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Review of Riding Denver’s Rails – A Mile High Streetcar History

In the transit book world, streetcar histories are a dime a dozen (for example, Urban Mass Transit – The Life Story of a Technology ). Riding Denver’s Rails – A Mile High Streetcar History by Kevin Pharris (History Press; Charleston, SC; 2013; 141 pages) is more than just a history of streetcars in Denver; it is a charming book that is part streetcar history, part modern light rail/streetcar advocacy (like Street Smart – Streetcars and Cities In the Twenty-First Century ), and part transit tour guide (he points out museums where visitors can discover Denver’s transit history).

The book is divided into three parts. Part I narrates the transit history of Denver. Few people alive today know that at one time Denver featured an extensive cable car network ( another rarely discussed cable car network was in Chicago ). And, for a city the size of Denver, at one time there was a lot of transit competition. For years the transit network was radially oriented on the Loop, a major downtown streetcar transit center located by 15th and Lawrence. There is nothing left today of the Loop (although the 16th Street Mall exists nearby), and the Denver transit network has long since migrated to a more efficient grid-based system. One interesting story is the horsecar where after pulling the car up a hill the horse was allowed to ride back down the hill in the car itself. Another fact is that urban renewal resulted in the removal of several viaducts that elevated several downtown streets over Union Station and the train yards so they could access northwest Denver. Finally, Denver was one of many American cities that used to have electric trolley buses.

Part II consists of Denver residents reminiscing about what it was like to ride on a Denver streetcar. Considering the last streetcar ran in 1950, not many are left. It struck me while reading these memories that the streetcar is a synecdoche – it boils down a litany of happy childhood memories to one symbol, albeit a symbol that made many of the memories possible. In a kindler and gentler time, the streetcar represented freedom and independence for children- an independence that is no longer possible in the modern world of overparenting. It was interesting to me that pulling the streetcar pole down was so easy that schoolkids routinely did it. Also of note was the fact that not everybody was enamored with the rickety mustard yellow locally-built cars with uncomfortable rattan seating.

Part III is about modern Denver transit – in particular the opening of Denver’s light rail lines and the FastTracks program which will eventually result in several additional light and heavy rail lines in the metropolitan area. Like many rail enthusiasts, he is excited that Denver finally got transit back when the region’s first light rail line opened – completely ignoring the extensive bus system operated by regional operator Regional Transit District.

Riding Denver’s Rails features extensive photos of streetcars and historic city buildings, all in black and white. I would have liked to see more maps, including period network maps, but as Pharris notes such information is available in a comprehensive three-volume history of Denver’s transit system. Also, given the present day section, it would have been nice to have a brief summary of how RTD fared between 1950 and 1990.

Overall, Pharris is a strong lover of Denver and his emotion comes through in an excellent book that functions both as transit history and an advertisement through the city. Certainly Riding the Rails made me want to visit the city and enjoy the Broadway and Colfax corridors.  Read about transit in Colorado Springs, another large city in the state.
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