Life in Portland Blog

Goodbye Streetcar, Hello Orange Line

 Baby MAX Once Had a Grandpa MAX

Baby MAX Once Had a Grandpa MAX

The History and Future of Portland’s Rail Transit

If you live in Portland, then you know: the City of Roses is on its game when it comes to mass transit. Our fair city makes frequent appearances on 10-best lists for public transportation, and our light rail system is a big part of the reason for those accolades.

As it turns out, Portland has a long history with rail transit, though you wouldn’t know it from the relative newness of our light rail system. You know MAX, but what about grandpa MAX? Well, that’s a long story.

Step Into the PDX Wayback Machine

Way back in 1872, Portland was already growing at a fantastic rate, and Ben Holladay (the “Stagecoach King” and owner of the Oregon and California Railroad) imported trolleys from San Francisco. They were horse-drawn, and ran on First Avenue between Glisan and Caruthers. By 1882, there was a second horse-car system for Third Street.

In 1888, the city adopted steam-powered streetcars. There were lines chugging along between Mt. Scott, Mt. Tabor, Hawthorne, St. Johns, West Portland, and Vancouver, Washington. 

By 1889, electric streetcars had become the mode of transportation du jour. Land developers were among the biggest proponents of these innovative new transit systems, because they knew that easy rides to and from work would be a big selling point for potential residents. Soon, there was a network of electric streetcars connecting the entire city.

 Classic Street Scenes from a Bygone Era in Portland

Classic Street Scenes from a Bygone Era in Portland

In the years leading up to the 20th century, Portland would welcome new trolley lines and cable cars on both sides of the Willamette. At first, these services were operated by an assortment of competing companies, but consolidations were soon to come.

1893 saw the development of a 15-mile electric railway from Portland to Willamette Falls. In true trendsetting fashion, it was one of the first attempts at long-distance electrical transmission, not to mention one of the first railways of its kind, anywhere in the U.S.

By 1912, Portland’s railway and light rail system covered a vast swath of southern Washington and northern Oregon, providing service from Vancouver all the way south to McMinnville. As the city’s population neared 260,000, it was home to one of the most substantial urban rail systems west of the Mississippi.

Vroom Vroom!

However, it was also around this time that Oregonians began to embrace the automobile. The state was one of the first in the nation to levy a gas tax to build roads, which was ultimately a sign of things to come.

Following WW I, the automobile began to gain traction as the transportation option of choice. As assembly line-style manufacturing brought the purchase prices down, more Americans could afford to purchase cars.

 Well Preserved Trolley in Downtown Portland

Well Preserved Trolley in Downtown Portland

The Roaring Twenties saw a slowing of growth in Portland’s rail system, and further cutbacks and consolidations among its key stakeholders. By the 1930s, the streetcar system was getting long in the tooth, and budgetary constraints brought on by the Great Depression led to many streetcar lines being replaced by bus routes.

The World War II era brought a sharp jump in transit ridership, but it wouldn’t last long. Post-war prosperity made car ownership part and parcel of the American Dream. Who wanted to ride those obsolete streetcars when they could cruise the streets in a 1949 Mercury? Not many.

By the early 1950s, the streetcar lines were mothballed and Portland’s love affair with the automobile was in full swing. The city continued to grow, but the public transit network failed to grow with it. Before too long, traffic jams were a fact of life in Bridgetown. Oops!

As we approached the 1960s, Portland’s only public transit infrastructure consisted of seven bus companies – it was still better than everyone taking a gas-guzzling car to work, but not nearly as clean as those “outdated” electric streetcars. Oh well! Those were the days of cheap gas and blissful ignorance about the coming climate change crisis.

 1944 Vintage PDX Streetcar Along the Alberta Line

1944 Vintage PDX Streetcar Along the Alberta Line

Fast-Forward to the Portland of Now

For a time, it seemed rail transit had become a thing of the past in Portland, Oregon. Fortunately, it’s made a strong comeback. In 1986, the first MAX line opened, connecting Gresham and Portland. The MAX system has since grown to include five lines that meet commuting needs for a substantial number of Portland citizens.

The Westside Express Service offers commuter rail transit for the communities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, and Wilsonville, while the Portland Streetcar transports more than 15,000 riders per day between the Lloyd District, the Pearl, Portland State University, and the area around the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

This Train Is Bound for Glory

It seems Portland’s rail system has a bright future, and we’re lucky to live in a city where sustainable transportation is a priority.

Are looking for a new home in Portland, perhaps something with easy access to MAX? We’d love to help you find the perfect place. Get in touch with any of our amazing Realtors at Urban Nest whenever you’re ready!

[Photos Via: PDX History; OPB; Vintage Portland]