Can streetcars make a comeback in Louisville?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Courier-Journal) -- John Owen has a vision of a streetcar line returning to Market Street to connect West Louisville to downtown and East Louisville, capitalizing on the fact that much of the rail line infrastructure is still intact beneath the pavement. The route would go from Shawnee through downtown to the East Market/Nulu area, he said, and possibly up Baxter Avenue to part of the Highlands, too.

"Some people think it would help open the door at 9th (Street)," Owen said.

Owen, who lives in Portland and is a leader of the non-profit Louisville Railway Co. advocacy group, also sees it as a way to stimulate economic development and foster interaction among the people along the route. The group is named for the company that once operated in Louisville, and he's also working in conjunction with a looser group called Louisvillians for Modern Mass Transit.

He even has traveled to the Halton County Radial Railway and Museum in Milton, Ontario, about 30 miles west of Toronto, in hopes of retrieving an old Louisville streetcar -- No. 509 -- that's displayed there on the grounds. "It's ours if we come get it," Owen said. Halton representative Spencer Chilwell agree, saying the museum will donate it if the group handles loading and transportation.

While the exterior is rusted, the "inside is in pretty decent condition," Owen said. The goal would be to have it hauled back to Louisville and restored to operational condition -- here or possibly at a shop in Brookville, Penn.  The whole project is a long shot, and the restoration alone could cost about $300,000, Owen said. Overall, reestablishing a line could cost millions.

But Owen said lines have been uncovered and reused or new ones have been built in such places as Dallas, Kansas City and New Orleans, and he's looking into the possibility of obtaining transportation grants to help with the cost. Unlike bus routes, which can change, a streetcar line "creates a permanent route," he said.

Trip to Cincinnati

The Louisville Railway Co. group plans a motor coach bus trip that's open to the public on Fri., Sept. 9 to Cincinnati for the grand opening of the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar service. The bus will leave at 7 a.m. from Union Station (TARC headquarters), 1000 W. Broadway.

The ticket cost is $32, or $34.35 with an online ordering fee. Reservations need to be made by Wednesday, Sept. 7 either on Facebook (Louisville Railway Co. or John Owen) or by calling Owen at (502) 416-8143. The trip will include a tour of the Over the Rhine area, which includes the Findlay Market area, similar to Louisville's old Haymarket area, Owen said.

The Southwest Ohio Regional transit Authority will operate free Metro bus circulator service during the grand opening weekend for the Bell Connector, Friday through Sunday, Sept. 11.

History

"The electric streetcar or trolley... provided the first real rapid transit in Louisville," the Encyclopedia of Louisville says. "The city's first trolley cars began operating in June 1889, running from Eighteenth St. along Green (Liberty) St. to Baxter Avenue, and out Baxter to Highland Ave." Later, they went beyond the city limits to Iroquois Park and elsewhere.

"In the days before widespread automobile ownership, the fixed lines of the streetcar provided controlled mobility that promoted orderly growth," the encyclopedia says. In 1890, two transit companies were merged to form the Louisville Railway Co., which had 500 cars before World War I.

"Pay on the Platform Have exact change ready," reads a sign on the front of a streetcar pictured in what appears to be a 1907 photo in the Courier-Journal archives. Another photo circa 1920 shows a streetcar in front of the old interurban trolley car station on Court Avenue just west of Spring Street in Jeffersonville, Ind. The trolleys there served Louisville, Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany before giving way to bus transportation in the early 1930s, the photo info says.

Other photos show a trolley at Fourth and Oak streets in Louisville in 1931 and members of the Wynn Stay club preparing to board a chartered streetcar downtown in 1943. But the increase in auto ownership in the 1920s caused a decline in ridership, which had been in the multi-millions, and it was exacerbated by the Depression of the 1930s, according to the encyclopedia.

The last streetcars ran on May 1, 1948, carrying crowds to the Kentucky Derby. About 1950, the name was changed to the Louisville Transit Co., which ceased operation in 1974. The public agency, Transit Authority of River City, then took over the bus system.


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