Track to the Future - The Birth of Auto Nation

Unfortunately for Spokane, in 1936 the last of the great egalitarian trolleys (a nickel a ride) that once clanged on the city's streets were clumped up and burned in a pyre while Hudsons and Fords sped on by.

The trolley bonfire is emblematic of how virtually every interurban rail service (almost every city with a population of 2,500 or more had one) went up in smoke because of one of the great crimes of the century -- General Motors, through its subsidized dirty buses from National City Lines, devalued the trolley, ripped up the rails and promoted the car.

Imagine this: "In 1910, three times as many riders utilized Spokane's Electric Trolley system than use Spokane Transit's bus system today, despite a population that was less than half the size Spokane is today," according to the Spokane Regional Light Rail Web site.

And then picture this: By 1920, the United States had more than 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways. And it was a robust, profitable going concern, utilizing 44,000 miles of track under the stewardship of 300,000 employees who served 15 billion annual passengers.

About that time, GM started to purchase countless electric passenger rail companies and rip up their tracks. For the harder to get at publicly owned rails, FBI files show that GM doled out brand-new Cadillacs to rail officials "to convince" them switch to bus service as a way of decimating the electric rail systems -- and eventually sell more cars -- in all major cities.

"GM formed holding companies to buy up and motorize the railways directly," writes Bradford Snell, who investigated GM's tactics as a U.S. Senate lawyer in the early 1970s. "Thus, it helped organize and finance United Cities Motor Transit as a wholly owned GM subsidiary, as well as Greyhound, Rex Finance, Omnibus Corporation, National City Lines, Pacific City Lines, American City Lines, City Coach Lines, Manning Transportation and numerous other concerns, which acquired rail systems across the country, including those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland."

By 1960, 90 percent of the 1,000 rail systems were beaten down and motorized.

"The streetcar did not die because of demographics or economics or disinvestments or evolution," writes Snell. "It died because GM in 1922 made a conscious decision to kill it and, for the next several decades, pursued a strategy designed to accomplish this objective."

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About The Author

Paul K. Haeder

Paul Haeder is a contributing writer to The Inlander. He is a communications instructor at Spokane Falls Community College and a student in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at Eastern Washington University.