Trolley trooper: Richard Thompson can’t get enough of Portland’s streetcar history

chard Thompson (above with Daisy and right) has been fascinated with trolleys since he was a young boy and rode a streetcar with his grandmother. He’s a retired high school librarian who also worked as the crew coordinator for the Portland Vintage Trolley.

Credit: Courtesy photo
chard Thompson (above with Daisy and right) has been fascinated with trolleys since he was a young boy and rode a streetcar with his grandmother. He’s a retired high school librarian who also worked as the crew coordinator for the Portland Vintage Trolley.

No one knows better the history of streetcars in Portland than Richard Thompson, says Val Ballestrem, manager of the Architectural Heritage Center.

No one loves trolleys more, either.

The office in Thompson’s home is a museum of its own with historical memorabilia lining the walls, a wood bench from the 1890s, trolley bells, and doors and tickets, all collected over the past 40 years.

In fact, many of the illustrations from his five books on trolley history come from his interesting and extensive collection. His most recent book, “Images of Rail Slabtown Streetcars,” is soon to be followed by a book about trolleys used across the state.

He keeps busy talking about trolleys, primarily to groups at retirement centers, but despite his knowledge on the subject, “some of the people who hear my talks tell me stories I didn’t know,” he says.

Which is probably how his series of books keeps happening. Just when his publishers think he has exhausted the subject, he comes up with another idea.

Street railways made a lasting social and economic contribution still apparent today in the layout and character of Portland neighborhoods. Thompson’s books discuss (among many other historical facts) their impact on the city, as well as the electric interurban railways that ran through Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Portland’s Interurban Railway. The books are filled with historical photos and maps.

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Richard Thompson is a retired high school librarian who also worked as the crew coordinator for the Portland Vintage Trolley.

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Courtesy photo

Richard Thompson’s home has become somewhat of a historical musuem on trolleys in Portland. He has enjoyed gathering memorabilia over the years.

Of note

The Oregon Electric Museum in Brooks features tours of the car barn, an interpretive center, memorabilia and rides on a streetcar.

The Willamette Trolley has a car barn, depot and parking in Lake Oswego. When the Sellwood Bridge is completed, the trolley will travel the entire line to Riverplace.

Learn more about Portland’s streetcar history at www.vintagetrolle...

His long fascination with trolleys began as a young child, riding the trolley with his grandmother in Milwaukie. The experience had such a profound influence that he decided he would someday become a motorman himself.

“The trolley was very romantic to me,” Thompson says. “I was attracted to the sounds, the clickety-clack, the ding of the bell, the sound the coin changer made, the seats and the smells.”

Although trolleys ceased operating in Portland in 1958, and Thompson had to abandon his dream of operating one, he still sees evidence of this former mode of transportation –the new Trimet MAX Orange Line goes right by the Milwaukie stop where Thompson and his grandmother waited to board the trolley. He even was invited to speak at the opening ceremony when the line opened.

Thompson is a retired high school librarian, and a former museum director for Georgia-Pacific Lumber Co.

But for 23 years, he was also the crew coordinator for the Portland Vintage Trolley, the vision of the late Bill Naito, who used business contributions to build four reproduction cars from the Council Crest line. Though they were modern, the cars were built to “look old.”

“For me, it’s nostalgia,” says Thompson of his lifelong interest in trolleys and street-cars. “Streetcars built cities, they created neighborhoods. They allowed working people to stop having to get a job within walking distance. People walked to work in those days. With the streetcar, they could get a job five or more miles away from where they lived.”

The first streetcar in Oregon began service in Slabtown in 1872 when entrepreneur Holladay, who had gained fame and fortune creating the Overland State to California during the Gold Rush, opened the Portland Street Railway.

The new horse carts proved to be the most comfortable way to travel on the unpaved streets. Eventually, four com-panies owned streetcar lines, traveling along SW First Avenue, the city’s shopping district.

The streetcars were fol-lowed by steam dummies – lit-tle locomotives that operated on Portland’s perimeter, but never came downtown. Then came cable cars and, in November 1889, Portland had its first electric streetcar.

Having the rail system con-nected the three cities — Portland, Albina and East Portland. New bridges — the Morrison, Steel and Haw-thorne — created even more connections and the spread of homes and businesses.

“The east side development spread like wildfire,” Thompson says.

Real estate developers who could see the economic advan-tage of increased housing and business drove the streetcar business and, at one time, Thompson says there were 40 different streetcar lines in Portland.

But transportation advances meant buses and cars put the streetcars out of business. Dirt and cobblestone roads were paved over, and more than just the wealthy could afford to own a car.

“The automobile represent-ed freedom, the open road, being able to go wherever you wanted,” Thomspon says. “Streetcars were a necessity in the old days, but when the auto was more common, they became dilapidated and were considered old-fashioned. The auto was a symbol of progress.”

However, Portland now supports streetcars traveling throughout the city. “What’s old is new again,” he says. “The 19th century era of streetcars in now in the 21st. Even more lines may be added.

But not everyone is in favor of the streetcars. Thompson says the Willamette Trolley, which runs on a track from Lake Oswego to the South Waterfront, was a victim to vandals who threw eggs, squirted their garden hoses, and even put objects on the track in an effort to derail it.

Thompson says a deputy from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office had to ride the trolley until the problem began to subside.

Now, the Willamette Trol-ley runs only part of the way due to construction on the Sellwood Bridge. Thompson found three former motormen to volunteer to operate it, as well as retired train conductors who donate their small wages to charity.

When he isn’t giving trolley talks, Thompson has become something of a traveler. He has been to Peru and Mexico, taken several cruises, and has plans to cruise Australia and New Zealand on his next adventure.

“I’m busier now than when I was working,” he says.

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