This weekend is your chance to catch a free ride on the new streetcar. Actually, now that fareless square is history, it’ll be your only chance to catch a free ride. But it’s also your chance to catch up on streetcar history. What we think of now as this shiny new “mode” of transportation for the 21st century, so proudly haled by our city (and not coincidentally by mayoral candidate Charlie Hales, hanging his hat on the Westside streetcar line that opened in 2001) is actually a throwback to the early 20th century. The streetcar has already been around the block in Portland. In fact, it's in many ways the reason our typical neighborhood blocks are built the way they are.
Construction and development have always followed transportation routes; that's one reason our city is built on the river. Rivers were "freeways" before there were freeways. But streetcars were our primary method of getting around town for awhile, in that sweet spot after electrical power but before automobile mania. Portland's appealing inner neighborhoods – the "streetcar suburbs" – reflect that method of transportation even today, in their close-together, pedestrian-scaled buildings and walkability.
Portland Streetcar, Inc.'s Central Loop will take its first official public rides Saturday September 22. It's also opening day for the Oregon Rail Heritage Center located just south of OMSI. Their new building (finally they have a home for their collection of historic trains) will open its doors to festivities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The AHC exhibit tells the story of the "rise, fall, and re-birth of the streetcar in Portland and its indelible impact on the city." It was put together by local historian/streetcar experts Dan Haneckow and Richard Thompson. Dan is known for his blog Café Unknown, about Portland history. Richard is the author of Portland’s Streetcars (2006) and Portland’s Streetcar Lines (2010).