The need for strong, independent local journalism
is more urgent than ever. Please support the city we
love by joining Friends of Willamette Week.

Why Is There One Section of Tracks From the Old Belmont Streetcar in the Road at Southeast 26th Avenue and Morrison Street?

Portland’s prewar streetcar system was a much bigger deal than most people now realize.

Why is there one section of tracks from the old Belmont streetcar in the road at Southeast 26th Avenue and Morrison Street? —Curious Old Hag

I'd like to tell you that those tracks were left there by our ancestors so that future generations would never forget what was at one time the West's most extensive and vibrant public rail transit system. Unfortunately, the real answer is more like, "Because no one has bothered to pull them up."

That prosaic explanation notwithstanding, Portland's prewar streetcar system was a much bigger deal than most people now realize.

Before the advent of the private automobile, the size of the city was effectively curtailed by the distance people were willing to walk to work. While that distance was more like a mile or two than the 65 or so feet that people are willing to walk today, it still made it impractical to develop residential neighborhoods at any great distance from the city's core.

Streetcars changed that calculus. Beginning in 1872 with horse-drawn rail cars and first electrified in 1889, Portland was crisscrossed with streetcar lines as densely by the mid-1920s as it is today by bus routes. This made new neighborhoods like Laurelhurst and Ladd's Addition possible.

But the cars weren't just for commuting. The various streetcar companies built amusement parks, dancehalls and other attractions—including Oaks Park—at the ends of their rail lines to encourage ridership. These companies were eventually consolidated into one, the Portland Railway Light & Power Company, which we know today as PGE.

This triumph of public transit couldn't last, of course. With the rise of the automobile—that Darth Vader of urban planning narratives—ridership began to fall off, and the last in-city streetcar line was converted to bus service in 1950.

The tracks, however, remained. Initially, many were simply paved over, but since this reduces the life of the subsequent roadway, a lot of them have been removed over the years in the course of regular road maintenance.

Plenty of them are still under there, though. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, no one really knows how many. But until the street in question needs to be reconstructed for other reasons, it's cheaper just to let them be.