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Oregon Historical Photo: 1903 Woodlawn Streetcar Derails

Woodlawn Streetcar Derailment, 1903

Woodlawn Streetcar Derailment, 1903

Oregon Historical Society. Photo File 129, folder 5

Every week, Oregon Experience shares a photo highlighting the state’s diverse, exciting history. All photos are courtesy of The Oregon Historical Society.

By 1893, Portland had what most people consider the nation’s first inter-urban electric railway connecting Portland and Oregon City. Through tracks and overhead electric wires, trains ran 16 miles between the two cities.

The streetcar was once the fastest and easiest form of transportation in Portland. According to author and historian Richard Thompson, in the early 1900s, riding streetcars in Portland was an event where “everybody dressed in their Sunday finest.” Some trolleys featured patterned carpets, while ceilings were often covered in advertisements. It only cost a few cents to ride across town.

As the prevalence of streetcars increased in Oregon, so did the frequency of accidents. Articles about derailments and passengers falling off or being hit on the tracks were common occurrences in newspapers across the nation in the early 1900s.

On June 21, 1903, the Woodland car No. 82 was traveling full speed toward the Burnside Bridge. The open-air trolley was carrying 32 passengers.

As the streetcar neared the bridge, so did a tow boat. The draw began to open, allowing its passage. The motorman of the streetcar saw what was happening and tried to slow down the trolley. It derailed. The car swerved right and collided into an electrical pole — stopping it from plummeting into the Willamette below.

According to the Oregonian, only two women were injured: Miss Watson struck her head and was in a “semi-conscious condition” after the accident while Miss Taylor suffered a “nervous collapse and minor bruising.”

You can learn more about the history of Portland’s streetcars in the Oregon Experience documentary Streetcar City. 

Editor’s Note - May 27, 2014: A previous version of this article stated that the car was stopped from plunging into the Columbia. In fact, the car was stopped from plunging into the Willamette.

Streetcar City

streetcar trolley

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