Abilene's Neighborhood Trolley

Back in 1907, three of Abilene's leading citizens - W.G. Swenson, George Paxton and J.M. Wagstaff - decided that the growing city needed a streetcar.  Mr. Swenson was the founder of what would become West Texas Utilities, and the developer of the College Heights addition of North Abilene. These men led in financing and constructing the Abilene Street Railway Company. The line began just west of Simmons College (now Hardin-Simmons University), and headed south down Merchant Street to North 7th, east to Orange, south to North 3rd, then over to Pine.  It went through downtown on Pine, crossed the T&P tracks, over to Chestnut, then south to South 7th.

At that point, the line turned west and followed South 7th to the old Abilene Municipal Auditorium at Fair Park.  (Fair Park is now Rose Park; the old auditorium has long since been torn down, but it used to sit just west of where Safety City is now.) The line was later extended down Grand to South 14th and the McMurry campus.

trolley-car-1

On a Sunday afternoon in November of 1908, 36 of Abilene's leading citizens, dressed in their Sunday finest, boarded the trolley for its maiden trip, with Mr. Swenson himself at the controls.  Students from Simmons College had nicknamed the streetcar the "Galloping Goose" - they didn't know how right they would be.

According to news reports in the Abilene Reporter, things went well, with everyone having a good time and lots of folks turning out to watch this proud moment in Abilene history  - until the trolley crested the hill at South 7th and Sayles, and begin heading downhill towards the end of the line, picking up speed as it went.  Mr. Swenson applied the brakes, which apparently failed.  He began blowing the trolley's horn, and warning his passengers to jump.

The "Goose" lived up to its name, galloping along to the end of the line, jumping the tracks, crashing through a telephone pole and a barbed wire fence, before finally coming to rest in a mudhole.  Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, and everyone had a good laugh. Presumably, they fixed the brakes, and regularly scheduled service began soon thereafter.

In his book Christmas Memories, noted Texas historian and author (and Abilene native) A.C. Greene tells the story of riding the trolley while going Christmas shopping with his grandmother, Maude Cole.  She was the librarian at Abilene's Carnegie Library, and he always credited her with his love of writing and storytelling.  It's a great story, well told, with some really great illustrations.

The name of the system was changed in 1919 to "Abilene Traction Company," but unfortunately, its days were numbered.  The rising popularity of city buses, combined with the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of what was by then an aging system, led to its closure in 1931.

Most of the street trackage that once existed has long since been pulled up or paved over. About the only visible reminder of Abilene's streetcar days is the old trolley barn between N. 10th & N. 11th Streets, now privately owned.

trolley-barn-from-east

If you'd like to read more about Abilene in the old days, may I suggest the book Early Abilene by Jack North.  Lots of great pictures, including several of the trolleys in service, along with plenty of other good information.  There are also many other books on the fascinating history of Abilene and its neighborhoods available at the public library.