Des Moines streetcars still run on memory lane10/17/2012
I remember as a little boy riding the streetcars that ran down the middle of Ingersoll. I remember riding the Crocker streetcar with my grandmother to the very end of the line — on the west lawn of Roosevelt High School. I remember riding the Urbandale streetcar that ran through woods east of 30th Street on its way downtown.
I remember as a boy watching in fascination as a motorman would get off his stalled streetcar, walk around to the back and maneuver the trolley line back to the overhead wire that it had jumped off. (And that’s why when you’re out of control people say “he’s off his trolley.”) I remember 65 years ago riding my bicycle down to the rickety “car barns,” the bustling place on Ingersoll — now the site of the China One restaurant — where the streetcars and later the trolley buses would come from all over town to retire every night from 1901 to 1973.
And I remember a few months ago driving down Woodland through Sherman Hill, where road construction made visible the streetcar tracks of old — those of the old University line that my father rode in the early 1930s right after he and my mother moved to town. The line stopped at the entrance to Waveland Golf Course, and he’d walk the remaining mile to the bungalow they rented on a hill across from an asparagus field around 58th Street. That asparagus field now is the site of St. Theresa’s Church.
I don’t remember the Streetcar Waiting Station that opened downtown on April 1, 1890, but I do remember Mike Blank telling me that his father — an immigrant fruit peddler from Romania — had seen a little item in the newspaper about Thomas Edison inventing moving pictures, had taken a train out to New Jersey to visit him, had decided Edison was on to something, and had come back to Des Moines and opened the city’s first theater around the turn of the century. It showed five-minute or 10-minute reels, and A.H. Blank put it there on Fifth Street because that’s where the waiting station was, where the streetcars from the west side of town and the ones from the east met. People would transfer there, and they’d spend a nickel to see a movie while they waited. And that’s how a fruit peddler built an entertainment empire. (Mike Blank later added his own movie-house innovation: popcorn.)
All that came to mind the other day when I walked past the sparkling new bus terminal downtown at Sixth and Cherry — not far from that first waiting station and that first movie theater. The new building, costing $21 million, will have a ribbon-cutting next week and will become the transit hub next month. It’s a far cry from the old waiting stations, and the fleet of 114 motorized buses are far different from the streetcars of old.
The first streetcars — or, rather, streetcar — came to Des Moines in 1866. Des Moines was 15 years old, and while with its 12,000 people it was more than a one-horse town, Dr. M. P. Turner’s transit company was a one-horse operation. But eight years later, Des Moines — then with a population heading toward 20,000 — had three transit operations with 10 horsecars. Turner added the first electric streetcar in 1888, shortly after the first electrified streetcars showed up in Richmond, Va., and a few other cities.
The shrewd Jefferson Polk (as in Polk Boulevard) gained control of all seven streetcar companies around 1890 — when Des Moines’ population had grown to 50,000 — and established the Des Moines City Railway. At the time, the company boasted 15.5 miles of track, “149 good horses,” 28 cars “all in good condition,” three barns, two blacksmith shops and four snow scrapers. The company carried more than 1.23 million passengers a year.
By 1920, when the Crocker line opened, Des Moines had more than a dozen electrified streetcar lines. All lines ran through downtown, which was a mass of rails and overhead wires, and then fanned out in nearly every direction, heading to Highland Park and Oak Park, the Fairgrounds and East Douglas, Fort Des Moines and West Des Moines — well, downtown Valley Junction, as it then was called — and the little Welsh mining township of Sevastopol just across the river south of the Capitol.
Most tracks ran down the middle of streets. But the Southwest Ninth (or Fort Des Moines) line ran for a while behind backyards — it’s a big green space now — and once past Polk Boulevard the Ingersoll line ran along a right-of-way on the north and then the west side of 59th Street until it hit the turnaround at Grand Ave. East of Polk, the cars ran along a double-track on a dirt bed in the middle of Ingersoll, a weed-strewn mess for years after the streetcars disappeared and the city and the transit company argued over who was responsible.
The cars were handsome — old No.17 had a fender, a mailbox on the side, a sander, entry gates and a smoking compartment. Starting in 1940, they all were painted green and cream. Many had wicker seats, windows that could be raised, straps with white handles that standees could hang on to — and they provided smooth but swaying rides as the steel wheels rolled along the steel rails, with the motorman clanging his bell to clear the track ahead. Daring little boys would put a penny on a track to watch a streetcar crush it. Until 1930, each car had a motorman, who steered the car through intersections and junctions with a wooden tiller, and a conductor, who collected the fares.
Along the way, there were bankruptcies, ownership changes and, in 1911, a vicious strike. “RIOTS IN DES MOINES; STRIKEBREAKERS GO” said a headline in the Aug. 5 issue of The New York Times. “Strikers Besiege New Men in Cars and Hotels — Some Go to Jail for Protection.” “Hose Turned on Strikers.” “Wild Searches for Imported Men, Assaults and Broken Heads Mark a Day of Disorder.” And, the story noted, “In anticipation of further riots, Mayor James R. Hanna ordered every saloon in the city to be closed.” The strike was over the firing of three union members. The company soon agreed to arbitration, the saloons reopened, and the streetcars were back on the rails. That year, wages for the conductors and motormen topped out at 26 cents an hour.
