New Book Highlights History Of Treasure Valley Trolley

Apr 9, 2013

Credit John Aguirre

Five years ago Boise Mayor David Bieter proposed a $60 million trolley for downtown Boise.  When federal funds for the project didn't come through, the project was put on indefinite hold. 

The Treasure Valley actually had an electric railway that linked Boise, Meridian, Eagle, Nampa, Caldwell, and Middleton many years ago. That story unfolds in a new pictorial history book called the “Treasure Valley’s Electric Railway.” Barbara Perry Bauer is one of the authors and she says the trolley started more than 100 years ago.

"The streetcar in Boise, started in 1890, 1891 actually is when they incorporated, and in 1892 is when they started the line that went through Boise,” says Perry Bauer.  “By 1904, a lot of businessmen began to realize it would be a great thing to connect the communities throughout Ada and Canyon County and that was when what was called the “Interurban” actually was started.”

Q. Did they stretch all through the Treasure Valley?

A. They did.  Of course the first route that was completed was the one that went to Caldwell.  So when you’re traveling along State Street and Highway 44 and going through Star and Eagle and out to Middleton and then to Caldwell, you’re actually following some of that original route.  It was called the Boise and Interurban Railway.

Q. What was the average fare for a streetcar ride?

A. The average fare was a nickel for routes within the city, but of course if you were traveling from here to Caldwell, it would go up incrementally.  At one time, it would cost about $1.15 to make that ride.

Q. Boise Mayor David Bieter has been a proponent of bringing a trolley back to downtown Boise.  Your company, Tag Historical Research and Consulting did some consulting work for the City.  Did any of that factor into the book?

A. No, it did not.  I have been interested in the electric railway for years and years, going back to the late 1980’s and was always intrigued with the history of the streetcar system.  With our work, we often look at historic neighborhoods and the layout of the city and the streetcar came into play in many projects and work that we had done prior to that.  That’s where my interest came from.

Q. Why did the trolley system eventually shut down?

Caldwell view of Main Street Looking East
Caldwell view of Main Street Looking East
Credit John Aguirre

A. It’s a pretty well-known fact that it was the automobile.  Once the automobile became popular and economical and was fairly inexpensive for folks to buy, that really did have an impact on the street railway throughout the country. 

The other thing that had an impact is that this system was backed by private money, so you had a lot of investors from the local area, as well as investors from the East.  It didn’t really ever pay. 

Passenger fares did not really pay to keep the system going.  In our area, it was the freight that helped to pay for the system.  You had a series of dairies and orchards and farms throughout the Treasure Valley that used the Interurban to get their freight from one place to another and that was where a lot of the income came from.  The fact that it was very popular for over 40 years and allowed people to get from one end of the county to another county was great.  But unfortunately it really never did pay for itself.

Q. What do you want people to take away from the book?

A. I think I want people to not only recall a system that provided a convenient form of transportation but also to look at how many people were actually employed by the Interurban system.  It was fascinating to me, as we’ve been doing research over the years, to discover that at one point there were probably 250 people who worked for the different electric railway systems. 

For me, I want people to think about what it meant to the community, as far as economics, what it meant to the community, as far as being able to get from one point to another and just realize that what we have today has been built on what we had in the past.

Barbara Perry Bauer wrote “Treasure Valley’s Electric Railway” with her sister, Elizabeth Jacox.

The book is now in stores around the Treasure Valley, including the Idaho State Historical Society gift shop and at Rediscovered Books.

On April 20, the sisters will host a bus tour that follows the old Interurban route from Boise to Caldwell and back, with stops at buildings and sites from the days of the electric railway.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio