Pin It

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."

Pin It

Speaking of Transportation

Today | Tue | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun
The Great American Read: Finale Watch Party

The Great American Read: Finale Watch Party @ Downtown Spokane Library

Tue., Oct. 23, 6:30 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Paul K. Haeder

  • Work In Progress
  • Work In Progress

    It made sense to me two weeks ago to write an impassioned column on Earth Day. Hell, four months back, when I was first tasked with the challenge of co-organizing a killer of a celebration around Earth Day 2010, I envisioned huge media fanfare, tens...
    • Apr 28, 2010
  • Gutting Classrooms
  • Gutting Classrooms

    Higher education is a great leveler and — especially in these times — a safety net we can’t afford to tear apart
    • Mar 11, 2010
  • Color Spokane's U-District Green
  • Color Spokane's U-District Green

    The U-District could become a model of sustainable growth in the city. Just ask the Dutchman who runs Portland State.
    • Feb 11, 2010
  • More »

© 2018 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation