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Project: Streetcars and Electric Railways in Portland, 1920

It’s safe to say that I’m fascinated with the rich transit history of my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and it’s certainly something that I’ve explored before in a previous project. This new project started out with a very simple goal – to produce a route map of Portland streetcars at their zenith in 1920 that showed each line separately – but it quickly grew into something much more.

As I worked on my initial map, it quickly became apparent to me that information about the streetcars back then was imprecise, fractured and difficult to find. Books like John Labbe’s Fares, Please! Those Portland Trolley Years and Richard Thompson’s series of books about the history of Portland’s streetcars helped to fill in a lot of the gaps, but they were designed more as historical and photographic records than a technical summary of routings. Information found on the internet was often incomplete, like this list of streetcar lines. For someone trying to piece together how the downtown trolley loops worked, it was a very frustrating time, with lots of cross-referencing required.

Streetcar Lines of Portland, 1920

So while I did complete a designed map of the lines (as shown here), I also started compiling my findings into an interactive Google Map, accurately plotting each line as it existed in 1920, paying attention to where each line used a private right-of-way, and noting that the streetcars would have used the old Morrison Bridge, which actually connected to Morrison Street on the west side.  I added notes on where track, evidence of rights-of-way and other infrastructure related to the system could still be found today, as well as historical photos and notes for things long gone.

Once I finished plotting the streetcar network, I expanded the scope of the map to include all electric passenger rail out of Portland in 1920: trolleys to Troutdale, Oregon City, Bull Run and Cazadero; and interurban electric trains running down the Willamette Valley as far as Corvallis, Albany and Eugene. This year was the absolute peak of electrical rail traction; by the end of the decade both the streetcars and the interurbans would already be in serious decline.

Multiple sources were used to compile this part of the map, including historical USGS topographical maps of Oregon, numerous maps and pages from the internet, and even Google Maps itself. I found that if you zoom in close enough, Google shows tax lots, which often still include the otherwise-invisible right-of-way of long-abandoned rail lines.

Some of the old lines still exist much as they did back in 1920,  while others have been repurposed as modern passenger rail – TriMet’s MAX Blue Line runs on old electric railway alignments on both the west and east sides, as does the WES commuter rail. The old Springwater and Cazadero Divisions now form a walking trail that can take you from inner Portland almost out to Estacada. However, some lines have long since been abandoned, with only those tax lot boundaries or a road that was laid down directly over the old tracks to tell you of its previous existence.

After all that work, I’m proud to announce that the map can be viewed below, or you can click here to view it full-screen.

It’s still very much a work in progress – I’ll add any corrections to it as I find them, and will continue to add historical information and photographs to the map as well – but I’m already very happy that I’ve created something that consolidates so many different and varied informational sources into one place. I’m certainly going to find it useful going forward, and I hope others will as well. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the map in the comments below!


  1. John Keys

    Great job! I’ve been working on placing the long-gone lines for the last year, but I guess I don’t need to now. I started noticing the remnants of them when looking at google maps Satellite and Terrain views. I’m amazed at how much more rail was on the ground 100 years ago than there is now.

    • The eastern part of the Ankeny car barn was at that location, but I think the Whole Foods is in a newer building. There is a remaining original car barn from the west Ankeny yard on Burnside between 26th and 28th.

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