Friday, September 7, 2007

Fort Smith Trolley Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Fort Smith Trolley Museum
100 South 4th Street
Fort Smith, Arkansas, 72901
(479) 783-0205

Owned and Operated By:
Fort Smith Streetcar Restoration Association, Inc.
2121 Wolfe Lane
Fort Smith, AR 72901

The Fort Smith Railway Company began operation in 1883 with three mule-drawn rail cars, offering the area's first public transportation. As these cars progressed through the unpaved streets, the "Gee" and "Haw" from the drivers could be clearly heard.

Ten years later, the first electric streetcar service was franchised to the "Fort Smith & Van Buren Electric Street Railway Light & Power Company," and two electric trolleys soon began operation. By 1899, all the lines in Fort Smith were electrified and running with open-platform cars, which made their use dependent on good weather. The riders did have a roof, but the motorman stood outside in the elements, and did the braking by hand.

In 1903, the two above-mentioned companies combined to form the Fort Smith Traction Light & Power Company. Later that same year, the company was reorganized to become the Fort Smith Light & Traction Company.

By 1911, enclosed streetcars had become the norm, since they could run year-round, but they were heavy and created more wear on the tracks. Airbrakes also became standard. The enclosed Birney "Safety Car" made its appearance in Fort Smith in 1920. It was a lighter car with a "dead man control" - designed to stop and open the door if the motorman did not exert downward pressure on the control handle or depress a foot valve. These cars were heated by under-seat electric heaters, assuring comfort in cold weather.

During the 1920's, FSL&T made some poor choices regarding bridge tolls, fare amounts and routes, getting into several legal spats along the way. This, combined with the growing popularity of automobiles and the onset of the Great Depression, took a heavy toll on the company. By 1933, FSL&T was a subsidiary of Oklahoma Gas & Electric and operating at a deficit, though it retained the name Fort Smith Traction. In August of that year, OG&E announced that the streetcars would run make their final run on November 15, and the company would be dissolved.

After the last run, all of the cars were quickly scrapped; motors and wheels were removed for salvage, and bodies sold off and used for assorted purposes. For instance, FSL&T #224, the first car to be restored by the Fort Smith Trolley Museum, spent many years as a diner in Ashdown, Arkansas, with the name "Streetcar Cafe." Within a few years, all 33 miles of Fort Smith's trolley track were ripped up and sold for salvage.

Local artist John Bell designed a mural for the Fort Smith Trolley Museum in 1990, which depicts the era of trolleys in Fort Smith. It includes a mule-drawn car, an open car, an semi-convertible closed car, and a Birney safety car. For more information on the trolley era, read "The Streetcars of Fort Smith," written by Charles Winters and published by the Fort Smith Historical Society, September 1979 (This issue of "The Journal" is available in the FSTM store).


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