Salem looks to revive its streetcar system

Salem lost a transit option for commuters a century ago. It could return with a new plan to establish a rail service between west Salem and downtown.

The vision is that streetcars would move workers from west Salem to downtown locations, easing traffic congestion and spurring development. Legislators are considering a bill that would direct state and local agencies to assess the feasibility of developing such a service.

Not many people today are old enough to remember Salem’s original street car system, which – due to incompatibility with cars, financial hemorrhaging and incompatible private and public interests  –  was discontinued in the late 1920s. Among its few remnants are old rail lines buried under roads, occasionally unearthed during construction.

Local historians say the hurdles that killed the system a century ago may come back into play for today’s plans.

“That’s the question – what’s Salem looking for? What is the House bill looking for? Is it looking for nostalgia, or is it looking for transportation?” said Mark Kavanagh, secretary of the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society.

The old Salem streetcar system

Kavanagh grew up in New York City, and regularly used the subway. He described himself as a “big fan” of the streetcar, what he called the subway’s “natural extension.” 

Kavanagh, who joined the historical society in 1992, has a slideshow he presents about the history of the streetcar to audiences in places like Center 50+.

He went through the show with a reporter from Salem Reporter, commenting on a photo of an electric streetcar with a metal cage attached to the front. 

“This fender in front of the street car is called a ‘people catcher,’” he said. “If someone was in front of the car as it came down, it would actually grab the person and fold them up so he wouldn’t go underneath the car.” he said. He laughed, and confirmed that it might have been embarrassing to get caught in one. 

“Better than going underneath the car,” he said.

In 1889, the Salem Street Railway’s streetcars were horse powered. Early photos show a single horse pulling what looks like a miniature trolley on rails. Early routes linked the train station with downtown Salem.

A young Herbert Hoover, later to become president, worked for the Street Railway from 1889 to 1891, Kavanagh said. He did office work to finance his studies at Stanford University, according to the Willamette Heritage Center.

“His uncle, Dr. Henry Minthorn, was the president of the company, so it was kind of a little nepotism. We don’t think he ever operated, but he did something for the street railway,” Kavanagh said.

A separate company, the Capital City Railway Company, launched electric streetcars in 1890, with one route tracing Chemeketa Street to the Oregon State Penitentiary, and with another line on Southeast Commercial Street from downtown to Pioneer Cemetery.

By 1894, Salem Street Railway had become the Salem Motor Railway, converting from horse to electric.

The two competitive companies shared a line on State Street, Kavanagh said. In 1900, they merged into Salem Light and Traction. The company later evolved into a part of Portland General Electric.

At its peak, streetcars in Salem carried commuters from most neighborhood hubs to downtown and to the city’s major employers.

Kavanagh shared an account in the archives dating to the 1880s.

“There’s this one story of  a young lady who moved to Salem from back East, and she wrote home to her mother that Salem was a very modern city, had a very modern streetcar system. After all, it went to the asylum, penitentiary and cemetery,” he said, and joked, “I’m sure her mom was very happy about that.”

Archival photos and illustrated postcards show the streetcars curving past familiar downtown buildings on Commercial Street, with tracks passing the old courthouse and the still-standing Oregon Building.

When Mina Herschbach moved to a farm south of Salem at age 7, getting a ride downtown was as easy as meeting the streetcar at the bottom of what is now the 12th Street hill.

It was around 1903, when pedestrians and horses shared the dirt roads throughout the developing city. A ride on the streetcar cost five cents.

“She was young enough that, to her, it was a natural thing. No different than hopping in the car for you and I,” said her grandson Ed Austin, a local rail historian who has donated research to the Willamette Heritage Center.

Downtown featured what was nicknamed the “iron ring” as the streetcar routes were encircled by rail lines that allowed people to travel between Eugene and Portland.

“If you think about the ease with which people were able to use public transportation, it was a heck of a lot easier,” said Kylie Pine, curator at the Willamette Heritage Center.

A new house bill hopes to resurrect the past

Legislation proposed by state Rep. Tom Andersen of Salem looks to bring the commute option back to the capital city.

Andersen introduced the bill after being approached by grassroots organizers about the idea while he was serving on the Salem City Council. It was his first legislation since getting elected to the House.

House Bill 3224 would set aside $250,000 to fund research by the state departments of Transportation, Energy and Environmental Quality, the city of Salem and the Salem Area Mass Transit District. The study would be done by 2025.

The system described in the legislation would focus where the old one didn’t venture: west Salem. The area which now sees some of the most cumbersome traffic jams for commuters was unincorporated for much of the previous street car’s lifespan.

The study would look at the potential to connect west Salem, including the Edgewater District, with Salem Hospital, Willamette University, downtown businesses and state offices, according to the bill.

“It moves large groups of people around in an efficient way. And it’s not using any kind of fossil fuels, it’s electric. So it helps to address our climate change issues,” he said. Andersen also worked on the city’s climate action plan while on city council.

He said a street car’s predictability and fixed route makes it preferable to buses. He pointed to Portland’s light rail, which he said generated business growth along the route.

