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Travelling Through Time: Springfield's Transit History


In our local history series, Sense of Place, we examine the happenings of the past to discover how they have shaped the modern culture and landscape of the Ozarks region. In the first of two installments about Springfield’s transit history, Emma Wilson explores the evolution of the Queen City’s public transportation system.

Imagine a map of Springfield. If you drive a car and are from the area, you’re probably envisioning a grid of roads bordered by major streets or highways like James River Freeway or West Bypass. If you’re from north or central Springfield you may see the empty swaths where the railroads pass east and west. This city has been shaped by how people travel to it and through it.

With the arrival of the predecessor to the Frisco Railroad in 1870, the value of a light rail line system also became apparent and the first streetcar lines were laid in the early 1880s, says John Rutherford. He’s a local history associate at the Springfield-Greene County Library.

“It primarily ran between Commercial Street down to the public square; and then they saw that it had even more value than that so then they started building branches so it would go out in the neighborhoods instead of just between the two major commercial areas of the city.”

Did you ever wonder why some neighborhood streets are far wider than those just a block away, such as Pickwick Avenue? Or why Grant, just north of Commercial, has is a smaller, separate tunnel to one side as you drive under the train tracks? These are the remnants of the streetcar system that once ran through town. The first streetcars that moved along Springfield streets were powered by mules and horses.

“Then, around 1890, it was electrified,” says Rutherford

“In 1900 there were only 50 cities in the United States that had electric trolleys.”

That’s Dave Fraley, the director of environmental affairs at City Utilities.

“They wanted Springfield to be progressive and they went out and solicited outside investment from St. Louis and Chicago. Places like that,” Fraley said.

The various companies running streetcars consolidated and were purchased by the Springfield Traction Company in 1895—that business was owned by investors in New York. Fraley says it was Springfield Traction that built the first powerhouse in town and would rent out space to the bourgeoning electric light company, resulting in utilities and transportation being operated from under the same roof.

“That wasn’t unusual back in the day but City Utilities is the last, the last utility company where that situation persists.” Fraley said

So the streetcars in Springfield advanced industry and business, but they also allowed people participating in commerce to live further from the city center. By the 1920s, the electric streetcar lines ran all the way to three city boundaries along Talmage, Glenstone, and West Ave, and south to Catalpa. This was at a time that the southern boundary of Springfield was Sunshine Street. Neighborhoods were built to accommodate these new commuters, such as the Pickwick Place subdivision. Around that same time, automobiles for personal and public use were becoming more and more common. Springfield Traction bought out busses that were competing for their customers.

“So from 1923 to ‘38 you had streetcars and busses sharing the streets and in 1938 they made the move to go all-bus and retired the trolley system completely,” Fraley said.

The people of Springfield saw busses as more modern and versatile and the umbrella company that owned Springfield Traction saw an opportunity for more profit in oil and gas. This transition took place all over the country and accelerated in the post-World War Two era as Springfield was undergoing another major transformation as infrastructure was built to accommodate the exploding number of personal motor vehicles on the roads. Dr. Andrew Cline teaches in the Media, Journalism and Film Department at Missouri State University and has been doing research about public transportation in the region.

“This immediate post-war era, say 1945-1960, was an era of the explosive growth of suburbs and the building of the interstate highway system which was the largest public works project in the world,” Cline said.

The result is a southern city boundary five miles further from the town center than in the 1930s. Once cars became affordable and the infrastructure existed to support them, people in Springfield and across the country stopped relying on public transportation. Dave Fraley says that in 1945 there were 13 million people riding the bus, now ridership is typically less than 1.5 million.

“It has gone from a necessity for the many to a necessity for the few. There are fewer people today that ride the busses because they want to rather than the fact they have to. Back in the day, it was the only way to get around conveniently and quickly,” Fraley said.

Around the country, municipalities are re-establishing electric streetcar systems and re-vamping their bus transit. But in Springfield, and others, it’s not always easy to convince folks to invest money in a system that hasn’t paid for itself since the 1950s. So, will the streetcars of the past be the future of public transportation in Springfield? Probably not, but they did have an impact on the infrastructure of the present. To see a map of the streetcar routes and photos of the streetcars, view this story at our website, and click on the Sense of Place link.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.