Past and future: One of the last steam trains to run down Fourth Street, with the automobile already making an appearance.
Distinctive Red Electric Train with two cars.

The heyday of electric trolleys and interurbans in the early 20th century was soon to be eclipsed by another innovation — the internal combustion engine. After World War I, private automobiles made trackbound transit seem inconvenient, and motorbuses replaced trolley cars on similar routes. This spelled the end of the electrified rail system in the Portland area… until it was resurrected at the end of the millennium by MAX and the Portland Streetcar. Rails were laid and lines were strung yet again, and it’s an irony not lost on train and trolley fans that old turn of the century rails were dug up and removed to make way for this new old technology.


Further Context

Here are some more things that were going on in the world during Portland’s electric trolley years:

  • The new Eiffel Tower presided over the 1889 International Exposition in Paris
  • The Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890
  • A bicycle boom, 1890's (before and after)
  • Oregon Women get the Right to Vote, 1912.
  • Herman Hollerith invented the electric tabulation machine, inspired by a conductor punching his train ticket, 1890.
  • War of the Currents - Between Thomas Edison (Direct Current) George Westinghouse (Alternating Current) 1880's. AC wins in 1892!
  • The Olmsted Brothers recommend an extensive network of parks for Portland, 1903
  • A Republican Congress admitted six states in twelve months between 1889 and 1890.
  • Van Gogh had one of his most productive years before his death in 1890
  • Iron was being produced in quantities at the furnace in Lake Oswego, using ore from Iron Mountain, Charcoal produced in Tryon Creek State Natural Area, and limestone barged from San Juan Island. The iron was used to make iron pipe, but not rails.
  • Water from Bull Run River first supplied Portland’s taps in 1895 (traveling through pipes made in Lake Oswego)
  • New York’s Carnegie Hall (then named “Music Hall”) had its official opening night, featuring Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky as a guest conductor in May 1891
  • Five U.S. presidents in office (Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson)
  • The Spanish-American War, 1898
  • World War I, 1914-1918
Van Gogh’s 'Wheatfield with Crows', 1890