“What happens is you get business growth along the route, because the businesses know that’s always going to be there because it’s in the concrete,” he said. “So, somebody wants to build a multi-story mixed-use building with retail at the bottom floor too, with condos or apartments on the other floors, they will know that the selling point is it’s right off the streetcar system.”

Andersen pictures a hospital worker stepping out of an apartment building, walking to the rail stop and going straight to work. It’s a familiar image.

“In the 1920s, Salem had a streetcar system. So we’re going back to the future,” Andersen said.

Cars and Commercial Street’s last streetcar share the road in the late 1920s (Courtesy/ Marion County Historical Society)

The demise of the original streetcar

In Salem, the unfolding mix of cars and streetcars set the stage for the end of commuter rail.

“People started driving. And then people started complaining that streetcars were having problems maintaining schedules because of the automobiles. So they weren’t working together very well, because they had to compete for the same space,” Kavanagh said. 

The first streetcar closures came in the 1920s, he said, the first being the 17th Street line.

On top of that, the streetcars weren’t getting public funding for upkeep.

“These were all private organizations, and they just figured out, ‘Well, we need to get new equipment. It’s cheaper to just abandon the rails and just put in buses,’” Kavanagh said. 

He said that in the streetcars’ final throes, business owners and residents fought to keep the lines open.
“When it comes down to profit motive, that doesn’t make sense,” he said. 

In some places, the systems were taken over by governments, considered a public service more than a commercial enterprise.

“It was no longer profit motive, it was about service motive,” Kavanagh said. 

By 1927, the last Salem streetcar line shut down.

“It was replaced by a private bus company,” said Austin, whose uncle was a bus driver around that time. That private company was then sold to the city, he said, and became what is now known as Cherriots.

And the streetcars?

“Well, they were scrapped, for the most part,” Austin said. 

One was turned into a shed or chicken coop and put in a local resident’s backyard, as shown in an image taken around the 1940s. Austin thinks it belonged to one of the older horse-drawn cars.

Over time, the steel rails disappeared, taken up or simply paved over.

An old streetcar converted into a shed or chicken coop in a Salemite’s backyard, around the 1940s (Courtesy/ Ben Maxwell Collection)

Questions remain

Kavanagh was part of an effort 20 years ago seeking to study restoring Salem’s streetcar system. The idea died because of cost.

Now, he’s not sure Salem is ready to return to local rail service.

“There’s already buses going across the bridge and West Salemites are not utilizing even what they have for transit. Are they really going to drive to a station and hop on a streetcar and go across the bridge to get to work every day? I don’t know.” Kavanagh said.

Pine said the private streetcar systems were incompatible with the public roads, and in its prime, when roads were undeveloped, the system did not have to compete with cars.

“I would say, I’m going to be a pessimist about this,” Pine said, referring to the new proposals. She pointed to hurdles developers faced on Electric Avenue in the 1890s.

“I guess I see it in a land of areas where – the way it was structured then – it was not sustainable. So there’s a reason the change was made,” she said. 

Kavanagh noted that around the country streetcars are becoming more popular and feasible. Portland’s streetcar, he said, prompted real estate development that led to formation of the Pearl District.

Allan Pollock, general manager of Cherriots, said economic development potential is a major difference between buses and streetcars. Housing and business can develop along fixed tracks, he said.

“That people can live in an area without having to have a car, that 15-minute, walkable city type of idea,” he said.

Streetcars can carry more people than buses, he said, making them more cost effective. People are more inclined to take streetcars on shorter trips, too.

“Generally, the streetcar’s almost always on time,” he said. “Depending on how it’s built, it may or may not be subject to traffic issues.”

He said the streetcar would better connect the West Salem business district with downtown, especially for lunch hour trips.

If the study is approved, Pollock said Cherriots would bring in a firm with expertise on streetcars to identify the best corridors for the service, and expansion opportunities over time. A significant barrier, he said, would be either renovating an existing bridge to West Salem, or building a new one.

Andersen said he’s confident the bill can move through the Legislature. Other local legislators signing on as sponsors are state Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, and state Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem.

Salem Health and Travel Salem also strongly support the project.

In a letter of support to the legislative committee on transportation, Leilani Slama, Salem Health spokeswoman, recalled the benefit of the streetcar when the hospital was founded in 1896.

“It’s critical that our patients have options to access health care with ease, regardless of whether they own or can borrow a vehicle,” she wrote.

Angie Villery, CEO of Travel Salem, wrote that the rail would benefit the Wallace Marine Sports Complex, ease parking issues during the Ironman race, and give visitors an alternate option to a rental car.

The bill is currently in the Joint Transportation Committee, which held a hearing on Feb. 28.

For now, Salem’s streetcars live only in archival photographs. Its bones, the rails that were paved over, are still occasionally unearthed during construction projects along old routes.

“I will tell you what went wrong, it’s the American automobile industry. That’s what went wrong if you really want my opinion,” Andersen said. “It just went the way of the horse and buggy, and the horse and buggy should be gone, but the streetcar system should never have gone.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.