Once upon a time we had streetcars

J.T. Knoll
Photo circa 1910, courtesy of Pittsburg, Kansas Memories.

The following was excerpted from the 1976 Headlight-Sun Centennial edition. — J.T.K.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be able to walk a few blocks from your residence, pay a small fare, and ride a streetcar to any town in the area?

Once upon a time, you could.

A web of electric streetcar lines once served not only every section of Pittsburg, but also connected 25 area towns and cities.

The first cars were of two types; open air summers ones that had running boards on both sides to get on and off (with curtains that could be closed in case of rain), and enclosed winter cars with windows that were boarded from the rear.

In 1890, The Pittsburg Railway Company laid the first electric railway track, a mile south and a mile north of 4th and Broadway, with double track being laid on Broadway between 2nd and 11th. It was later extended north to accommodate workers employed at the zinc smelters there (about where Walmart and Home Depot are now located).

A car barn and shop was located on the southwest corner of 20th and Broadway. The railway purchased power from the Pittsburg Gas Light and Coke Co.

In 1891, the Forest Park Electric Co. was granted a franchise to build a crosstown line, which went from 4th and Broadway to east Pittsburg and west to the Cow Creek Bridge, the location of an amusement park that provided evening concerts that were very popular called Forest Park.

When Lincoln Park was established in 1910, it spelled the end of Forest Park and a branch of line was built from 9th and Broadway to Lincoln Park for the local citizens. Speaking of Lincoln Park, did you know landscape architect George K. Kessler, who was on the design team for New York’s Central Park and was hired to design Kansas City’s boulevard and park system, designed it?

In 1895, the Forest Park line was sold to the Pittsburg, Frontenac and Suburban, which constructed a line from the 4th Street and Grand junction north to Frontenac. A power plant and car barn were erected at 20th and Michigan.

In 1897 they extended the line from Pittsburg to Chicopee, from where it later connected to Idle Hour Park, which featured a dance hall, beer garden, merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. (It later became the Elks Country Club and golf course.)

The lines and connections continued to grow fast. By 1906 there were also links to Columbus, Kirkwood, Fleming Schwab, Daisy Hill, Weir City, Scammon and Mineral.

In 1907, Girard got into the business when the Girard Electric Coal Belt Railway Co. was launched and built an electric rail line from Girard to Ringo, Dunkirk, Edison, Franklin and Arma.

There were various company reorganizations, mergers and buy outs over the next few years as additional lines were added from 20th Street in Pittsburg to Franklin, a mile back east through Frontenac, and from Franklin, Croweburg and Mulberry.

A Joplin-Pittsburg line was completed on March 19, 1908 by the Joplin and Pittsburg Railway Company to connect the two cities and the coal and zinc mineral belt towns along the line.

The new Joplin-Pittsburg street cars were large, fast and powerful, making the 28-mile trip in between 32 and 33 minutes. Thus they became know as "air liners," described by some as "palatial" because of their upholstered parlor cars.

The J&P line ran through Carl Junction and past Schifferdecker Park to 4th and Main, the location of the Connor Hotel — across from the Silver Dollar Saloon & Restaurant and near various other places of "entertainment."

The numerous lines were eventually acquired and merged together under the Joplin and Pittsburg Railway Co. With the acquisitions, the company had 110 miles of rail lines serving a surrounding population of over 200,000 in the towns and coal, zinc and lead fields of Southeast Kansas, Southwest Missouri, and Northern Oklahoma.

Sadly, the Joplin and Pittsburg discontinued passenger service in November of 1929, as ridership had declined with the coming better roads, bus service and automobile travel. The line continued its freight service, however, until 1954.

No doubt this came as quite a blow to a good many mining and farming families across the area as few had the means to purchase a car and so were left to find new ways to go shopping, visit friends and relatives, enjoy a movie, go to a dance, etc. — not to mention get to work.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.