DeVos: What was that we did last century? |

DeVos: What was that we did last century?

Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

For a smidgen under $10 billion, Denver has created 122 miles of FasTrack. Critics say that’s a lot of money for a teensy drop in Denver’s traffic bucket. They say the city is so spread out that light rail won’t always take you where you want to go, when you need to be there.

Concern has been voiced that as construction costs rise, so do RTD fares, disenfranchising the very riders who need it the most. God may need to help you if you have to depend on light rail to run a bunch of errands, and good luck getting that broken snow blower back to the dealer.

Denver’s path to light rail began in 1871 with the Denver Horse Railroad Company. Horses drew streetcars up and down a 2-mile track from 7th and Larimer to 27th and Champa. People jumped on the idea and hopped onto streetcars and by 1884, the Denver Horse Railroad Company had become the Denver Railway Company boasting 45 streetcars along 15 miles of track pulled by 200 horses and mules. Mounting tides of horse poop on main streets created mounting tides of opposition to the mountains of manure getting smeared on shoes and tracked into businesses.

Electric cable cars were introduced in 1885 by the Denver Electric and Cable Company, which a few years later became the Denver Tramway Company. By 1890, Denver had an extensive cable car system. Heavy, steel-wrapped cables ran through troughs in the street, pulled by immense, centrally located electric motors. Cable car drivers clamped onto the cable to move forward, and let go of the cable to stop, as they carried passengers through the city streets.

But cable cars were already becoming passé in favor of electric street cars. The first electrified line was put in service along a section of South Broadway on Christmas Day, 1889, with Larimer Street following the next year. The entire era of Denver’s cable cars lasted a mere 12 years while the horse-drawn cars before them lasted 17.

By 1899, the Denver City Tramway Company had gobbled up all its smaller competitors and expanded service to 156 electrified miles of track, almost 30 percent larger than today’s RTD light rail. By 1900, Denver’s city transit plan was complete. Electric trolleys would serve Denver for the next 50 years, growing eventually to 260 miles of track with 31 lines serving all of Denver, with interurban links to Boulder and Golden. There was even a special funeral car that went to the larger mortuaries.

The Depression was the heyday of the trolley but it was America’s growing pains that finally killed it. After WWII the American Dream took on a new dimension and there was a flight from the inner city to the suburbs. Automobile sales went through the roof as trolley ridership went through the floor. By 1971 most traces of the Denver tracks had been paved over and forgotten. The remaining fragments of the trolley system were sold to the city of Denver and briefly resurrected as the Denver Metro Transit before RTD was formed in 1974.

It was the Spanish-American poet and philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

Time took its toll on trolley cars. Likewise it will be time that tells us if FasTracks will play any part in easing Denver’s congestion or will it become another paved-over monument to a forgotten era?

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