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A Streetcar Named Fresno Traction; the history of Streetcar service in Fresno

Recently over the past month I spent a good amount of time looking into the surprisingly robust history of Streetcar service in the City of Fresno California.


When one thinks of interurban rail transportation in California usually the first City that comes to mind is San Francisco.  Most would never assume a place Fresno which presently does not have a large mass transit service ever had an interurban rail, but that wasn't the case for much of early history of the City.  By 1874 the Fresno County Seat was moved from Millerton on the San Joaquin River to Fresno Station a siding of the Central Pacific Railroad which had only been founded two years prior.  Fresno Station did not formally incorporate into the City of Fresno until 1885 despite being the County Seat.

Full disclosure; the vintage maps snips in this blog are map scans from Davidrumsey.com and the vintage photos are public domain images found while searching online.  The only photos I've taken for this blog are the modern variants showing where the street car lines were in Fresno.

Upon incorporation the City of Fresno began to consider transportation options as the population was approaching 10,000 people.  In 1889 the Fresno Street Railroad began operating horse drawn streetcars along; H Street, Mariposa Street, K Street and Tulare Street.  This 1891 Thomas Map of Fresno below shows some of the earliest horse drawn streetcar lines in Fresno.


A full version of the road map of downtown Fresno can be found below.

1891 Fresno Road Map 

Prior to the turn of the 20th Century two additional streetcar companies would begin operating in Fresno.  The Fresno City, Belmont, and Yosemite Railroad began building line extensions northward whereas the Fresno Railroad built a line extension to the south City Limit in addition to the County Fairgrounds east of downtown on Ventura Avenue (future California State Route 180).  In 1901 all three streetcar companies were consolidated into the Fresno City Railway Company.

The Fresno City Railway Company began converting all existing lines to 61 pound rails in anticipation of conversion to electric street cars.  In 1903 the Fresno City Railway Company was renamed to the Fresno Traction Company.   Also in 1903 the San Joaquin Light and Power Company was founded with the purpose of providing electricity to the Fresno Traction Company.  The Fresno Traction Company was authorized to build 196 miles of streetcar lines which would connect as far north was Wawona in Yosemite National Park, east to Trimmer Springs and south to Selma.  One of the first line expansions by the Fresno Traction company was along what is now the median of Huntington Boulevard.

Much of the future expansion of the streetcar lines in Fresno was delayed or outright cancelled after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake which caused damage over most of Central California.  In 1909 the Fresno Street underpass was completed which linked streetcar service west of the Southern Pacific Freight Line.  The Southern Pacific Railroad purchased controlling interest in the Fresno Traction Company in 1910 and began converting the lines to 75 pound rails.  The Roeding Park (location Fresno Chaffee Zoo) streetcar line was complete by 1912 and expand northward towards the San Joaquin River began with the notable Wishon Avenue underpass being built by 1914.  The streetcar lines reached the ghost town of Fresno Beach where modern Scout Island is located on the San Joaquin River by 1915.

Of note; in 1914 the Fresno Interurban Railway was founded with the intent of building an electric streetcar line to Clovis.  Eventually a line was constructed from Fulton Street in downtown northward towards Fresno State but the system was never completed.  Fresno Interurban Railway declared bankruptcy in 1918 and right of way was bought out by Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad ("ATSF") for a spur freight line in 1922.

Streetcar service in Fresno continued until 1939 when there was about 42 miles of rail service line throughout the City.  The Fresno Traction Company didn't dissolve but rather converted it's electric rail lines to bus service and took on the new name of Fresno City Lines.  In 1961 the City of Fresno took controlling interest of it's bus services and the Fresno City Lines became the Fresno Municipal Bus Service.  In 1969 the name was changed again to Fresno Transit which took on the present name of Fresno Area Express in 1989.

Fresno.gov; Fresno Area Express History 

This below snipped image of a 1938 Thomas Bros Map of downtown Fresno shows the major streetcar lines.  The Fulton Street Line can be seen originating from Hamilton Avenue and a historic marker currently present on the Huntington Boulevard Line is marked.


This snip from the northern Fresno portion of the 1938 Thomas Bros map shows the streetcar lines and the 1914 Wishon Avenue underpass of the ATSF (presently "BNSF" line).


The full 1938 Thomas Bros Map of Fresno can be seen below.

