Streetcars once vital to Waco

By: J.B. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald

It sounds like an urban planner's daydream: an electric streetcar system with more than 20 miles of track and pollution-free trolleys circulating around Waco, and connecting with a light rail system to Dallas and beyond.

In fact, it's history. For more than half a century, Waco had electric trolley service linking its downtown with schools, parks and scattered neighborhoods.

In 1891, the new Waco Electric Railway and Light Co. bought out a mule-drawn trolley franchise in Waco and began installing a system with overhead electric wires. An 1892 bird's-eye map of Waco by artist A.L. Westyard shows streetcar tracks running from downtown as far north as the Cameron Park area and as far west as what is now the Sanger Heights neighborhood.

By 1901, the electrified system had 20 miles of track and 20 trolley cars, according to the Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas. Over the next two decades it would be extended into East Waco and to Camp MacArthur, the huge World War I Army base around the modern-day Heart O' Texas Fairgrounds.

In 1913, it was connected to the new electric interurban system, which ran larger trolley cars from Waco to Dallas and Sherman and back south to Corsicana. The owner of that system, the Texas Electric Railway Co., bought out the streetcar systems in Waco, Dallas, Waxahachie and other towns.

In the days before widespread car ownership, the streetcar system encouraged the growth of neighborhoods beyond walking distance of downtown. Remnants of the old track can be seen at 30th and Maple in the Dean Highland neighborhood.

Joe Ward Jr., 92, who grew up at Columbus Avenue and 16th Street, remembers riding the trolley as a youngster in the 1920s and '30s. He and his friends would often play pranks on the trolley motorman.

"One of our most enjoyable occupations was to get where the streetcar was going around a curve in the street at 18th and Austin, then we'd go out and pull the trolley off the cable and stop the car," Ward said.

By some accounts, the owner of the trolley system began dismantling it in the mid-1930s in favor of more "modern" buses. In August 1946, Waco Transit Co. bought the electric lines, and by 1948, only the line to East Waco remained open, by popular demand.

The last trolley on the interurban system ended its run 60 years ago this month.

Ward, who left behind his youthful mischief and went on to be Waco mayor and chamber of commerce president, said trolleys came to be regarded as outdated.

"It was considered a sign of progress to get the tracks out of the way," he said. "People were glad to see it go."

But he said the time may be ripe to bring a streetcar system back.

"In my opinion, Waco is going to have to develop a more comprehensive urban transportation system than it has now, and that would fit into it," he said.

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