Let’s open this eight-wheeled history story with a little international intrigue.
In 1973, the city of Yakima (and most particularly grocery entrepreneur and then-city Councilman Wray Brown) decided that reintroducing trolleys into the wilds of Yakima would be an ideal way to kick off Bicentennial celebrations.
In 1973, it was easy for folks to wax nostalgic about trolleys. There were gasoline shortages, for one thing. Older Valley natives remembered riding the trolleys to school for pennies a day, back when trolleys had been a vital part of the area’s transportation and fruit industry. From 1907 until 1947, 48 miles of streetcar line served as an emblem of Yakima’s statewide status as a fruit capital … the trolleys even transported folks to the Yakima-hosted Washington State Fair.
But most of all, Yakima wanted the cachet of being designated a “Bicentennial Community” for spearheading such a big project.
An initial seed grant of $1,000 was received from the U.S. Bicentennial Commission to purchase the trolleys, but other than that, the project would have to be locally funded. Buttons reading “Trolleys, By Golleys!” were sold, and local businesses, the city, county and other private donors poured thousands of dollars into the project. Brown was quoted in the Yakima Herald-Republic estimating that the project would cost about $20,000.
But then an extensive search for trolleys that could run on the existing Yakima rails came up empty, and the committee was forced to make international inquiries. Eventually, the Yakima Trolley Car Advisory Committee decided to purchase and refurbish two 1928 Brill Co. trolley cars that a consultant located in Portugal for $3,600 each. Headed by Councilman Brown’s efforts, funds were raised for purchasing and shipping the trolleys in May of ’74.
But by then, the fuel crisis had exploded. Portugal was reeling from a recent revolution. There was a dock workers’ strike. And suddenly the committee had problems finding a trans-Atlantic shipping company willing to transport the trolleys — at any price.
Finally, an arrangement was made through an Italian company to ship the cars from Portugal to Portland, at double the originally estimated shipping cost.
But when a representative for the Italian-Pacific company showed up in Portugal in July of 1974 to facilitate the transaction, he cabled that the trolleys had disappeared. Nobody could tell him where they were.
A line from a 1974 Yakima Herald-Republic story sums it up nicely: “Uneasiness prevailed.”
Then Yakima’s missing trolleys popped up a month later in Houston, Texas, which set up another barrage of obstacles for the beleaguered trolley committee. For one thing, the trolleys had yet to pass through U.S. Customs. The U.S. Air Force refused to fly the trolleys to Yakima, as the committee had hoped. Finally, a deal was reached with the Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. The 15-ton cars were bolted to flatbed cars and shipped first to Kansas City and then to Spokane (accompanied by Union Pacific railroad detectives to ensure that thieves and vandals didn’t mess with the trolleys’ brass and copper fittings). They passed through Customs in Spokane and were finally shipped on to Yakima.
According to news stories at the time, the trolley project wound up costing double the estimated $20,000. But the mishaps turned the beautifully refurbished scarlet-and-cream streetcars into instant celebrities. A Houston television station produced a half-hour special on them. Hundreds of Yakima residents showed up to greet the eight-wheeled rock stars when they finally rolled into Yakima in late August, and an estimated 2,000 locals took a ride on the rails during a weekend-long inaugural carnival that October.
During the following 40 years, the beloved trolleys have operated on the weekends during the growing season and for special events (including a special centennial trip in 2007), but the streetcars have often been in the news for the wrong reasons. There were legal troubles: Selah successfully sued Yakima to remove rail inside Selah city limits that wasn’t being used. About 13 years ago, the former Yakima Interurban Lines Association president was alleged to have misspent thousands in state transportation funds, resulting in a complete dissolution/reorganization of the association. And then there was a debilitating theft of overhead copper wire between Selah and Yakima in 2006. (The trolley currently makes the Selah run with the aid of a small towed DC generator.)
But the city owns nearly everything now, thanks to the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1985, the company donated the lines and equipment to Yakima, and in 2008, the city completed the purchase of the trolley barn property on South Third Avenue.
And newly named Yakima Valley Trolley Association Acting Executive Director Karl Pasten wants to see all that city-owned history put to good use.
“People just don’t know what all we have here,” Pasten said in March, during a tour of the Yakima Valley Railway Museum.
