By Diane Dietz The Register-Guard
EUGENE, Ore. — A work crew scraping cracked pavement off Willamette Street this week — using a contraption made of a spinning drum studded with teeth — hit on a piece of Eugene history.
The equipment lost some teeth on streetcar rails long buried in the pavement, part of a system that was the fastest and most comfortable way to get around in Eugene during the World War I era.
The rediscovered rails — found along the portion of Willamette between 19th and 23rd avenues being repaved — are encased in concrete and are not expected to be rescued.
Nor is their discovery so unusual. Every couple of years, a worker will similarly uncover part of the 18 miles of track that once branched through the city, from Willamette Street to River Road and from West 11th Avenue to Springfield.
And whenever the daylight strikes the metal of an old rail, it seems to set rail enthusiasts to dreaming — of the past, when the streetcar shaped development of the Eugene, and of a future when they imagine the clang of a streetcar bell returning to Willamette Street.
The discoveries prompt news stories, public speeches and, sometimes, feasibility studies. In Eugene, the idea never seems to go away, said Tom Schwetz, a planning manager at Lane Transit District.
“I’ve been here for 27 years, and I’ve constantly heard people bemoaning the lack of streetcars,” Schwetz said. “(It’s) like, `What’s wrong with this community that it doesn’t have a streetcar system?”’
Eugene got its first electric streetcar line in 1907, when the Portland, Eugene &Eastern Co. took out a franchise to use the roads from the city and put down the first rail.
City streets were dirt at the time and pocked with animal hooves, said Robert Krebs, a former Oregon Department of Transportation intercity rail coordinator and a current member of the Salem Transit Board.
It was a slog for University of Oregon students to get downtown. And developers platting the outskirts were eager for the boost in property values that a streetcar route would bring.
The rails promised a comparatively smooth ride.
The Morning Oregonian — covering the grand opening of Eugene’s line — said citizens with “horns and leather lungs” greeted the first streetcar, and hundreds lined the route to witness its passage.
“Eugene Becomes City in Reality,” the headline declared.
It cost 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children to ride, and a conductor in a pillbox hat was there to take payment and yank the string and clang the bell at every stop. The train ran from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, according to a history by Eugene resident Roger Houglum and since preserved by the Lane County Historical Society.
Riders settled in rattan seats, and some recalled a distinct smell of an electric motor in operation. There was a rhythmic click as the car moved over rails that were bolted together every 39 feet, said Gilbert Hulin, a former Register-Guard sports reporter and streetcar historian. “That made the clickety-clack,” he said.
Soon, the city wanted more. By Sept. 22, 1909, an impatient editorial in The Eugene Daily Guard groused at the PE&E streetcar owners, saying that the city could “not much longer grow and expand” without the system placing the suburbs in touch with the business center — and the matter was important enough for the Commercial Club to take on.
“This is one of the questions which are vital to the growth of Eugene, and there is no good reason why the city’s progress should be stayed while (the company) takes profits off their present Eugene system and expend them in building jerkwater lines in Albany, Salem, Chehalis and elsewhere,” the editorial said.
It was a period of phenomenal growth for Eugene, according to Michelle Dennis, a historic preservation consultant. Department stores had arisen in the downtown retail district. Thirty-five new business blocks and stores were constructed and six business blocks were remodeled, she wrote.
“You didn’t want to ride a horse if you worked in an office,” Krebs said.
By the mid-1920s, streetcar companies were trading in rails for rubber-tired buses.
They were private, for-profit companies, Krebs said. “Streetcar companies had to maintain the tracks and the overhead wire — and they had to pay a franchise fee to the city to be on city property,” he said. “By converting to buses, they used the streets for almost free.”
In the 90 years since, all but a few feet of track were covered over by repeated repaving — and then, as the streets failed and the subsurface had to be repaired, crews began digging up the old rails encased in asphalt or concrete beneath the cracked pavement.
In 2011, for instance, crews dug up 50 feet of rail under 13th Avenue in the university area. The Lane County Historical Society and Museum took a foot-long piece of streetcar rail to remind posterity of the streetcar system.
Eugene metal sculptor Jud Turner cut eight-foot pieces and fashioned them into the legs of a 16-foot-tall great blue heron statue that now stands at the intersection of 13th Avenue and Alder Street.
But it’s not just history to some. Three years ago, for instance, the call resurfaced for a revitalized streetcar system in Eugene, Schwetz recalled. The concept is not as far-fetched as it might sound.
Cities all over the country are recreating streetcar lines, led by Portland, which reintroduced streetcars in 2001 — on a line from Portland State University to Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center.
“In Portland, it’s used as an economic development tool,” Schwetz said. “It’s stimulating redevelopment of areas that have become slums — or old railroad yards. The Pearl District used to be an old railyard.”
Portland figures it has seen $3.5 billion in private investment within 750 feet of its four-mile route, according to a recent report. Recently, Portland extended a new streetcar line 3.3 miles east across the Broadway Bridge to the Oregon Convention Center and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Medium-sized cities are reviving streetcars, too, including Tacoma, Tucson, Ariz., and Little Rock, Ark., either by refurbishing old streetcars, purchasing replicas or running modern versions of the electric-powered cars.
In Eugene, meanwhile, the Eugene Streetcar Feasibility Study Group met for a year to discuss the possibilities here. The group included representatives from PeaceHealth, UO, Lane County, city of Eugene, LTD, Eugene Water &Electric Board, Lane Council of Governments, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce and Travel Lane County.
“We said, `Let’s really think about what we’re signing up for here,”’ Schwetz said.
The group’s report, issued in March 2011, estimated that a two-mile line would cost $17.5 million a mile for rail and electric lines, $13.5 million each for four streetcars and annual operating costs of $2.2 million.
The group concluded that Eugene was not yet ready for a streetcar because the idea had no business champion — such as the old Commercial Club — to back it, and it was not woven into a specific economic development plan.
But the group report’s executive summary began with what seems to be an eternal truth, at least to the dreamers in Eugene.
“Streetcars are cool!” the report said.