Then and Now: End of the streetcar era
As Spokane moved beyond a dusty gathering of houses to a small city, with people living beyond walking distance of downtown businesses, transportation became an issue. Not everyone could keep a horse, or horses, at suburban homes. So entrepreneurs conceived of public transit to get workers from their outlying homes to downtown stores, offices and factories.
On December 17, 1886, J.J. Browne, Henry C. Marshall and A.J. Ross incorporated the Spokane Street Railway company to build the rails and operate streetcars. The first priority was to connect Browne’s Addition with downtown Spokane. Ross headed up the construction, which was halted by weather. After delays getting supplies and horses, the first runs began April 15, 1888. A crowd gathered to watch the two sturdy horses pulling a streetcar, just as they did in New York and Chicago. The fare was a nickel and people flocked to use it because it offered a convenient ride without having to own a horse . Within a year, there were several new streetcar companies, some going to steam power, like Spokane & Montrose Motor Railroad and the Arlington Heights Motor Railway. The Spokane Cable Railway went to cable power, with a continuous cable moving in a below-ground trench in the road, a technology used to move cars around San Francisco’s hills. The cable railway went up the steep Monroe Street hill and another branch went north.
Electric power was the next evolution for streetcars. Washington Water Power, now Avista Utilities, began producing power at the falls in 1890. Slowly each line converted to electrical power. The 1893 financial panic ruined J.J. Browne, A.M. Cannon and a number of other prominent developers. WWP began buying up the streetcar lines, consolidating them as Spokane United Railways. In 1909, WWP purchased Natatorium Park, a resort originally built to attract streetcar riders.
By the 1930s, personal automobiles and buses contributed to declining streetcar ridership. The streetcar ran in 1936 as buses took over. The same transportation trends put pressure on an interurban train system that ran to Medical Lake, Colfax and Coeur d’Alene, though the trains lasted until the 1940s.