Despite the occasional money and labor troubles, the transit company kept growing. Everyone worked and shopped downtown in those days — the days of Younkers and Ginsberg’s (“Seven Floors of Fine Furnishings”) and Frankel’s and Davidson’s and The New Utica and Montgomery Ward and Kresge’s and Woolworth’s and Foreman & Clark Clothiers (“Walk Upstairs and Save”) and Firestone and B.F. Goodrich and the library and the coliseum and the Rock Island Depot and the Shrine Auditorium downtown and the Des Moines and Paramount and Orpheum and other theaters. In 1945, as trolley buses were replacing streetcars, the system carried an astounding 53,963,371 passengers.
(The trolley buses had a double trolley connected to overhead wires, and had rubber tires and drove on the streets. This allowed them to pull over to the curb to pick up and discharge passengers. The Des Moines company held a contest to name its new buses, and one Richard McAlwee won $500 with the suggestion of “Curbliner,” a word that since has become patented for garbage trucks.)
By 1951, all the streetcars were gone, with the Urbandale trolleys the last to go. That last run was by “A Streetcar Named Retire,” old clippings show. Earl Short remembers the Urbandale line fondly. Short’s dad was a streetcar motorman in Des Moines from 1923 until the streetcars disappeared — he then drove a trolley bus — so young Earl rode lots of the lines. He particularly remembers the Urbandale line and going across the Merle Hay trestle on it. “The trestle was only 14 feet off of Merle Hay, but it seemed a lot more than that” to a boy, he recalls.
Short, now 74, has such fond memories of streetcars — a streetcar “had a swinging and swaying feeling like no other vehicle, and the sounds were like no other,” he recalls — that after working 22 years in the mailroom at The Des Moines Register and 26 years as a Des Moines Realtor he retired and started collecting pictures and maps and articles about the streetcars. In 2009, he founded “The Des Moines Streetcar Friends,” a group of like-minded folks who gather for breakfast once a month. Among the attendees: six former streetcar operators. Short has also made more than 30 Power Point shows about the streetcars and the streetcar lines of old Des Moines.
As the streetcars disappeared, so, too, did a generation of mass-transit riders. New automobiles were again available after World War II ended. Locust Street was filled with auto dealers — Paul Manning Chevrolet, Abe Chambers Ford, Manbeck Chrysler, Betts Cadillac-Olds — and people took to their new cars with joy. Parking ramps started popping up downtown — the first municipal ramp, at Fourth and Locust, was built in 1950 — and in the mid-1950s construction started on what was known early on as the MacVicar Freeway (after two Des Moines mayors, John MacVicar and John MacVicar, Jr.) and is known now as Interstate 235. When the freeway cut through town it also chopped through most Curbliner routes, all but ending the era of those quiet trolleys — trackless trolleys, some called them. Soon, diesel buses were everywhere.
By 1955, ridership had dropped to a bit under 15 million passengers a year, a 72 percent drop in a decade. The Merle Hay Mall, Iowa’s first big shopping center, opened in 1959, the suburbs grew by mighty numbers, and downtown merchants started moving out. The transit business was failing, and in 1973 the city and suburbs took it over. But ridership kept declining. In 1990, mass-transit ridership in Des Moines hit a low of 3,197,787 passengers.
Since then, the system — since 2006 under a regional operation known as Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, or DART — has been coming back. In the year ended in June, ridership jumped nearly 11 percent, to 4,148,343 passengers on its fixed routes. At the same time, downtown has come back — there are 80,000 workers downtown now, and 10,000 people live there.
With the Ingersoll car barns long gone, DART now parks its buses in a tidy headquarters south of downtown, where folks at computers track every bus every minute on the eight express routes and soon-to-be-19 fixed routes through Des Moines and the suburbs. There are paratransit vans, and ride-share operations, and special shuttles. About the only nod to the streetcars is an old cardboard box that has been stored away there. It has some clippings, a motorman’s hat, a coin-changer, some old reports, and a few other odds and ends.
The new waiting station will have its own nod to the past with second-floor conference rooms named the Streetcar Room, the Interurban Room, and the Curbliner Room. The building will be wonderful, and all this will create memories for folks 70 years from now. But it will be hard to beat a memory of walking to the streetcar line with your mother and your older brother and waiting excitedly for the trolley bringing your father home from work, knowing he’ll hop off and, first thing, lift you high in the air and give you a hug as the streetcar clangs on down the track. CV
— Michael GartnerMichael Gartner worked his way through high school and college in the sports department of The Des Moines Register in the 1950s and from 1974 to 1984 was successively executive editor, editor, president and chief operating officer of the newspaper. In 1997 he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials he wrote for the Ames Tribune.