1938 Thomas Bros Street Map of Fresno

One of the major component pieces of the Fresno Traction Company was Fulton Street.  Originally US Route 99 was aligned directly west of Fulton Street on Broadway which kept the differing traffic away from each other.  US 99 for the most part seems to avoided much of the Fresno Traction Company streetcar lines aside from the one near Roeding Park and the Belmont Traffic Circle.

Much of Fulton Street was closed to vehicular traffic in 1964 to make way for a pedestrian mall which covered most of the right-of-way of the Fresno Traction Company line.  In October 2017 Fulton Street was reopened to vehicular traffic which offers a glimpse of what the streetcar line would have looked like.  The below photos of Fulton Street from Ventura Avenue north to Divsadero Street were taken earlier this year.  Major line junctions would have been present at; Tulare Street, Mariposa Street, Fresno Street and Stanislaus Street.














As noted above there is a monument to the Fresno Traction Company on Huntington Boulevard at 1st Street.  Said monument details the purpose of the Huntington Boulevard line shuttling traffic to the Sunnyside neighborhood and was erected in 1983.  The below photos were taken this morning looking east on Huntington Boulevard median which was the streetcar line:




There is a second monument at Huntington Boulevard and 1st Street which also details the history of Huntington Boulevard.  Much of the plants on Huntington Boulevard were planted in 1910 and the first building permit was issued in 1914. 




Following the conversion of the Fresno Traction Company into Fresno City Lines the streetcar tracks were dismantled and some right-of-way was converted into new roadway.  In the case of the 1914 Wishon Avenue underpass it previously had only been used for streetcar service.  Today Wishon Avenue through the 1914 Wishon Avenue underpass is open as a one-way southbound roadway.  These photos of Wishon Avenue and the 1914 Wishon Avenue Underpass were taken this past week.










The Wishon Avenue Underpass given it was intended to be used by streetcars is prone to flooding in wet winters.  This photo below illustrates the poor drainage grade of the modern roadway.


My visit to the 1914 Wishon Avenue Underpass was largely inspired by this Facebook Post by the California Landmark Foundation on the California Railroad History Page.

California Landmark Foundation on the Wishon Avenue Underpass

When I visited the Wishon Avenue Underpass I attempted to replicate the position of the photo (the vintage black and white below) posted by the California Landmark Foundation which was apparently taken on 2/25/1939.  The streetcar in the vintage photo is Car #89 heading southbound towards downtown.



For comparison sake a monochrome version of the modern photo shows the Wishon Avenue Underpass has had virtually no structural changes since 1939.


At the 1700 block of South Cherry Avenue just along the turn US 99 took onto Broadway is the wreckage of two Fresno Traction Company streetcars which burned in 2013.





The larger car is a somewhat rare step-less Dragon Car which operated typically on weekends that had a low clearance of 7 inches.  The smaller car is the typical Birney Model that operated on Fresno Traction Company lines.  The Dragon Car was hauled to the site in 1935 and became the Standard Diner.  It isn't clear if the second car was hauled in at the same time or at a later date.  The Standard Diner became Trolley Car Carole's in 1968 which continued to operate for couple more decades.  the Fresno Bee reported in 2013 that Trolley Car Carole's had burned down.

historicfresno.org Standard Diner 

Below is a picture of Standard Diner when it was in operation.


The 1909 Fresno Street Subway still appears as much as it did at the peak of Streetcar Service.  Note; the second photo below was taken sometime between late 1934 and 1939.  I know this to be the case due to the CA 41 shield which is posted on Fresno Street facing eastbound.  CA 41 and CA 180 would have multiplexed on Fresno Street on their initial alignments.  The 1909 Fresno Street Subway has been modernized with much of the pedestrian features removed in modern times.



Some of the other vintage photos I found browsing online are below.  The first picture is of Car #72 which appears to have been in service primarily on McKenzie Avenue.  I'm not certain but the underpass in the background might be on Fresno Street under the Southern Pacific Freight Line.


The photo below is of Car #88 which clearly displays "Fulton" on the front.


This photo below is of a car house at some point between 1901 and 1903 when streetcar service was operated under the banner of the "Fresno City Railway Company."


This picture below is of Car #62 on Fulton Street.  Car #62 is displaying "Blackstone" on it's front side.


This photo is of Fulton Street at Kern Street looking northbound from the center of the streetcar lines.




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