Boulder, Colorado Trolley  

by Jim Harrington 

There be Tracks on Broadway! Not only tracks laid in the 1800’s to get miners to them Gold Hills out of town but tracks to also ferry people around town. Along Broadway, one of Boulder’s main arterial streets is evidence of trolley tracks that are remnants of a thriving transportation system of a not far distant past. At one time Boulder had at least 16 railroads and street car lines operating on a maze throughout the city. But old tracks back then were not fast at creating new transit for passengers. Trolley lines were first formally envisioned in 1872 as a horse drawn street car to go from downtown Pearl Street, now the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall, to the fairground then out east near 28th and Valmont. Plans were drawn up but never materialized. The second attempt to develop trolley traffic was in 1875 to now go west from downtown Pearl St. to the flour mill at the base of the historic settlers Red Rocks but these plans too did not bear fruit.

Boulder trolley on Pearl Street
Boulder trolley on Pearl Street

In 1891 finally the Boulder Railway and Improvement Company created a horse drawn trolley line from 5th and Pearl Street to 24th Street. The company founders had vision but not a lot of capital. They had a lot of talk but little substance. The street was plowed and tracks were laid to the regret of contractors who remained unpaid. Still on September 13, 1891 Boulder’s first wooden street car accommodating twelve to fifteen people was put into service. Since there was no way to turn the street car around at the end of the line the horse was simply unhitched and moved to the other end of the car. For a nickel people could get across town. But after a couple months the novelty wore off and the street car went out of business. The tracks were torn up the following spring.

 

Historic Boulder trolley to Chautauqua
Historic Boulder trolley to Chautauqua

The original Boulder street car had a second life as a downtown lunch stand. Its unique structure drew a nice luncheon crowd and the envy of other restaurant owners who succeeded to have it removed under a law that prohibited wooden structures within downtown Boulder.
Something big happened in Boulder in 1898. Boulder beat out other western towns to build its own Chautauqua Park at the base of the Flatirons. Chautauqua Park was to provide the most significant educational retreat west of the Mississippi river. This national adult education movement was created to combine culture with the aesthetic beauty and rigor of the great outdoors. Gilded Age travelers’ would flock to Boulder to meet celebratory artists, listen to revolutionary lectures, learn about self-improvement and go hiking in an idyllic natural settling close to the luxurious amenities of town. A trolley system was now needed more than ever to make sure all these summer visitors would make it to downtown.
The Boulder Railway and Utility Company founded in 1898 with the idea of bringing an electric streetcar system to Boulder. The initial plan was to provide transportation between downtown and the newly built Chautauqua Park formally opening on July 4th 1899. The trolley system would provide for the permanency of the Chautauqua Park and give university students the mobility to reside in any part of Boulder and still be near the campus. The headquarters for the new trolley line was located on the south west corner of Arapahoe and Broadway where Alfalfa’s Market now stands. A coal fired power house was built on the site as well as storage for the four cars. Rails were put into place along with the electric poles during the first half of 1899 with the idea of opening in time for the 4th of July opening at Chautauqua Park. The local newspaper reported numbers of people crowding into the streets to watch this work on this new way to get around town.

Boulder Colorado trolley depot
Boulder Colorado trolley depot

On June 24th, 1899 the local newspaper headline stated “She Starts, She Moves”. This time the vision for the trolley line had substance. The 3 mile loop was completed in time for the summer festivities. The original loop ran from downtown Pearl Street to Chautauqua by way of Broadway, College Ave, and 9th Street and returned via 10th, Aurora and Broadway. It was reported that the desirability of the Hill and plateau that is now the Chautauqua neighborhood greatly increased with the installation of the line. The line provided for the emergence of rapid transit and further growth for the city. The line would also open a North Boulder loop that served the Colorado Sanitarium and the Newlands neighborhood along Broadway, Maxwell, 5th St. and Evergreen.
In 1914 the lines was purchased by the Public Service Company. The car was gaining in prominence of use as the novelty of the trolley lines was wearing off on even the most profitable of lines. Car manufacturers were pushing for the removal of the electric street car and other passenger rail lines. Boulder’s trolley line closed for good in 1931 when it was replaced by a bus line. They paved over the trolley tracks rather than removing them this time.

 

Boulder buried trolley tracks
Boulder buried trolley tracks

Today the trolley tracks appear whenever they do excavation construction work on Broadway. There are also trolley tracks on display at select Skip bus stops along Broadway and near campus used for both for a historical archive and for remote sensing students to find them via satellite imagery. And just as when the Trolley car was a new idea there are other new ideas about transit lines and mobility in Boulder. The dream of the Regional Transportation District Fast Tracks for a new commuter rail line in Boulder seems to be years away from being a substantial reality, but it is chugging along. People are also studying the feasibility of adding Gondola lines both down town to the Hill and on campus. Some want to do a test of Elon Musk’s Tesla Hyperloop high speed train service between Boulder and Longmont. And some want to wait and see what efficiencies self-driving cars will bring to our existing roadways. Transit in Boulder will continue to evolve over time but there will always be a love for the trolley line that brought the natural charm of Chautauqua Park to the rest of the city.