Idaho History

In late 19th century, electric streetcar from Idaho to Spokane was highly anticipated

Spokane people rode the electric interurban right to the steamboat dock at Coeur D’Alene.
Spokane people rode the electric interurban right to the steamboat dock at Coeur D’Alene. Provided by Arthur Hart

“A DOZEN TRAINS A DAY” read the headline on the front page of the Coeur d’Alene Press on April 23, 1892. It quoted a story from the Spokane Review that said, “It is probable that the long talked of electric street car line from this city to Coeur d’Alene may be at last realized.” On May 7, 1892, engineers were in the field laying out the route, and Articles of Incorporation of the Spokane & Coeur d’Alene Railway and Navigation Company had been filed.

Engineer E.C. Riblet was designing “high speed cars” for the line by June. “It is the company’s intention to have something entirely new and at the same time better than any equipment now in use.” They were to be painted “ivory white trimmed with gold and ebony.”

Securing a right-of-way through private property was the next step, “its success depending upon the liberality of citizens and farmers.” The Coeur d’Alene town site company did its part by deeding one-third of its real estate in the city to the electric streetcar company.

Alas, for all the enthusiasm and best efforts of so many, the national financial panic of 1893 doomed the project, along with thousands of other projects across the country. It was October 1902 before the paper could announce that local capitalists, supported by money from the East, would form a company to build an electric streetcar line between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane. “Such a line was projected several years ago. At that time a survey was made and arrangements had been completed for securing money in the east when the panic of 1893 came on and caused the enterprise to be abandoned. Farmers donated the right of way free before and no doubt they will do so again.”

The board of directors of the new interurban company included the aptly named Bill Dollar, president of the Exchange Bank of Coeur d’Alene, and capitalists from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In October 1903, the local paper reported that the new line would make hourly trips between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, and that a 20-acre park had been purchased in Coeur d’Alene to be the terminus of the new electric line that would connect Spokane with the beautiful lake in Idaho 34 miles away. The railway proposed to lease the beach privileges to an amusement company that would establish first-class facilities. “There is also to be a dancing pavilion where Spokane young folks can trip the light fantastic within sight of the placid moonlit waters.”

Construction on the long-awaited electric interurban line finally began in May 1903, with a crew of 300 men and 100 teams of horses. Equipment for the trains was ordered from the J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia, the country’s leading manufacturer of electric interurban rail equipment.

A steam locomotive arrived on Aug. 1, 1903. “As now planned, electricity will operate the new road by day, while steam will be used for power at night. The electric cars during the day will carry passengers and ‘live’ freight, such as merchandise, fruit and meat. Timber, lumber and other heavy freight will go by night.”

The last rail of the Coeur d’Alene & Spokane Railway Co. was laid on Saturday, Oct. 31, 1903. “The steel gang reached the dock about noon and after dinner began laying the rails on the dock. Hundreds of citizens watched the work and at 2:30 p.m. the last spike was driven without ceremony.”

The first electric car from Spokane arrived in Coeur d’Alene on Christmas Eve 1903. Regular service began on Dec. 29, with fares of 60 cents for one way and $1 for a round trip.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email