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The Electric Glide

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The Electric Glide

Could Sandpoint's former streetcar line hold the key to our future?

The songwriters had it right. There is a certain element of romance to good, reliable public transportation. To those of you who would never put the words “romance” and “public transportation” in the same sentence, I say, “Where’s your vision, o ye of limited imagination?”

The first thing you need to know about me is that I was born in the wrong era. Yes, I appreciate indoor plumbing and WiFi just as much as the next person, but in many ways I wear the twenty-first century a little uncomfortably, like a wool sweater that feels soft when you put it on in the morning, but starts scratching you around the neck by mid-afternoon. I’m pretty sure that I’m here on loan from the Edwardian era and will need to go back eventually, so I spend a fair amount of time scanning old newspapers for the news of the day. I’m telling you this so you’ll understand that, when faced with a problem, I tend to look toward the past for a solution.

The second thing you need to know is that I’m not a huge fan of the automobile. I’m grateful to my car for getting me where I need to go, especially since I live a good distance from such life-sustaining elements as pad thai and zillion-calorie coffee drinks. But I’m really not the most cool-headed of drivers, especially when I’m stuck on Pine Street behind a truck full of cows, or jerking along First Avenue with one eye cocked toward the pedestrians who loiter on the curb without actually crossing (you know who you are). If I could just leave the car at home and buzz around town on some form of public transportation, believe me, I’d be the first in line at the bus stop/depot/hovercraft pad. And I’m sure my fellow drivers would be all the happier for it.

So I’m a big fan of public transportation, and I appreciate the efforts already in place to provide public transportation for Bonner County. The NICE bus is... well, nice, but it’s limited in scope. The taxis can only do so much. I applaud groups like the Sandpoint Transition Initiative that are looking at how Bonner County residents move from Point A to Point B, and how they can do so more safely, cheaply, and conveniently. Therefore, imagine my delight when, on a dust-filled afternoon spent poring over old newspapers in search of The Way Things Used to Be (rose-colored glasses firmly in place), I discovered that Sandpoint once had its very own—albeit short-lived—streetcar line. Who knew?

The Sandpoint and Interurban Railway Company, Limited was formed in March 1909, started laying track the following fall, and was fully in place by April 1910. The shiny new streetcar must have made a lot of folks jump for joy on their aching feet, because not many people owned cars back then, so if you wanted to get somewhere, you walked or, if you were lucky, got a lift on somebody’s wagon. (In pre-streetcar days there was a horse-drawn wagon that shuttled passengers to and from the train station. On one trip the wagon was carrying a wedding party from the depot to one of the local hotels. The horses got spooked by something and overturned the wagon, dumping everyone in the mud. One hopes that the bride saw the humor in the situation and didn’t turn all Bridezilla over it. This was the sort of mishap the new streetcar was intended to alleviate. But I digress.)

 The streetcar line made it a whole lot more convenient for workers to get to jobs at the Humbird Mill in Kootenai and various other workplaces, or for shoppers to schlep their parcels to and from downtown. Twenty cents would get you from Sandpoint to Kootenai, thirty cents for a round trip, or one dollar for a weekly pass. Schoolchildren could ride for fifty cents a week, and they did so in safety, learning how to navigate the streetcars at a young age. The downside must have been fewer excuses to miss school, as the streetcars operated in all sorts of weather.

Speaking of kids, some of you younger readers might be wondering exactly what a streetcar is. That’s because they had disappeared from Sandpoint by 1917, and from pretty much everywhere else by the middle of the century. They were smaller and lighter versions of train passenger cars. Like buses, they ran all day. Passengers waited at a stop, hopped on, and paid the fare. But instead of tires, they ran on tracks built right into city streets, sharing pavement space with horses, wagons, pedestrians, bicycles, and later cars and trucks. They were also cleaner than buses, running on electricity rather than diesel fuel. Power came from overhead electrical cables strung through the top of the car by a device called a troller (hence the alternative name “trolley”).

The Sandpoint and Interurban operated two cars that carried up to thirty-four passengers each. The route started at a depot at the corner of Second and Main, where the Truby’s store stands today. It traveled west on Main to Boyer, north on Boyer to a spot near the present airport, then east over Sand Creek to the Humbird Mill at Kootenai. A spur track also ran to and from the Great Northern depot.

So what happened? Why did the Sandpoint and Interurban stop running less than a decade after its optimistic launch? The rise of the automobile had a lot to do with it. Cars were getting cheaper and people were increasingly able to get around under their own horsepower, untethered by a schedule. Then, too, times got tough and some of the bigger mills and smelters shut down, reducing ridership. The streetcar became a financial dinosaur and clang-clang-clanged for the last time in 1917.

Why do I bring this up now? Because Bonner County needs cheap, convenient, and reliable public transportation. Our population continues to grow, and a lot of that population is elderly or unable to drive for other reasons. We want to use less gas and pump fewer emissions into the air. We want people to enjoy coming downtown and patronizing local businesses. We want Sandpoint to be pleasant and walkable, and good public transportation would help us make that vision come true. Wouldn’t it be great if the hundreds of workers at Bonner General Hospital, Quest Aircraft, Coldwater Creek and other employers could have a convenient way to get to work? Wouldn’t a lot more families be able to have a one-car household if that were the case?

Many communities have resurrected streetcars under the term “light rail.” I’m not necessarily saying that streetcars are the answer to all of our transportation woes, although they have a lot going for them. They’re are eco-friendly. They run on electricity and leave a smaller carbon footprint than, say, buses, and they reduce emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road. They unsnarl traffic congestion, free up parking space, and maybe even reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road.

Of course, there are some cons. Streetcars are more expensive than buses. Tracks would be a disruptive to install and might pose a tripping hazard for pedestrians and cyclists. The cars would be limited to their course and could not be diverted down a different street in case of an accident, roadblock, or traffic jam. A streetcar line would be mostly for in-town use, impractical for shuttling all the way out to places like Clark Fork or Careywood, although bus transfers or park-and-ride options are possible solutions for those farther-flung destinations.

But please don’t write off streetcars too quickly as just a creaky old-fashioned idea of a misty-eyed nostalgic. Sometimes those creaky old-fashioned ideas make a lot of sense in the here and now. Everything old is new again, and all that.

And if the Sandpoint and Interurban wasn’t the ultimate solution for Sandpoint’s transportation needs—well, maybe some modification of it might be. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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Jennifer Lamont Leo

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