Electric Currents

Electric Street Cars, Saloons and Old City Maps

Jan 05, 2015

Building the first streetcar system west of the Mississippi wasn't easy in the wake of a civil war in a struggling riverfront town known for its rowdiness, and then someone had the bright idea to electrify it.

Omaha Street Rail electric streetcar circa 1892

With near blizzard conditions forecast for this past weekend and the temperature plunging below zero Fahrenheit here on the Great Plains, I hunkered down and spent way too much time exploring my community's past.

A couple decades ago, such a excursion would have required multiple trips to multiple libraries and local historical societies. In 2015, it means siting rapturous hours at my warm, comfortable desk studying survey maps, hand-tinted postcards, fading photos and fanciful illustrations from my city's past. A few of them date back more than a century and a half ago when Omaha was a bustling - some would say 'wicked' - little town on the banks of the "Muddy Mo" - the murky, turbulent, swift flowing Missouri River.

The catalyst for my research was a comment early in the Fall by Dean Miller with the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. I was explaining to him that I want to start a pilot electric bicycle rental service in the downtown district. At one time, the OCVB had actually rented bicycles out of a little building adjacent to their current headquarters in what today is called the "Old Market", but a century ago would have been the jobbers district of warehouses and wholesalers located between the passenger rail depots to the south and Union Pacific's maintenance shops to the north. Just up the street a block or two was the city's 'entertainment' district of saloons, brothels and theaters.

Dean liked the idea but also suggested that there should be some sort of 'challenge' or contest associated with it; basically give renters some sort of goal to reach besides just pedaling - electrically-assisted - around town. It was that comment that lead to research not only into old Omaha, but activities like geocaching.

A couple weeks after my conversation with Dean, my brother and I explored Omaha's riverfront by eBike, some of it recorded on my GoPro video camera and posted on Youtube and Vimeo. The entire trip took us just under an hour and covered slightly more than 10 miles, using about 50% of our bikes' battery capacity: his lithium-ion, mine NiMH.

As you might imagine, this is the oldest part of town, which was originally staked out - literally - in 1854 while it was still legally Indian territory. That summer it would officially become "Nebraska Territory" and open for white settlement after the appropriate, if often-broken treaties were signed with the local tribes: the Pawnee, Winnebago, Ponca and Omaha, for whom the city was named.

Having first explored the area by electric bicycle, now studying the old maps, photos and illustrations was for me like stepping into a time machine. Of particular interest as the publisher of EV World was the creation and evolution of the city's streetcar system, which evolved from a single horsecar acquired used from the city of Chicago in 1867, to a network of tracks that was described this way in1909:

In forty years the system has grown from two miles of a single-track operated with four horse cars to a modern electric street railway, equipped with the best centralized power equip ment that money can buy, maintaining a service over 140 miles of track, having at its disposal upwards of 350 modern cars, and requiring the services .of 1,000 men the year round and nd 1,500 men during the construction season.

That year, the company, which was created out of a merger of the original horsecar line, several independent and unprofitable horsecar operators in outlying 'suburbs' of Benson and Dundee, was well as a separate cable car company, was coming under pressure to reduce its fares, which were 5ยข one way. Today that is the equivalent of $1.28 given inflation over the last 106 years.

G.W. Wattles, the then-President of the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company, authorized a series of articles to appear every Sunday in the Omaha Bee newspaper about the history of the system and its current operation. Today we might call this a public relations effort to improve the company's "transparency."

Wattles wrote:

In these articles we shall endeavor to give such information to the public as will correct misunderstandings and misstatements regarding our affairs, and which will acquaint the community with our future plans and policies.

Starting as promised, the series, which was penned by a former Omaha News reporter, William H. Hodge, ran weekly from January 24, 1909 to May 23, 1909. The complete series is reproduced here: http://www.cable-car-guy.com/html/ccomaha.html.

As I read through it and studied the city maps, many of which showed the network of lines, I was struck by the entrepreneurial struggles that beleaguered the enterprise from the start. Names that I recognize in city parks and streets are on the list of the 16 original investors. Few, if any of them ever made any money out of the investment.

Then in the late 1880s, a Dr. Mercer, visited the international exposition in New Orleans and saw his first experimental electric streetcar line, which is still in operation today, and returned to Omaha with the dream of replacing costly, slow horses with a 'modern' electric line. It too would make no money until the very successful Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha in 1898. That year the company paid its first dividend on the profits of carrying visitors from the UP and Burlington train stations two miles north to the site of the exposition, now part of Kountze Park, one of the original horsecar line investors.

Apparently, Wattle's openness and candor about the company paid off. In the May 23rd installment. he concluded:

We have reason to believe that our efforts have met with a large degree of success. The facts presented were given in good faith and we believe the information was received in the same spirit in which it was given.

Omaha's electric street car system would survive two World Wars, the Great Depression, Korea and nearly into the Space Age, finally going out of business in the late 1950s, the 140 miles of track dug up or paved over, the cars scrapped, the overhead electric lines dismantled. It was now the age of the diesel transit bus.

It's not a little ironic that there is talk - more debate really- over bringing back the streetcar to supplement the current public bus system. Like the founders of the original horsecar line and then the subsequent electric streetcar line, there are those who question its financial merits and the fact that it would, like bike lanes, for example, impinge on automobile traffic on one of the city's busiest thoroughfares: Dodge Street.

As an interim test of sorts, the city is about to launch the federally-funded development of its first bus rapid transit system, in which articulated buses stand in for steel-rail streetcars. It is hoped that by operating along this heavily used east-to-west corridor linking the downtown, the University medical center, the campus of the University of Nebraska, and then the Crossroads business district, that there will be sufficient rider interest to justify the investment. And here's the interesting part and largely the reason the original horsecar system was built, city planners and developers also are counting on the economic development and rising real estate values the line will bring, just like those entrepreneurs in 1867.

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