The Streetcars of Missoula
From the 1890s through the 1930s, Missoula boasted one of the most advanced and efficient public transportation systems in the country. Missoula's streetcars carried roughly 2,500,000 passengers, traveling the equivalent of 24 times around the globe. In addition to serving downtown Missoula, the streetcars extended to outlying areas such as Milltown and Fort Missoula. Although no trace of the streetcar system remains in downtown Missoula, today, Streetcar No. 50 is restored and on display at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
Backstory and Context
The original horse drawn streetcars, which ran from 1890 to1897, revolutionized the way Missoulians traveled. These streetcars would ride along
steel rails and would significantly reduce strain on the horses making travel much faster and efficient in all weather conditions. Among the first
passengers was Mayor Andrew Logan, who took the time to inspect the innovative new mode of travel for his constituency. The streetcars featured the state's first “block signal system,” ["Automatic Street Signals," pg.6] created to reduce accidents
with pedestrians, motorists and other horse drawn carriages. However, in the late nineteenth century, operations stopped due too much needed
updates on the Higgins Street Bridge.
The streetcars were back in business by 1910 with the help of U.S Senator William A. Clark. The new publicly-funded streetcars were fully electrified and were the
first streetcars in the U.S operated by a single conductor. The line carried passengers to the business districts of Missoula, providing
much needed foot traffic to local businesses such as the Missoula Mercantile. The streetcar system was so efficient and reliable that it also functioned as a timekeeping device for local residents. According to Ellen Baumler, “Montana urbanities would set their watches to the streetcar’s schedule” [p.68-69].
The Missoula Street Railway Company took control of the streetcars in 1924 and continued to operate the
streetcars until 1932. Due to the invention of the automobile, ticket sales sharply declined and the streetcars were scrapped and retired in 1932.
One abandoned streetcar, old No. 50, became a camping shelter for hunters; it soon became vandalized and neglected. In 1974,
No.50 was donated to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The restored streetcar is now on display at the museum.
- "Automatic Street Signals For Missoula's Streetcars." Great Falls Daily Tribune (Great Falls) July 20th 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress ed. Page. 6. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024808/1920-07-25/ed-1/seq-6/>
- Baumler, Ellen. "Rapid, Reliable Riding on Montana's Street Railways." Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 51, No.1 (2001), pp. 68 - 69.
- Bonners Ferry Herald (Bonners Ferry, Idaho) January 21st 1905. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress ed. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86091084/1905-01-21/ed-1/seq-2/>
- Shoemaker, Theodore, "Theodore Shoemaker Interview, December 11, 1985" (1985). Depression Years in Montana Oral History Project. 38. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/depressioninmissoula_oralhistory/38
- The Story of Streetcar #50, fortmissoulamuseum.org. https://fortmissoulamuseum.org/the-story-of-missoulas-streetcar-50/.
- Wigel, Tom and Glider, Don. "End of the Line, Missoula's Streetcars - 1935," OldMissoula.com. January 21st 2019. http://oldmissoula.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1603:qend-of-the-lineq-missoulas-streetcars-1935&catid=6:events&Itemid=3
Photo of Streetcar No.50, Taken by: Kevin J. Mobley Circa 2019. Fort Missoula, Montana
Photo #-70.0004. Interior of Missoula streetcar (Interior of a Missoula streetcar, Missoula St. Railway Company. Advertising placards hang above the streetcar windows). Circa. 1905-1932, Courtesy of Montana Power Company. Archival Photographs from the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll27/id/732
Photo # -90.0168. Parade on Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Looking down from the roof of a building at a parade on Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Montana. Horse teams, streetcars and the Missoula Mercantile Building are visible. Circa, 1915. Archival Photographs from the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll27/id/3996/rec/1
Map I.D#- G4254.M5 1926. H2, “Map of Missoula Montana. Scale” compiled and drawn by Richard J. Hale “Country Engineer” 1926. Archives and Special Collections, University of Montana Library, Missoula, Montana.
Photo# - 94.1516. 1924, “Higgins Avenue from Penwell Hotel” by McKay, R.H. Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana.