Rails from 1906 trolley dug up in Walla Walla

About 450 feet of 114-year-old trolley tracks were removed last week from downtown Walla Walla, Washington. They were pulled to make way for new utility work.

Significant stretches of the tracks remained embedded in the city’s roads. They were left undisturbed until 2011 when city water main improvement projects that would necessitate the removal of sections of track spurred an archaeological survey of the site. Using metal detectors, magnetometers and good old-fashioned shoe leather, archaeologists traced the trolley rails and recorded where they were visible and where they might be present under smooth asphalt.

Walla Walla’s first street car system began in 1889 and was horse-drawn. The cars ran on a standard gauge track with most of the rails installed in a cement base eight inches thick. It lasted a decade before plans to upgrade to an electrified system fell through and the horse-drawn street cars ceased operations in 1899.

Come the opening of the Walla Walla River hydroelectric plant in 1905, electrical power became more easily available in the city, in 1906, the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company built the first electric trolley system. At first it was just one line between the railway depot to the city park. By 1918, there were an estimated 14 miles of trolley tracks in the city, plus dozens more in extensions to the suburbs, neighboring cities ( Milton and Freewater, 14 miles away across the state line into Oregon) and spur lines to national train lines and shipping on the Columbia River.

The urban trolley system was a major economic boon to workers and to businesses, providing inexpensive, quick and reliable transportation to people and freight. It was a short-lived boon. The advent of the car killed the trolleys but good and Walla Walla’s city trolley system was shut down for good on December 31st, 1926. The service to Oregon, ceased in 1931.

In 1926, the city determined that only the tracks on brick or unpaved areas needed to be removed. The ones on paved streets would simply be abandoned. As roads were asphalted, the rails would be covered up with nobody the wiser. The sections of track visible today were exposed by erosion of the asphalt layer which, as it happens, does not bond well to iron rails.

The 2011 survey concluded that much of theĀ  Walla Walla Valley Railway Company’s rails were still in place under the surface and exposed in discreet areas. Intersections and areas with recent infrastructure work did have the old tracks removed. The section beneath Whitman Street had 4000 feet of railway. Archaeologists determined that this section was not contiguous and having been buried for decades, they were unlikely to shed new light on the history of public transportation in Walla Walla. They recommended the utility work continue and that the rails be fully documented upon removal. Archaeologists kept only one section of the rail which was stamped with a date and manufacturer name. It is now at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

The same principal was applied a week ago, when workers pulled 450 feet of the rails under Whitman to proceed with plans to repair and replace water, sewer and road infrastructure.