Editor's note: This article originally was published on March 5, 1995.
When car No. 1011 rolled to a stop 40 years ago today, it marked the end of the line for the Omaha streetcar system – a system that once had ranked among the nation's largest.
The Omaha-Council Bluffs streetcar era began in 1868. By 1890, the metropolitan area had 90 miles of tracks – more than any city except Boston, said Richard Orr, an Omahan who is writing a local history of the streetcar.
The trolleys, powered by electrical lines overhead, carried 51 million commuters, shoppers and others to and from the Omaha suburbs of Florence, Benson, Dundee and South Omaha by 1907, according to government figures.
The system thrived through the 1920s, Orr said, and enjoyed a resurgence during World War II.
A decade later, though, the automobile and urban sprawl proved to be a one-two knockout combination. Omaha junked its streetcars in favor of buses, which had been winning over streetcar passengers for years.
"We knew it was inevitable, " Orr said. "And we knew it was the end of an era."
The last ride on March 5, 1955, was ceremonial, with city officials and business leaders riding a bunting-draped trolley from Dundee to a streetcar barn at 10th and Pierce Streets. (The U.S. Postal Service now owns the property.)
On the eve of the last public ride, passengers scavenged for souvenirs. They took the metal handholds used by standing riders, signs, posters, pieces of wood – even the rear-view mirror.
Most Omahans, Orr said, were glad to see the trolleys go.
The cars were wide enough to stop two lanes of traffic when loading and unloading passengers and often clogged Farnam Street and other thoroughfares during rush hour.
The World-Herald joined the not-so-fond farewell in an editorial a month before the final trolley run.
"San Francisco may cling to its obsolete cable cars, but we surmise there will be few lamentations when the last of Omaha's streetcars goes out of service, " the editorial said. "With buses on Farnam, Dodge, North Fortieth, etc., the moving roadblocks-on-rails will be eliminated, and street capacity will be substantially increased."
Orr, a 70-year-old retired printer who lives near 65th Street and Western Avenue, was 30 when the streetcar made its final run. He took pictures to preserve the event.
In fact, the Omahan has spent much of the past two decades preserving the memory of the era.
Orr and the late Carl Hehl produced and sold streetcar calendars from 1972 to 1980. Orr published a 32- page picture book last year called "Omaha Streetcars Revisited."
He said he has been working six years on a larger book, "O & CB, " a tribute to the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company, which ran Omaha's streetcar lines. He hopes the book will be published in the spring of 1996.
He also has 8-millimeter film of streetcars that he plans to turn into a video.
Orr grew up north of Benson High School. Since his father, Willard, did not own an automobile, Orr climbed aboard a streetcar whenever he wanted to go downtown, even on dates.
His first ride probably came when he was 4 or 5, when a quarter bought four tokens, which paid for four rides. The fare eventually climbed to three tokens for a quarter. The public, Orr said, put up a fuss when the streetcar company proposed raising the fare to two tokens for a quarter in 1949. Opponents said they collected almost 10,000 signatures in protest.
By that time, the city's streetcar system was 80 years old. The early cars were drawn by horses or mules from Ninth and Farnam Streets to 16th Street and Capitol Avenue. Ninth and Farnam was the heart of downtown, Orr said, and 16th was as far west as the line could go without heading uphill.
The cars helped Omahans get out of the mud, Ted Landale wrote in a 1955 World-Herald article. Downtown streets were dirt, and in wet weather, Landale wrote, they had ankle-deep mud.
The first electric cars ran in 1889. Omaha also had cable cars from 1886 to 1894. The city had as many as 25 streetcar companies late in the century, Orr said, but at least half never advanced beyond the planning stages.
In 1902, the surviving companies consolidated into the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company.
By World War I, the streetcars had fare boxes. Before that, a conductor moved through crowded cars, collecting passengers' money.
"The conductor naturally had to have a memory for faces, " Landale wrote, "and many was the argument of a tough who said, 'I paid my fare!' and didn't. The conductor who couldn't handle the toughest fare was a gone gosling."
The streetcar company ran an amusement park at Lake Manawa south of Council Bluffs from the 1890s to 1918. Round trip from Omaha was 25 cents, five times the typical fare. A nickel would buy a ride on the park's roller coaster or a hot dog.
Frank Comine, a 51-year-employee of the city's bus and streetcar system, told The World-Herald in 1973 that he remembered when 25 to 30 streetcars were lined up at 24th and N Streets in South Omaha, leaving at one-minute intervals to take people to the nearby packinghouses.
A trolley line along Dodge Street carried students to and from what now is Omaha Central High School.
"The boys would accumulate on the back platform, " Landale wrote, "and, bending their knees in unison, rock the car forward and back, while the ... young ladies screamed.
"Once in a while the boys would succeed in rocking the car clear off the track."
Orr said the city's westernmost streetcar line reached 65th Avenue in Benson. In the second decade of the 20th century, he said, there was a plan to extend service to 72nd Street. If that had happened, Orr said, it could have drastically accelerated the city's western expansion.
Instead, it was Henry Ford's automobile that led to urban sprawl. Streetcar traffic started to fall off in the 1930s, Orr said, as more people bought cars.
Trolley business hit its peak during World War II, Landale wrote, because gasoline was rationed and cars were not being manufactured. But by then, some streetcar lines already were gone, including one to Florence and another south along 13th Street to Missouri Avenue. By the 1950s, Orr said, only five lines remained in operation.
Attitudes toward public transportation had changed.
"People became more independent, " Orr said. "They had the money to buy the cars, since Henry Ford produced them in mass and could lower the price.
"People decided they didn't want to wait on the corner to ride."