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In late 19th century, electric streetcars were a big deal in Boise

Boise City chartered the Boise Rapid Transit Company, an electric street railway system, on May 28, 1890, just weeks before Idaho became the 43rd state of the Union on July 3.

The Idaho Statesman followed the development of Boise’s electric street car system with interest, aware that it was one of the first in the nation. On Oct. 2, 1890, “The dynamos which will furnish power for the street railway will receive their power from the water in the Jacobs mill ditch.” A few days later, “A force of about 16 men are at work for the Street Railway company, cleaning and repairing the Jacobs’ mill ditch which is to give the company power for their dynamos.”

By July 1891, tracks had been laid out Warm Springs Avenue as far as the ranch of G.W. Russell. In August, under the heading “Electric Railway News,” the paper reported that an official of the Thomas A. Edison Co. had announced that the line was “in complete working order and would be operated by the company for 30 days as required by contract.”

On Sept. 2, 1891, the Statesman reported enthusiastically that at least 1,500 people were riding the two little streetcars on the new line every day, but two days later that figure was adjusted to a more realistic 800 passengers a day, and it was noted that, “The Street Railway is now practically conducted by the Rapid Transit Co., though the Edison Co. still controls the power.” That month a new 160-foot flume was installed to enhance the system’s ability to generate electricity by water power.

Extending the system began at once, and on Sept. 24, “Yesterday morning street car no. 2 made the first trip up Seventh Street to the courthouse.” On the return it ran off the tracks and the rails had to be reset before it could continue. Formal acceptance of the system from the Edison Co. took place on Oct. 2, 1891.

Boise’s big new Natatorium, then under construction, was the objective of most passengers on weekends, and the paper reported on Oct. 6, 1891: “Both cars were running on the street railway Sunday. During the afternoon they were taxed to their utmost with passengers, most of whom wanted to see the Natatorium since the spans have been raised.” The “spans” were the giant wooden arches that supported the roof of the exotic structure, the style of which was called “Moorish.”

In February 1892, the company ordered two open streetcars for use during the warm summer season. Whether the heat of summer contributed to it or not, on July 28, 1892, the Statesman reported that the streetcar conductor and the motorman “had a bloody battle yesterday at the intersection of Main and Thirteenth streets. The men quarreled about the running of the car, and as soon as they reached a convenient spot they went at it hammer and tongs. Moore is the larger man, but Lane quickly picked up a stone and as David did Goliath, he smote Moore with great vigor.”

In May 1892, the Statesman reported that the streetcar company might place a steam engine in its power house to be used during the cold season when ice clogged the ditch and made it impossible to generate electricity by water power. Another item noted, “As soon as the location of the new Union Pacific railway station has been announced the company will extend its tracks to the structure, and will also run a line out Thirteenth Street.”

On July 4, 1892, more than 3,000 fares were collected, and in November that year street car No. 2 made the news again when it was fitted with an electric heater.

At the first annual meeting of Boise Rapid Transit stockholders on Sept. 1, 1892, there was general satisfaction at the company’s prosperity, and a bond issue of $100,000 was approved. The Boise City Council voted in October 1892 to extend the company’s charter for another 25 years.

In 1892, few if any Boiseans had ever seen an automobile, and they could not have dreamed that vehicles would make the city’s electric streetcar system obsolete.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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