Abandoned rail tracks, especially the ones in Walla Walla that are more known for jolting suspensions than jolting memories, nowadays are considered official items of antiquity. This is because many of the tracks around town are more than 100 years old and were once part of a thriving network of trolley lines.
So when city officials wanted to tear up roughly a third-mile of abandoned tracks as part of last year’s infrastructure work on Whitman Street, the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation said remediation would be required for the loss of a historical cultural resource.
In short, the city would have to do something to make up for tearing up and scraping the double-railed icons of an era long since paved over.
As a result of the state’s intervention, the contractor for the project hired an archaeologist with Fort Walla Walla Museum’s new Heritage Research Services to perform the remediation. Since it was nearly impossible to save the trolley lines, an alternative goal was set up to study and compile a history of regional trolley service.
Museum Director James Payne, also a state certified archaeologist, was charged with the quest of researching the entire trolley network that for roughly two decades served as the primary source of public transportation. What he and other researchers found was that the first mode of public transportation for Walla Walla was an omnibus that started in 1884; it was a horse-drawn carriage designed for a large of number of riders and did not require tracks. In 1889, street tracks were laid down by the Walla Walla Street Railway and Investment Company, but horses were still used to pull the passenger cars. Then in 1906, Northwestern Gas and Electric organized the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company, and the first electric powered trolleys began rolling down Main Street, advancing Walla Walla to the forefront of public transportation.
As lines were added, riders would eventually be able to travel to popular destinations such as the new Pioneer Park, the fairgrounds and the cemetery. A successful interurban line was also added, allowing travel to Milton and Freewater. The railways of the old trolley are still visible today behind the Snyder Crecelius Paper Co. building, 328 W. Main St., which once served as the trolley depot. The trolley rails lead northwest from Snyder Crecelius, disappearing every now and then, and pass the Power House Theatre, 111 N. Sixth Ave., which once provided electricity for the trolleys as well as many area residences and businesses. The old trolley tracks continue down Cherry Street until they hit 13th Avenue, where the trolley barn was once located in what is now the Canoe Ridge Vineyard building, 1102 W. Cherry St.
“I think that is totally awesome that all three of those buildings have been preserved,” Payne said, then added that not only do the buildings exists, but trolley-style buses still run on some of the same lines that was saw real trolleys a century ago.
“This community in particular has great love and respect for its heritage, and here is one example where we have gone to the expense of having these trolly buses,” Payne said.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.