Long before Valley Metro Light Rail, the electric trolleys of Phoenix Street Railway sparked the city’s suburban boom before folding in a fiery haze of finger pointing.

Who Killed the Electric Streetcar?

Written by Dawson Fearnow Category: History Issue: June 2016
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On September 28, 1893, more than 2,000 people stood in the plaza around Phoenix’s Old City Hall, staring anxiously at freshly laid train tracks disappearing down Washington Street. At 6 p.m., the crowd erupted in cheers as a single headlight appeared around the bend, and the all-electric streetcar glided seamlessly to a stop so the honorary conductor, Mayor P.J. Cole, could welcome various dignitaries aboard. Then, with the clang clang of a bell, the motorman sped away. Phoenix would never be the same.

“There were a lot of city boosters promoting the fact that after being founded as a tiny town of adobe mud huts, by the 1890s we were a capital city with large, red brick Victorian-style buildings and an electric trolley system,” says Kevin Weight, a planner in Phoenix’s Historic Preservation Office. “It really set us apart from competing Western towns.”

The Phoenix Herald reported, “The car is of the latest fashion, fitted with electric lights, and most tastefully furnished. Too much credit cannot be given to General M.H. Sherman, proprietor of the road, for the way in which he has demonstrated to the world his faith in the future of Phoenix.” 

Moses Hazeltine Sherman was a frontier teacher turned rail, land, water and banking baron who left an indelible mark on Los Angeles. But first, he pioneered horse-drawn streetcar suburbs in Phoenix, and then imported electric streetcars to Phoenix from Los Angeles.  

Like most cities at the time, Phoenix’s size was limited to the distance people could comfortably walk to and from jobs and shops in the central core. Enter the streetcar. “Every town had a similar transportation system, starting with a simple horse and car,” ASU history professor Philip VanderMeer says. “Then they put down rails and the streetcars were pulled along tracks. But horses produce 15 pounds of manure per day, so naturally when an inventor in Richmond, Virginia perfected the all-electric streetcar, it went viral, as we would say, and swept the nation.”

Like any good banker, Sherman was more interested in how this new technology could help his bottom line. Born in Vermont, Sherman settled in Prescott in 1874, where he was named Arizona’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction and later a Militia General. After making his fortune in ranches and real estate, Sherman moved to Phoenix and created the city’s biggest bank, funded the digging of the Arizona Canal, and purchased the company that ran the city’s water works. Looking to drive traffic to his then-distant suburbs, in 1887 Sherman funded Phoenix’s first horse-powered streetcar system down west Washington Street and over to Grand Avenue. Rival developers quickly launched their own streetcar suburbs, but in 1893, after perfecting his horseless streetcar in his new home base of Los Angeles, Sherman one-upped them all by importing this technology to Phoenix. 

Eventually crisscrossing the city and even rambling all the way west to Glendale, the Phoenix Street Railway at its peak hauled nearly 7 million annual passengers over a 28-mile track – longer than today’s Valley Metro Light Rail. But by the 1920s, “The system faced its first crisis,” VanderMeer says, “as developers failed to maintain their systems after building the subdivisions, not to mention all the confusion caused [by] so many overlapping and outright competing systems.” The crisis was solved, he says, when the city took over the system in 1926 and invested in new cars, and upgraded track. 

As for Sherman, he left Phoenix in 1890 in a huff when the city ignored his heavy-handed efforts to block a competing public water works company. “Sherman said Phoenix would be a ghost town by 1925,” says Al Atz, a longtime docent at the Phoenix Trolley Museum. Sherman spent his final three decades transforming Los Angeles into a much larger version of his Phoenix empire, building suburbs such as Sherman Oaks, West Hollywood (née Sherman) and Hollywoodland (marketed with the iconic sign, later shortened to Hollywood). 

PHM0616PF WKTESC 01Back in Phoenix, by the late 1940s our own streetcar system was wobbling following the Great Depression and the rationing of WWII – not to mention “chronic underfunding by a one-way fare artificially kept at the same five cents that it cost in 1887,” VanderMeer says. But another issue was, with the population booming, “leapfrogging developments and non-contiguous growth made streetcars even less efficient, although the love of [automobiles] after the war can’t be underestimated.”

Despite growing pressure to replace the remaining routes with gas busses, the streetcars rolled on until a devastating “car barn” fire in October 1947 destroyed all but the six cars that were out on the tracks. Faced with crushing replacement costs, the city shut down the system and paved over the tracks.

But to this day some still have their suspicions, led by the recently deceased founder of the Phoenix Trolley Museum, Larry J. Fleming, who wrote, “There is some evidence... that the fire was deliberately set and some ex-employees claim city officials did it to get out of the streetcar business once and for all.” Today the museum’s friendly docents like to joke that the mayor is lucky no one actually saw him slipping out the back door with a candle.

But most concede the fire was more carelessness than conspiracy. “If you look at the history of wooden structures in an urban environment at that time, things burned,” VanderMeer says. In fact, that very car barn, originally built next to Sherman’s estate at 13th and Washington streets, had already burned to the ground once before back in 1910.

“What no one wants to remember is the streetcar system was horribly dangerous,” says Brad Hall, an amateur historian who maintains an extensive image archive of historic Phoenix. “The electric wires were built up over time with no planning, a ratty sparking dangerous mess. People think it was this big conspiracy to steal away the streetcars by Big Oil or Big Auto, but the truth is it was an old antique system that was literally falling apart. People were happy to see it go.”

That’s not to say Hall isn’t happy that street rail finally returned to Phoenix in 2008 after a 60-year absence. “I suspect that when future generations study Phoenix, they won’t be amazed that we had an earlier streetcar system, but instead will wonder why Phoenix didn’t have one for all those decades in the middle.”