Billed as the last intact turn-of-the-century interurban electric railroad in the United States, the museum, streetcar barn and rolling stock have been listed since 1992 on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings are home to many pieces of original equipment … copper switches and electric generators, a forge, two powerful electric locomotives (including one that has been in use since 1909) and more.
The trolley car barn even boasts the original belt-driven machinery used in machine shops in 1910. A hundred years ago, all the parts needed to keep Yakima’s streetcar lines running had to be built in-house. “You couldn’t just order from UPS if you needed something,” Pasten said.
The enthusiastic 72-year-old has spent a year volunteering for the nonprofit organization. Pasten is drawn to historic places; he serves as a commissioner for the Yakima Historic Preservation Commission, and he owned the Depot restaurant that was located in the old train station on Front Street. He credits his experience with a struggling for-profit business with giving him a realistic view about maintaining cash flow for the nonprofit trolley association. “I know we have a wonderful product here, and that we can use it to make enough money to restore along the way,” he said.
Thanks in part to Pasten’s efforts, the Yakima City Council allocated $100,000 to the YVTA late last year so the association can catch up on deferred maintenance. Pasten noted that the city’s support is vital, since grant funding available at the state and federal levels often requires proof of local investment in the project. “The trolleys are historical, cultural … they’re green, and they help improve tourism,” he said. “They meet all kinds of grant criteria.”
About eight active YVTA volunteers are involved making needed improvements to the museum and trolley barn, Pasten says. A remodeled gift shop (complete with T-shirts printed with a new Yakima Trolley logo) has been set up at the museum, and volunteers are working hard to make needed repairs to the facilities and equipment before weekend trolley runs begin again later this month.
The association is also currently working with several businesses to coordinate donated improvements on the museum property. Akland Pump and Irrigation Co. is putting in a new water line to the car barn, Cascade Natural Gas is installing gas service to the powerhouse and Colonial Lawn and Garden will be making an in-kind donation for landscaping at the property.
These local donations are particularly exciting for the association, which views the trolleys as a community asset. They’d like to see trolleys connecting downtown to area hotels and the convention center. The YVTA interviewed downtown business owners or managers between Sixth Avenue and the Yakima Convention Center last July, and Pasten said the response was positive. “Out of 61 businesses, 57 signed in support of bringing the trolleys back to Yakima Avenue,” he said.
Yakima’s downtown core improvement plan consultants have included trolleys in their vision for downtown. As part of a proposed Yakima Avenue “road diet” that would invite more pedestrian traffic, trolleys would share a two-lane Yakima Avenue with other vehicles.
“I’m absolutely a huge fan and booster,” said Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce CEO Verlynn Best regarding the draft plans. “I’ve seen some of the concepts about slowing traffic down, and I think it (the trolleys) would preserve and lift up a piece of our history.”
Yakima’s Economic Development Director Sean Hawkins cautioned that running trolleys downtown will require a “much deeper look” into the logistics, most likely with a feasibility study after other downtown improvements are considered. But he noted the trolleys were something that is “totally unique” to Yakima. “We wouldn’t be in the position of considering this without the community’s enthusiasm,” he said.
“This is the most important tourist attraction we have here.” Pasten noted, adding that YVTA statistics show that half of the folks who ride the trolleys are from out of town.
And how do local drivers react to the trolleys, when they’re out and about during the summer months?
“People love the trolleys,” Pasten said. “What we’ve found is that a lot of people will stop and wave … and the people riding on the trolleys will wave back. It’s great.”
Trolleys are scheduled to run every weekend this summer, beginning on Memorial Day. A round-trip ride to Selah with admission to the museum costs $10 per person, and in-town rides/admission is $5 per person (infants ride free).
All rides feature a certified, uniformed motorman and museum tour. The trolleys and the locomotive can also be chartered per hour, and the powerhouse can be rented for special occasions.
If your organization is in search of a service project, the YVTA is always looking for new volunteers. More information is available at yakimavalleytrolleys.org.
If you’d like to see video of the trolley’s 2013 centennial trip (along with a time-lapse film of the run from Yakima to Selah), search for the “Yakima Trolley Makes Centennial Run” story on yakimaherald.com.