Monday, April 18, 2005

Old Power House For Bellingham Street Cars

On Champion Street.

Some transit history memories.

As I was out walking in my neighborhood this backside view presented itself.

A friend was amazed it hasn't zuppified yet. No zesty coffee shops, ritzy art studios for wealthy faculty spouses.

An island of authentic life, preserved by the pragmatic storage of construction equipment, building those urban showcases elsewhere. Whatcom Creek Gurgles past.

I remember, years back, when this place had a low rent space for something called "Blackberry Printing Co-OP." Early 1980s when their motto was, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who OWN it, or SHARE IT." Emphasis on "share" for Blackberry's idealistic co-op members.

That was the days before Internet technology empowered so many little folks onto the World Wide Web.

What ever happened to Blackberry? I don't know.

Long before those days, this was the industrial heart of Bellingham's electrified street car system. Local historians give slide presentations about the cars that went nearly everywhere.

There was even a funeral car.

What happened to Bellingham's electric transit?

As in countless other cities, the automobile took over.

Conspiracy theorists say the oil companies plotted this, but I heard another twist on the story.

While I was bicycling across America, down a long lonely road in eastern Montana, the radio waves from Canada were keeping me company. Canadian National Broadcasting had a radio documentary on the demise of street car systems.

Public perception was to blame.

Old transit was seen as "The Big Guys." "The Crooked Guys." "Gruff Old Drivers." "City Hall."

The Automobile was new. Seen as "Empowerment For Individuals."


"Don't rely on transit bosses." "Take charge yourself." "Drive your own car."

Transit fell into disrepair. Then oil companies bought, in some cases to try and salvage bankrupt systems, in other cases to dismantle and recycle used equipment.

Governments also took over dying transit systems.

I once heard that the owner of a private bus system, here in Bellingham, was going broke. Went before city council in 1960s and said, basically, "It's all yours or I'm shutting down." The city took over and birthed present days of "taxpayer subsidized transit in Bellingham."

I came on the scene, as a college student, in mid 1970s. My dad impressed that Bellingham Transit was only "a dime a ride." Sales taxes, of course, paid most of the cost.

Also there was, supposedly, the oldest continuously operating bus line in Washington State. It was still coming into Bellingham.

The Lynden Stage.

Started as horse and buggy. Went between Bellingham and Lynden each day.

Someone told me, "the old guy still drives the bus because the wife can't stand to have him around the house."

Riding in a friend's car, we got behind the Lynden bus one day.

Black smoke curling out the tailpipe. My friend said, "sure needs a ring job."

Not long after that, Lynden Stage was discontinued.

Also Bellingham City Transit was folded into Whatcom Transit Authority. "The WTA."

Runs have been extended out to Lynden and a few other county locations.

It's 75 cents per ride.

Nothing more said about the street car power plant, but it hasn't been yuppified, yet, at least.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was a deliberate effort on the part of Automobile, Oil and Rubber companies to systematically dismantle municipal transit systems, the most famous of which was the purchase and scrapping of the Los Angeles Red Car Line. The Bellingham Library has a very good VHS documentary about this, although I can't remember the title at the moment. The movie "Who framed Roger Rabbit" has a humorous reference to this.
The social pressure to move towards cars can't be underated either. Americans fell in love with the freedom, mobility and spontenaity that cars offered. Even I, despite my disgust for the internal combustion engine, still own a truck, not as my primary transport, but as my means of access to trailheads and a way to get to Skagit or Snohomish counties to visit friends. I'm hopeful that soon we'll have intercounty bus service so I can cut my carbon budget even further. I currently use about 8 to 10 gallons of gas per month. For long distance journies, like the trip I just took to the Anza Borrego Desert in Southern California, I took the train to LA, then borrowed a car from my brother in Indio to dive to the Anza and Mojave. I used a total of 22 gallons for that expedition (yikes!!!), but that's still not bad compared to driving or flying to CA.