Historic preservation is difficult under even the most ideal conditions, but it is all the more difficult when the subject is—important or not—odd or obscure. Thus we have the case of the last dual gauge streetcar track in Portland. Its salvage and preservation is the most recent example of preservation at the fringes of urban history.
Let’s back up a bit.
Portland is one of those cities that boomed in the late 19th century, and had an urban form that was thus dictated in large part by the streetcar. This puts it in the ranks with mostly Western kin, like Minneapolis, Denver, and Dallas. Moreover, Portland had a streetcar network that used two different gauges of track, standard gauge, and narrow gauge.
Gauge, for those who aren’t railroad geeks, is the distance between the two rails on the ground. Today, almost every example of rail transit operates on standard gauge, where the rails are placed in the improbably precise dimension of four-foot, eight-and-one-half inches apart. The origin of this measurement is a matter of debate, and not relevant here, except to say that this was a measurement that the vast majority of big, intercity railroads eventually settled on, so it is also what most transit lines now use.
Back in the nineteenth century, however, transit companies were largely free to use whatever gauge that was wished, and many put down lines laid to narrower gauges. The advantages were several. Narrow gauge lines used fewer materials, making them cheaper to construct. Equipment on a narrow gauge line was typically lighter and smaller, so that it could fit in tighter spaces and utilize lighter bridges and structures. Narrow gauge lines could also turn tighter radiuses, and so were more suited to tough twisty terrain or urban locations were turns were difficult.
In Portland, streetcar line promoters—there were once several overlapping systems in the city —sometimes used standard gauge, and sometimes used the narrower, 42″ gauge. The former were typically (but not always) trolleys, built to cover longer distances and connect to places on the urban fringe, while the latter were typically (but not always) true streetcar routes that connected only urban points. Portland civic leadership tended to prefer the narrower 42″ gauge, now sometimes called “Colonial Gauge” because of its popularity for general rail transportation in the former colonies of the British Empire.
…the majority of the council insisted on the narrower forty-two inch gauge considered more suitable for Portland’s narrow streets. The Second Street line of the Metropolitan Company was standard gauge, a fact the city council deeply regretted.
—John T. Labbe, Fares, Please! Those Portland Trolley Years (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1980), pp 54.
In 1904, virtually all streetcar systems in the city were consolidated into one company that, after some corporate reshuffling, eventually emerged as the Portland Railway Light and Power Company. PRL&P ran streetcars, interurbans, electric street lights, electric power generation and distribution, and was the ancestor of today’s Portland General Electric. A later corporate reshuffling placed the transit lines into a subsidiary called the Portland Traction Company, and it is under this latter moniker that the city’s streetcar and interurbans are best remembered.
one rail transit system, but two gauges
Consolidation brought the opportunity to eliminate needless duplication of services, overhead costs, and the like, but also introduced a complication: one rail transit system, but two gauges. While there were several smaller maintenance facilities around the city, the PTC’s primary heavy repair shops were at Center Street, adjacent to the Southern Pacific Brooklyn Yard in southeast Portland.
In order to service both standard and narrow gauge streetcars, there were several segments of track laid in dual gauge. This dual gauge track had one rail that all vehicles use, and then one set at a distance from the shared rail at the measurement for the narrower gauge, and one set as the distance for standard gauge:
Eventually, Portland Traction began to convert streetcar routes to bus lines. This story is beyond the scope of this post, but it involved matters of deferred maintenance, declining revenue, divisive and negligent public policy, fiduciary troubles, and thinly veiled attempts at bilking the public. The bottom line is Portland Traction, no longer a PGE subsidiary, operated its last streetcar line—the narrow gauge Council Crest line—in 1950. Most of the Center Street Shops soldiered on as a bus barn, eventually transferring to TriMet in 1969. The portion of the shops TriMet inherited have been replaced by newer structures, but Center Street remains the agency’s primary maintenance facility (albeit not for rail) and the bus bays in the current building are still known as “tracks” to those who work there, despite a span of sixty-three years since the last time a rail transit vehicle was serviced in the building.
The existence, much less the role, of narrow gauge streetcar lines in the city has largely faded from public consciousness.
The many former streetcar routes of Portland Traction have survived fairly well, at least when it comes to actual transit service. Although reduced to bus service, it is notable that thirteen Portland Traction streetcar lines largely survive as TriMet bus routes, and of these, nine are “Frequent Service” routes, the backbone of the TriMet bus system.
The actual track of the various streetcar lines has fared less well. As is typical of once critical infrastructure, the abandoned streetcar tracks became viewed as little more than a nuisance best removed or paved over. Most suffered the latter fate. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, few streetcar tracks remain visible in the city, and a short segment in S.E. Mall Street near 17th Avenue had the obscure honor of being the last known visible remnant of dual gauge in the city. The existence, much less the role, of narrow gauge streetcar lines in the city has largely faded from public consciousness.
