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Did You Know: Phoenix Street Railway System Moved Passengers Long Before Light Rail

By Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Published: Friday, February 12, 2016 - 3:22pm
Updated: Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - 9:32am
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(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
Rob Bohannan has consulted on Arizona railway lines and has researched the history of the transportation system.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
The Phoenix Trolley Museum, in Phoenix on Central Avenue and Culver Street, highlights the history of the commuter railway system.

It helped Phoenix grow more than 100 years ago. It also introduced Valley residents to a new way to get around. Today’s system, in a lot of ways, mirrors the old.

For the past few years, the Metro Light Rail has connected downtown Phoenix to Valley cities. For local travelers this has been a new mode of transportation for the Valley. Well — it isn’t.  

Did you know Phoenix had a commuter street railway system about 125 years ago?

"The Phoenix Street Railway was founded in the 1880s," said Rob Bohannan, president of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association. "And it was triggered by the fact that in 1886 Phoenix had its first railroad service branch line from Maricopa. And when the railroad arrived in town then that got the city fathers to thinking about how we ought to have a street car line.”

Bohannan said the Phoenix Street Railway transportation system was created to expand rapid transit and to extend the city. The line started on Washington Street around Central Avenue, with a car on narrow rail tracks pulled by mules.  And it traveled a short distance around the small city. By the early 1890s electric cars were added on standard railroad tracks. By 1901 service was extended to north Phoenix.

“Went up First Street and jogged over to Third Street and it went up Third Street as far as Indian School," said Bohannan.

By 1911, another line was added — the Glendale Extension. This path went past the Indian School stop into the Orangewood District — around Glendale and 7th avenues — and stretched out to 58th Avenue. The line served to transport passengers, produce and mail between Phoenix and Glendale. 

“The original line out to Glendale was never a financial success. The system it was privately operated until the '20s. Essentially what happened in the late 1920s is it went bankrupt and the city took it over," said Bohannan.

The city added modern cars, created extensions into more communities, and changed the name to the Phoenix Railway Company. The rail lines ran successfully until 1948, when it shut down. Bohannan said several factors contributed to the folding of the system.

“Cities across the country during the last half of the 20th century, the street cars were abandoned in favor of buses, and in favors of freeways and automobiles and so forth. And now we’re coming full circle," he said.

That’s because several of the current Metro Light Rail line today, runs parallel to the Phoenix rail line of the early 1900s. 

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