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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 04:57 pm

Riding into town on a rail

Springfield’s vanished streetcar system

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A car and street at the intersection of Walnut and South Grand in the mid-1920s.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANAGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION

If you bend down and put your ear to a railroad track, you might be able to hear a faint clanging and banging. That’s the noise of far-off cities building new public transit systems that run on rails – the kind of transport that Springfield and most other U.S. cities of any size once had but threw away.

“There is a fundamental relationship between transportation facilities and the prosperity of a city,” wrote city planner Myron West in 1925 in his master plan for the development of Springfield. Principal among those facilities was the electric streetcar. In a pre-automobile world, the only transportation options for even the middle class were to walk, to bicycle (on streets not fit for it) or to take the streetcar. As West prepared his report, streetcar tracks ran on nearly 30 miles of Springfield streets. Streetcars ran up 11th Street and down 7th, on Governor and Capitol, on Carpenter and South Grand, among other routes.

The streetcars played a part in more than Springfield’s transportation history. The town’s first public parks were built by streetcar companies eager to induce people to ride on weekends and holidays when ridership was low. Oak Ridge Park (the forerunner to today’s Lincoln Park) was set up by the Capital City Railroad Co. Washington Park (where a rebuilt streetcar shelter still stands) was another popular destination, as was Krous Park, the beer garden at Amos and Governor.

These days, railed transportation (usually some form of light rail) is being boosted as an anti-sprawl cure. New intracity rail lines raise the value of land along the line by making it conveniently accessible, which makes possible the development of compact housing development (indeed, past a certain point, high land costs make compact housing development necessary).

It is always a surprise, then, to realize that 85 years ago a good streetcar system was touted because it put within reach of commuters land on which they might build detached houses on lots large enough to grow kids and flowers and vegetables. “It is to the best interest of any city,” Mr. West told Springfield city leaders, “to grow laterally rather than vertically.”

Springfield grew laterally all right (in West’s day the far west side was Amos Street) but it did so without its streetcars. The West plan proposed building a further 46 miles of track, but rather than expanding, the whole system was shut down within 12 years and replaced by buses.

The streetcars were not killed by a conspiracy of auto makers, nor was their demise historically ordained by some manifest suburban destiny. People abandoned the streetcars for good reasons. Service was cheap, but people got only what they paid for. Travel was slow, the cars were decrepit and uncomfortable, and the tracks did not go everywhere that people wanted to go.

The “system” had been built in bits and pieces by competing private firms operating under the loose oversight of the City of Springfield. Private greed and public incompetence cowrote a story that was repeated across the country. Springfield awarded franchises to operate streetcars on city streets more according to politics than to need. Franchisees eagerly laid tracks along routes on which they were most likely to harvest the most fares, and often built tracks side by side down the middle of the same street. Some sections of town had three lines within walking distance of riders’ homes, while others had none at all.

No company could make money under such a setup, and in 1893 the city’s private streetcar companies were merged into the Springfield Consolidated Railway Co. That eliminated the competition, but not the incompetence. I’ve not seen the document, but if things were done in Springfield as in most cities, the consolidated system operated under a franchise that gave rate approval to the city council, which held fares to a nickel long after the cost of providing a ride had risen well above that. The typical Springfieldian on average took more than 200 rides a year in those days, but a lousy nickel a ride was not enough to cover operating losses, which were covered by deferring needed spending on new equipment or expanding the system.

That kind of mismanagement doomed the system. Unfortunately, accurately diagnosing the cause of death cannot bring the corpse back to life. Many of the tracks are still in place, buried under layers of street overlays, but streetcars will never come back to a dispersed capital city that can generate too few rides per mile of track to pay for itself. West’s dreamed-of streetcar system might have helped make Springfield a city in which one didn’t need a car to survive; a bad one, as it turned out, helped make Springfield a city in which genuine mass transit can’t survive.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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