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Ride a Mile and Smile the While

Gen. Moses Hazeltine Sherman established the Phoenix Street Railway System in 1887. Initially, it used horse-drawn cars. The system converted to electric power in 1893. The cost to ride the system was a nickel and cars came every 10 minutes along the line.
The major rail lines ran from the Arizona Hospital/Asylum in the east along Washington past the Capitol to 22nd Avenue in the west. A line ran north on Third Street to the Indian School north of Indian School Road. From there, a line ran to the east and north to Orangewood Avenue and then west to Glendale’s railroad station.
Another line went from Third Street east on Pierce Street and north on 10th Street to Sheridan. A line ran north of downtown on Second Avenue and Fifth Avenue to Encanto Boulevard.
In the early years of the 1900s, the convenience and the attraction of the automobile along with the economics of maintaining the lines started to spell the end of some of the routes. The line serving the Indian School from downtown Phoenix was discontinued in 1917. The Glendale route along Orangewood was abandoned in 1929.
The city of Phoenix took over the rail lines in 1925. Through a bond issue, the city purchased 18 new streetcars at a cost of $10,000 each and continued to run the lines successfully for more than two decades.
The heart of the system was the car barn, which was at the northeast corner of 13th Street and Washington near downtown Phoenix. The car barn was built in 1913 and was at least a half-block long sheet-metal building.
By the 1940s the entire streetcar system was maintained and operated out of this building. Phoenix also used the yard for its growing bus fleet which was also maintained and repaired at the site. The city complex included the car barn, “…paint shop, electrical shop, bus machine shop, bus repair pits and body and tire shops.”
For all practical purposes, streetcars in Phoenix came to an end with a massive fire at the car barn on a Friday afternoon in October of 1947. It was reported that “…thousands of persons and hundreds of automobiles jammed the streets—the alarm sounded at the height of the 5 o’clock rush for home.”
At the time, eight of the remaining streetcars were in the barn. It was reported “…a short in the controller (accelerator) of a tram brought to the shop for repair caused the fire.”
A city employee reporting to work first noticed the blaze. He sounded the alarm, but by this time it was burning through the floor of the ‘electric boxcar.’
The car barn erupted in fire “…fed by inflammable gases from the barn’s long grease pits. The fire mushroomed against the high, sheet-metal ceiling and scattered in all directions. The building was engulfed in an estimated five minutes.”
An employee’s car parked on Adams Street at the back of the barn was destroyed before the fire department arrived. On the other side of Adams the paint was blistered on a parked car owned by a bus driver.
Due to the rush hour traffic and the many curious spectators, the fire department had trouble getting to the scene. The firefighters put down more than a mile of hoses from five hydrants in their battle to save the equipment.
Five police officers arrived at the scene to help control the crowds that gathered to see the large plumes of smoke.
The firemen were able to keep the fire from spreading to most of the other bus facilities that shared the site. The fire did destroy “…an automatic bus washer purchased eight months ago for $3,800, a machine shop, carpentry shop, about 12 streetcar motors and 12 to 15 generators…”
The damage to the streetcar barn was estimated to be at least $70,000. Since the cars were more than 20 years old, it was difficult to determine their value. Only six undamaged cars remained. By late 1947, the line from the car barn to the Capitol was all that remained of the Phoenix Street Railroad System. For even that line, six to nine cars were needed to provide service on a regular basis.
A J Hardy, superintendent of the Phoenix transportation department sadly admitted “…all of our machinery parts – motors, generators, etc., were destroyed and it’s going to be tough going…”
The system struggled for a few months, but the fire had destroyed the heart of the streetcar operation. In early 1948, streetcars disappeared from Phoenix after a 61-year run. ‘Ride a Mile and Smile the While’ was the motto for the system. Perhaps it is prophetic that the new light rail system will rise again like a phoenix, 61 years after its fiery destruction.
Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archive and Public Records, Archives Division, Phoenix, #02-9348.

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