These days, many look to electric cars and buses as the future of transportation. But using electricity to power vehicles isn’t entirely new. In fact, Reno was on the cutting edge of electric transit more than a century ago. Historian Alicia Barber explains in this segment of Time and Place.
Imagine a time when the fastest way to get around town was by horse and buggy or bicycle. Then picture the excitement that must have surrounded the opening of Nevada’s first electric streetcar line on Thanksgiving Day of 1904.
Workers and families packed the cars to travel the initial route, which ran for three miles from the center of Reno to the Southern Pacific railroad yards in the brand-new town of Sparks. The scenic commute past fields of alfalfa cost ten cents and took about thirty minutes, at the rollicking pace of ten miles per hour.
Safe, reliable, and quiet, the streetcars caught on fast, and it wasn’t long before the tracks and overhead wires extended in all directions—west along Second Street to Keystone, east to Wells Avenue, north to the University, and south all the way to the popular Moana Springs resort.
Born in Reno in 1902, John Cahlan grew up riding the streetcars. In an interview from the archives of the University of Nevada Oral History Program, he recalled their daily routine.
"They used to have the streetcar barns down on 4th Street, about halfway to Sparks, and early in the morning, they would come up to the Southern Pacific depot on Center Street by the Overland Hotel, where they would start their runs."
Although the fare was only a nickel within city limits, young John and his friends found an enterprising way to get out of paying it. Some of the streetcars had metal cow-catchers attached to the front, to clear any stray objects off the tracks. When young John and his friends were too tired to walk home, they would sometimes sneak a ride on a streetcar by jumping on the cow-catchers.
"They were lathe-like strips of iron and when they were going up to the university where we lived, they had those up, so we would latch on to the cow-catchers and ride them home and then drop off."
As popular as they were, Reno’s streetcars were soon overtaken by another invention: the automobile. By 1920, only the line between Reno and Sparks remained, and in 1927, that too was closed, replaced by a motorized intercity bus. The age of the automobile had begun.
Alicia Barber is a professional historian and co-founder of the website renohistorical.org. Cahlan’s full oral history transcript and many others can be found within Special Collections at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. For more photos and information about Reno's streetcar system, click here.