Tracks & Trolleys
Growing the Santa Clara Interurban Railroad
Imagine living in the growing town of Santa Clara in the 1860’s and wanting to go visit or run an errand in San Jose. The only options were to walk, take a stage coach, or ride a horse down the Alameda, an unpaved, willow-lined road that was often boggy, uneven, and bumpy. Stage drivers trying to keep their schedules steered around the ruts and mud holes, sometimes taking to the fields in frustration. Stories abounded of unhappy passengers slogging knee-deep in mud in their Sunday best, trying to help free the stage and continue their journey.
In 1862, a Santa Claran named Hiram Shartzer set out to improve conditions on the avenue. He did so by organizing his Alameda Turnpike Company and securing a county franchise to operate it as a toll road. The county guaranteed him an 18% annual return on his improvements and promised to repay his full investment in 1872. However, by 1867, local politicians had grown weary of waiting for the road improvements. One of them, businessman Samuel Bishop, felt that stages could not compete with a horse-car line, so he formed the San Jose and Santa Clara Railroad Company, and in 1868 built the first horse-car line between San Jose and Santa Clara.
The horse trolley line started in downtown San Jose and went down the Alameda before turning onto Franklin Street. From the onset, it was an enormous success. Later in 1887, Bishop proposed electrifying the line and after some debate, decided to underground the wiring. The city of Santa Clara was skeptical of the method and denied Bishop's request for the underground electric franchise. As a result, the underground electric railway went only to Santa Clara's city limits. For a variety of technical problems, the underground method was a failure and Bishop, actually a successor party, installed overhead electric wires in 1888 with Santa Clara allowing for the construction in their city.
The popular trolley ran until 1938, at which time the rails were removed, leaving the wooden ties and the ballast in the roadway to be paved over. Cars were becoming more affordable and roads were being paved, rendering trolleys a less efficient option.
In June 2017, archaeological crews working for SCU uncovered two sets of trolley tracks in Franklin Street between Lafayette and the old Alameda. SCU is converting a portion of this historic street into a pedestrian mall, which will link the Jesuit Residence, new parking garage, and the Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building to the rest of the campus. Current project plans call for preserving as much of the trolley line as is possible, memorializing them in the new landscape and hardscape that will cover the former street and provide interpretive signage describing the history of this public corridor. The archaeological crews are currently working with construction contractors to clear the concrete paving off the rail lines so they can be drawn, photographed and recorded as a historical site.
Jul 6, 2017
Image of two trolleys passing each other on Franklin St, 1920's. Image courtesy of the Lorie Garcia Historical Photo Collection.