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Phoenix’s First Light Rail System

Phoenix streetcar 100 with dignitaries, circa 1929.

Phoenix streetcar 100 with dignitaries, circa 1929.

Just about every city of any size in the early days had a streetcar or trolley line. In Phoenix, there was the Phoenix Street Railway System, which operated from 1887 to 1948. It was owned and operated by the great promoter and subdivision mogul, Moses H. Sherman, until 1925, when the city of Phoenix took over operations.

Sherman was a prominent member of the community and had his hand in numerous business developments. He was a co-founder of the Valley National Bank, a supporter of developing irrigation canals for the city and proprietor of the first city water works. In addition he was an investor in commercial and private properties in the Valley.

He developed the streetcar lines to promote his subdivisions, which were expanding the boundaries of the city.

For a nickel (at least in the beginning) you could ride on Sherman’s streetcars anywhere there were tracks. The streetcar company was never a business winner. It was reorganized many times each time acquiring a new name.

It was called variously: Phoenix Railway Company, Valley Street Railroad Company, Arizona Improvement Company, Phoenix City Railway Company and finally Phoenix Railway Company of Arizona.

The first streetcar line, consisting of one car, operated along Washington Street between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street in 1887. The car was pulled by a mule and there was little effort at maintaining a standard schedule. Passengers got on and off wherever they wanted to.

A second line was introduced in 1889, running along Center Street (now Central Avenue), and additional cars and mules were purchased. By 1892, the system consisted of five cars, eight miles of track and 25 mules and horses. In 1893, electricity started to replace the mules.

By 1909, the system was completely electrified and a double track had been laid throughout downtown.

That was the high point for the company. The next year a series of disasters struck. A fire destroyed the storage barn and much of the company’s rolling stock.

In 1913, a strike against the company proved long and bitter. Management brought in strikebreakers and many residents boycotted the streetcar line. A competing company opened in Glendale, and although unprofitable, hurt the company in Phoenix.

Maintenance and general upkeep of the system was costly and a continuing problem. In 1912, the Arizona Corporation Commission conducted safety hearings and ordered changes in the way maintenance was handled.

Controversies and disagreements with authorities continued until 1925, when the city of Phoenix finally took over management of the system.

By then the automobile was on the way to replacing the streetcar. In Maricopa County, the number of registered automobiles rose from 646 in 1913 to more than 53,000 in 1929, when it was estimated there was one car for every three people in the metropolitan area.

With the increasing number of autos came a corresponding number of paved streets. Phoenix was rapidly on its way to becoming the car city of the future.

Despite improved maintenance and better management under city ownership, the streetcar system was no match for the personal auto. Eventually the streetcars were replaced with transit buses. In 1941, the city operated 17 streetcars and 23 buses. The last four streetcar lines were replaced with diesel buses in 1947 and 1948.

On Feb. 17, 1948, the city gathered together 150 pioneers, city officials and employees for a ceremonial final ride on the last three cars remaining from the street railway system. The dignitaries made a round trip on the Washington line from the courthouse to the state Capitol. The trip closed that chapter on rail transit in Phoenix and opened the way for the bus and rail system we have today.

The streetcar system was an essential part of early day Phoenix, providing convenient transportation for individuals who otherwise would have had to travel on foot. It was never perfect, frequently criticized and ultimately no match for the convenience of the automobile.

It was a colorful chapter in transportation for Valley communities.

— Dave Tackenberg. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society.

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