Before the automobile, Portland was one of the nation’s foremost “streetcar cities.” Its public transportation system was cheap, convenient and very popular. A web of overhead wires delivered electricity to fleets of trolleys carrying passengers along nearly 200 miles of track.
Private developers ran the interconnected streetcars as well as the city’s electric system. For decades the rattling cars with their clanging bells were Portland’s chief mode of transportation. But they couldn’t compete with the soaring popularity of cars and publicly funded paved roads.
In 2001, Portland introduced North America’s first modern streetcar. Although the city’s heritage trolleys are no longer in service, its 21st-century urban public-transit system continues to serve as a national model.
To learn more about how electric trolleys shaped Portland, watch the Oregon Experience documentary “Streetcar City.”