Moses Hazeltine Sherman was a teacher from Vermont who made his way to Arizona Territory in 1874. While teaching, he also made money in land and mining. Later, he would move to Los Angeles and become a millionaire. But before that, he and M.E. Collins founded the Phoenix Street Railway in 1887.
Originally the streetcars were pulled by mules. But electric cars took over in 1893. The new Territorial capital had a little more than 3,000 people. By 1925, the system boasted nearly 34 miles of track on six lines. It had two major spines. One ran west to the Capitol and on to 22nd Avenue, and east to the State Hospital along Washington Street. The other operated north and south from downtown to the Phoenix Indian School.
A long addition ran east from the Indian School to 12th Street, then cut north and west, eventually terminating in Glendale. Other routes went to the Fairgrounds; north through the new Kenilworth district to Encanto Boulevard, and over to the east side ending at 10th Street and Sheridan. Most of the streetcar lines ran down the middle of the streets.
Through the middle of the 20th century, most American cities and large towns had extensive streetcar networks. Numerous electrified interurban railways were also build, competing with the steam railroads of the time. They carried freight in addition to passengers on larger cars. The largest system was in Los Angeles, the Pacific Electric, known for its iconic red cars. Owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, it operated more than a thousand miles of track in the LA basin.
Phoenix's streetcars were more modest. Still, they were very popular and helped bring people from throughout its network to work and shop in dense, walkable downtown Phoenix. The city purchased the system in 1925 and added new, larger cars and greater frequency of arrivals and departures. Development of the city was influenced by the streetcars. For example, today's Willo Historic District began as a streetcar suburb. And almost every older Phoenician has a memory of them. Lawyer Fred Rosenfeld grew up in a house at Holly Street and Fifth Avenue. He still remembers the sound of the trolley brake when the car would stop at the corner outside his bedroom window.
Starting in the 1920s, the streetcars began losing riders to the automobile. Revenues were hurt during the Great Depression. The east Washington line was cut back to 16th Street in 1929. Finally, in 1947 a fire destroyed the car barn near 13th Street and Van Buren. The city decided to substitute buses instead of rebuilding and the system was abandoned.
These were, of course, short-sighted decisions. Freeways and sprawl did tremendous damage to American cities, and are big contributors to climate-changing greenhouse gases. LA has been slowly rebuilding a modern rail transit system, much of where the Pacific Electric ran. Phoenix opened its light-rail starter line in 2008 (WBIYB). Tempe is building a trolley (something happening around the country), and lines should be built in downtown Phoenix, although the leadership and funds are lacking. The Phoenix Trolley Museum preserves some of this history.
Gallery — Phoenix streetcars:
A modern car rolls along Washington in the 1930s heading east. The handsome red-brick structure at right is the Fleming Building.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.