Despite the efforts of local streetcar advocates to revive urban rail, Colorado Springs officials have historically regarded light streetcars and trolleys with benign indifference.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
The Colorado Springs streetcar enterprise, which operated between 1887 and 1932, was at its height the most extensive modern and comprehensive streetcar system of any comparable city in America.
Like buses, streetcars and trolleys are public transportation systems. But unlike buses, trolleys and streetcars are seen as mechanisms for urban renewal, for economic development and for renewing fading city cores.
During the last two decades, many cities have launched new street car lines, including Portland, Tacoma and Tampa. Denver has spent billions of dollars on an extensive light rail network, which may not be complete for another decade.
Colorado Springs’ privately owned system included more than 41 miles of track that meandered throughout most of the city.
A 1907 streetcar schedule includes nine different lines that converged at Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street.
The first cars departed at between 5:54 and 6:45 A.M., and the last cars between 10:45 and 11:30 p.m. Streetcars ran every few minutes on the busiest routes and every 30 minutes on the least-traveled route.
John Haney and Morris Cafky noted the schedule’s frequency in their 1983 history of the Colorado Springs streetcar system, “Pikes Peak Trolleys.”
“The frequency and extent of this service seems almost unbelievable,” they said. “1907 may have been the high point of public transportation for the Colorado Springs area.”
Colorado Springs streetcars were born in sin, nourished by real estate speculation, and finally sustained by philanthropy.
The first horse-drawn streetcars began operations during 1887. The system was financed by three prosperous Colorado Springs entrepreneurs who believed that there would be substantial demand for frequent service between Colorado Springs, where General Palmer’s liquor covenants prevented thirsty residents from getting a drink and Colorado City, then home to more than 30 saloons, numerous gambling halls and brothels.
Within a few years of its creation, the trolley horses had been put out to pasture, and the system had been electrified and expanded.
Much of the expansion had been financed by land developers, some of whom were officers of the company that had been named the Colorado Springs Rapid Transit Company.
As a keystone to a new development, Count James Pourtales built the Broadmoor Casino and paid $20,000 to run a line to his much-touted development, hoping to boost lot sales. But development stagnated and revenue from the line failed to meet expectations.
Meanwhile, the company ran a speculative line to then-empty land east of town. A contemporary photograph shows an electrified streetcar turnaround, complete with streetcar, on a stretch of barren prairie east of the city. The Union Printers Home is faintly visible to the west, but there’s no sign of development.
Like so many other businesses in the Pikes Peak region, the streetcar company had benefited from the speculative fervor of the Cripple Creek era. But as the new century began, many local businesses could neither raise additional capital nor easily finance continuing operations.
Multi-millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton bought the distressed company on Jan. 1, 1901 for $500,000 and invested more than $2 million on its expansion and modernization.
Despite Stratton’s death the following year, the company grew, expanded, and prospered for the next decade. Streetcar barns and maintenance shops occupied an entire city block bounded by Tejon and Cimarron streets and Cascade and Moreno avenues.
The company, now called the Colorado Springs Interurban Railway Co., even built its own streetcars.
But by 1917, the company was no longer profitable. The deep pockets of the Stratton estate allowed it to continue for another 15 years, but, doomed by the rise of the automobile, the last streetcar returned to the barn on April 30th 1932.
City officials are studying whether to add streetcars to the downtown area.
Who’s sponsoring the study?
The city and Mountain Metropolitan Transit
How much does the study cost?
Who’s paying for the study?
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Downtown Business Improvement District
Urban Renewal Authority
Old North End Neighborhood
Bircham’s Office Products
What will it accomplish?
The city intends to determine whether it’s something residents want and if so, what it would look like.
When would report results be available?
As early as April, as late as June.
How much to build and operate?
Between $10 million to $50 million per mile.
Who would pay for construction and operation?
Federal grants, local taxes and possibly taxing districts along routes and tax increment financing.
Who else uses streetcars?
More than 75 cities across the country have built or are planning streetcar systems.
How does it differ from light rail?
Light rail systems have dedicated rights of way. Streetcars run along city streets. Streetcars systems are less expensive to operate.