I was visiting with a friend at church the other day, and knowing of my fondness for all things railroad-related, he asked, “So do you know anything about Abilene having a streetcar system back in the day?”
It turns out, he had been looking at the old trolley barn – a massive iron building with a distinctive raised skylight, that stands on Clinton Street, between N. 10th & N. 11th Streets. Someone told him that it used to be the trolley garage and maintenance building, and he wanted to know more about it.
It’s a good question, and I think an interesting bit of Abilene history.
Back in 1907, three of the area’s leading citizens – W.G. Swenson, George Paxton and J.M. Wagstaff – decided that Abilene needed a streetcar. Mr. Swenson was part of the Swenson family, known for its ranches and other businesses in Stamford, Throckmorton, and elsewhere in West Texas. He was also the founder of what would eventually become West Texas Utilities, and the developer of the College Heights addition of North Abilene.
These men led in financing and constructing the Abilene Street Railway Company. The line began just west of Simmon College (now Hardin-Simmons University), and headed south down Merchant Street until it got to North 7th. There, it turned east to Orange, south to North 3rd, and east to Pine. It went through downtown Abilene on Pine, crossed the T&P tracks (this was before the underpass was built there), over to Chestnut, then south to South 7th. (The photo shows the trolley in the middle of Pine Street, heading south from North 3rd.)
At that point, the line turned west and followed South 7th through the Alta Vista addition, then under development by Henry Sayles, Jr. The line terminated at the old Abilene Municipal Auditorium at Fair Park. (Fair Park is now Rose Park; the old auditorium has long since been torn down, but it used to sit just west of where Safety City is now located.)
In the 1920s, city fathers wanted to persuade the trustees of McMurry College to move their campus to Abilene, so the line was extended from South 7th down Grand to South 14th.
And so it was on a Sunday afternoon in November of 1908, 36 of Abilene’s leading citizens, dressed in their Sunday finest, boarded the trolley for its maiden trip, with Mr. Swenson himself at the controls. Students from Simmons College had nicknamed the streetcar the “Galloping Goose” – they didn’t know how right they would be.
According to news reports in the Abilene Reporter, things went well on the trip, with lots of folks turning out to watch this proud moment in Abilene history, and the people on board having a great time – until – the trolley crested the hill at South 7th and Sayles, and begin heading downhill towards the end of the line, picking up speed as it went. Mr. Swenson applied the brakes, which apparently failed. He began blowing the trolley’s horn, and warning his passengers to jump. Some did, but others did not.
The “Goose” lived up to its name, galloping along to the end of the line, jumping the tracks, crashing through a telephone pole and a barbed wire fence, before finally coming to rest in a mudhole. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, other than getting some mud on their Sunday duds, and everyone had a good laugh.
Presumably, they fixed the brakes, and regularly scheduled service began soon thereafter. At right is a view of the trolley barn in its heyday, showing the tracks leading into the barn, and the overhead catenary system, from which the cars drew electrical power.
Abilene residents are familiar with the Swenson House, the beautiful restored home of the Swenson family, in north Abilene on Merchant Street between North 17th & North 18th Streets. The home was built in 1910, and after Mr. Swenson and his wife passed away, it remained in the hands of the family until they gave control to the Abilene Preservation League in 1991. The home’s location is no coincidence. Remember that the trolley ran south right down Merchant Street – I’m sure Mr. Swenson appreciated the convenience of being able to hop aboard the trolley – just a few steps outside his door – to travel back and forth downtown.
In his book Christmas Memories, noted Texas historian and author (and Abilene native) A.C. Greene tells the story of riding the trolley while going Christmas shopping with his grandmother, Maude Cole. She was the librarian at Abilene’s Carnegie Library, and he always credited her with his love of writing and storytelling. It’s a great story, well told, with some really great illustrations. (I seem to recall hearing that Mr. Greene was himself quite the railfan in his day.)
The name of the system was changed in 1919 to “Abilene Traction Company,” but unfortunately, its days were numbered. The rising popularity of city buses, combined with the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of what was by then an aging system, led to its closure in 1931.
In 2009, local historian and Abilene High teacher Jay Moore wrote an interesting guest column for the Abilene Reporter News, describing how he and his daughter watched a road crew pulling up some of the last tracks of the old trolley system near the intersection of Grand and S. 11th. A tiny bit of track was also still visible at the corner of Merchant Street and North Eighth – or at least, it WAS, until that section of street was repaved in 2012.
So now, the only visible sign that Abilene ever had a street railway system is the old trolley barn, which is how this whole discussion started. The building is now owned by a gentleman who lives near there, and he was gracious enough to let me take a few pictures.
(Left) Here’s the inside of the barn, showing the light that comes in through the skylights.
(Right) The old rails are still visible, firmly embedded in the barn’s concrete floor.
If you’d like to read more about Abilene in the old days, may I suggest the book Early Abilene by Jack North. Lots of great pictures, including several more old photos of the trolleys in service, as well as plenty of other good information. There are plenty of other books on Abilene’s history that also contain pictures of the old streetcars.
So the next time you’re heading down North 10th or 11th, and you see that rusted old iron building, think about the old-timers who had the vision and determination to build Abilene out of nothing but windblown Texas prairie. And while you’re there, listen carefully, and see if you can hear the faint clanging of a trolley bell.