Fast forward to the present, and TriMet is in the middle of building its latest MAX light rail extension, the Orange Line from Portland to Milwaukie. This line is going right down the length of S.E. 17th Avenue, necessitating the road be widened. As a result, the Mall Street dual gauge remnant was right in the path of construction. In the rendering of the 17th and Holgate station below, the dual gauge remnant would be in the middle of the new southbound 17th Avenue lanes, right behind that foreground tree, in the intersection. Result? Remnant doomed.
A house can become an office, a storefront can become a studio…. Infrastructure, however, is usually a tougher situation.
Historic preservation is a tough thing, but sometimes it is tougher than others. With buildings, there is usually the possibility of reuse. A house can become an office, a storefront can become a studio, a department store can become a hotel, and so forth. Easy, no, but there are at least options. Infrastructure, however, is usually a tougher situation. Rights-of-way have found new life, sometimes, as recreational trails, such as with old interurban routes becoming trails like the Springwater Corridor or the Trolly Trail. Bridges are a tougher save, as seen with the recent (failed) effort to save the Sauvies Island Bridge. But in these cases, again, some new use can be made. What new use can old streetcar tracks in the street hold? Sure, for the historian, there is something fascinating about them. They are industrial ruins, a testament to how quickly modernity can create, destroy, and supplant itself with ever newer spatial orders. They are the industrial equivalent to a segment of a Roman road or, to bring it to a more local example, the Oregon Trail: of no practical value, but immense historic moment.
In the case of this dual gauge remnant, the idea that it would disappear was an anathema to many local transportation and history enthusiasts, myself included. Informally a small campaign was launched, mostly consisting of persistent and carefully crafted emails from some in that community to TriMet. Making the case for the remnant’s historic value to Portland transit history, I added my voice in a small way, lobbying that this remnant be preserved in some fashion at the transit platform to be built at 17th and Holgate. Perhaps, I suggested, it could even become part of the mandated 1% for art program, as the station art here. The pleas, however, were to no avail. Responses from TriMet were minimal or none, and those of us lobbying to save this piece of oddball transit history felt certain that we had failed.
the agency was willing to remove it and donate it, if a suitable home could be found
Then, earlier in 2013, came an email from one of the TriMet community affairs people associated with the Orange Line project: while TriMet had no plans to reuse the remnant, the agency was willing to remove it and donate it, if a suitable home could be found. Moreover, they were willing to remove it whole, complete with its surrounding street pavement, its ties, its gauge intact. All of these pieces were vastly important to the context of the remnant, and the agency was willing to salvage it in as close to intact as was possible. Some quick negotiations took place, and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation agreed to provide a home for the piece as a vital artifact of Portland’s rail transportation history.
Last monday was the big day. Forewarned by an email, the ORHF was notified that Stacey & Witbeck, construction contractor for TriMet, would be delivering the remnant to the Oregon Rail heritage Center near OMSI in the morning. In the mucky wet of a typical Oregon Spring morning, a semi-truck arrived carrying the mostly intact slab of old S.E. Mall Street, complete with the last visible section of dual gauge transit track in the Portland area.
Naturally this is not a solution that is practical for all misfit remnants of history. Utility manhole covers all over Portland still bear the corporate stamps of once vitally important companies that dramatically reshaped the city; their durability has been their best protection. Likewise, many fire hydrants at or beyond the century mark in age are still in service across the region, a number of them cast locally, evidence of the once important and now largely forgotten local iron and steel industry. What of street lamps? Industrial tracks and truck docks? Shipping cranes? Water pumping stations? Or, in what will no doubt become the biggest preservation controversy of the next year, what do we do with empty reservoirs on Mount Tabor?
Or, in what will no doubt become the biggest preservation controversy of the next year, what do we do with empty reservoirs on Mount Tabor?
Everything cannot saved, and everything should not be, but if we lost all evidence of these things, we lose a vital record of the past. I do not want to live in a metropolitan region where everything smacks of newly pour concrete and computer-aided-design… do you? The question of where to draw the line, of what needs preservation, and how best to preserve it is one that will never fully be answered, but it is a question that we all too often forget to ask at all, and when we do, we all too often concentrate on the easy and familiar but, frankly, often banal, like the private residence, and completely miss the esoteric and seemingly mundane yet profoundly more important, like this little segment of track that once sat in Mall Street. (It should be noted that the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Historic, Archaeological, and Cultural Resources Results Report (15.6mb PDF) did not mention this remnant at all, even in passing.) We need, desperately, to ask the Big Historic Preservation Questions better.
We need, desperately, to ask the Big Historic Preservation Questions better.
The saving of this piece of track was, frankly, a miracle. Advocacy on the part of the historic community was not as strong as it could have been, in part because it was difficult to explain the significance of the piece, and in part because it did not fall into the conventional territories of specific preservation-minded interest groups. Yet the miracle did happen, and for that we must thank many individuals and organizations, not the least of which being Jennifer Koozer and Nicholas Stewart and the entire Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail team at TriMet; Stacey and Witbeck who so carefully removed and delivered the piece, and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation for providing a home for this piece. Without them and many others, this would not have happened.