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Harmon’s Histories: Bring back streetcars, Missoula, but mind your manners

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The spirit of W. A. Clark probably had a chuckle last week as a few hundred modern-day Missoulians said they’d like to bring back the electric streetcar.

It was January 1905 when Clark announced plans to “build an electric road from Bonner, at the junction of the Big Blackfoot River and the Hell Gate River to Missoula.”

From there, reported the Western News of Stevensville, Clark planned “to cover Missoula with a streetcar system and to build out southwest to Fort Missoula.”

Construction of the line was assured when, in 1906, Clark bought Missoula’s electric and water plants from the Missoula Mercantile.

The streetcar system, wrote the Weekly Missoulian, would “enhance the value of every foot of realty in Missoula and add many inhabitants to our city.”

It took four years for the tracks to be laid and all the components to come together.

From Archives & Special Collections, UM Mansfield Library

At 6 a.m. on May 15, 1910, the first streetcar departed from Front and Higgins in downtown Missoula for Bonner, with cars to leave Missoula “on the even hours and returning on the half hours from Bonner.”

Similar 30-minute service began “from the Van Buren Street crossing to the Residence addition, passing the university, and … between Van Buren Street and Car Line addition, where the barns are located.”

In September 1910, the route to Fort Missoula was opened on a limited basis. Streetcar Superintendent S. R. Inch told reporters, “Just as soon as we get the new rolling stock, the cars will be doubled in number and there will be one car an hour in each direction.”

Inch also announced, “We have also made a ticket price for students, either in the university, the high school or the city schools, which will give them 20 tickets for 75 cents. The tickets to be good only on school days and in school hours.”

Now, should the electric streetcar make a return to Missoula in the 21st century, it would be helpful not to repeat the mistakes made 100 years ago.

From Archives & Special Collections, UM Mansfield Library

It seems Missoulians, back then, had difficulty following the rules. One newspaper columnist declared, “Considering that this is a university town, there are a great number of people who don’t understand the meaning of ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ as painted on the streetcar doors.”

A few months later, the newspaper had calmed down a bit, more politely describing streetcar design and operation as well as what would be expected of the riding public.

“Missoula is new in the streetcar business; she has much to learn (about) the conduct expected from passengers on crowded cars.

“There seems, however, to be no fixed standard of etiquette for the streetcars and those who ride in them. There is endless discussion as to what constitutes rudeness in the crowded cars and how strict the rules should be.”

The Missoulian proposed it was quite simple, really: “A gentleman is always a gentleman; he will always do the right thing in streetcar or in hall.”

From Archives & Special Collections, UM Mansfield Library

Quoting from an article in the Boston Monitor, the local paper continued, “The tendency toward lax manners on streetcars is due largely to social tolerance, and this, in turn, is due largely to social carelessness and indifference on the subject.

“Parents who are themselves witnesses and victims of bad manners on streetcars and in public places are not always as particular as they might be in training their sons and daughters in the habits of kindness and courtesy.

“Sometimes the girl and the woman menace public comfort as seriously as the boy and the man.”

Rudeness, however, continued – and it was not limited to riders.

Motorists, at times, became frustrated with the streetcars. “It seems to make the man in the auto very peevish to have to stop while a streetcar is taking or discharging passengers,” according to one newspaper account.

The demise of the electric streetcar did not come from rude passengers or irritated car drivers, though. Cars and buses, free from electric lines and fixed tracks, were becoming increasingly popular and they were economical to operate.

By the late 1920s, Butte and Missoula were the only Montana cities to still have electric trolleys and streetcars operating.

Finally, in December 1931, citing a 50 percent decline in ridership over the past decade and mounting operating losses, Missoula’s streetcar company filed paperwork with the Public Service Commission to discontinue service.

So there you have it, 21st century Missoulians: If you follow through on plans to bring back the electric streetcar, please remember to mind you manners!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.