oak cliff streetcar

Streetcars return to Bishop Arts at the 60th anniversary of their demise

The new Oak Cliff streetcar rolled into the Bishop Arts District in the fall of 2016.

One could call it a second coming of a transportation network that served Dallas for 84 years.

In its heyday, the old Dallas streetcar system connected Highland Park, North Dallas, East Dallas, South Dallas, Downtown and Oak Cliff. The Oak Cliff to Downtown line was the last to survive, closing in 1956.

The original system began with mule-drawn cars in 1872, when Dallas was a dusty little village with wooden sidewalks and a creek running down Main Street.

The first car, painted yellow and white, was purchased by Capt. George M. Swink and was pulled by the Swink family’s white carriage horse, Sam. Eventually, Swink and his 19 partners (each had invested $500) installed two cars, the Belle Swink, named for his eldest daughter; and the John Neely Bryan, named for the founder of Dallas, who was still alive at the time.

By 1886 the system had 18 mules and nine cars. The following year, the streetcar system upgraded when a group of Oak Cliff businessmen started the Dallas-Oak Cliff Steam Railway, which ran down Jefferson and across the river via the Tenth Street Bottoms.

Electric cars came just two years later.

The Sunset Hampton-Second Junius line traveled from Peak and Elm through downtown to Oak Cliff then along Jefferson past Sunset High School almost to Cockrell Hill Road. It was the last to operate.

Buses dominate

More than 300 streetcars were running in Dallas by 1936, but that’s also the year that bus service began. Although the first buses were uncomfortable and noisy, bus service outnumbered streetcars by the 1950s.

The Dallas Transit Co. bought 55 new buses for $1.25 million in 1956, adding to its nearly 400-bus fleet.

The transit company’s vice president, George I. Plummer, told the Dallas Morning News in January 1956: “I wouldn’t trade one of our new luxury diesel-powered, foam-rubber seat, air-ride suspension buses for a whole fleet of streetcars, and neither would any man who has made the comparison.”

The voice of newspaper writers at the time leaned in favor of buses over streetcars, but there were a few letters to the editor warning that Dallas would regret closing the streetcars when buses “hog the streets” and cause accidents. The Morning News also interviewed 90-year-old Irene Swink, the daughter of the original streetcar’s founder. Swink lived at 5803 Lewis in East Dallas. A streetcar had run down Matilda and turned on Lewis toward Greenville Avenue until around 1950.

dallas streetcar

“The passing of the streetcars? I don’t like it,” Swink told the newspaper. “I’ve ridden the bus, and I don’t like it. It’s a mistake!”

A 30-year-old streetcar led a parade of 44 brand-new buses from Oak Cliff to the car barn at Elm and Peak as a ceremonial last hurrah in January 1956. The car was filled with old-timers who had been motormen in the heyday of streetcars, as well as then-mayor, Robert L. Thornton, according to news reports. John W. Carpenter, then the 75-year-old president of the Southland Life Insurance Co., also showed up in a limo for the parade. He told the news he had served as a motorman in Corsicana as a young man.

The streetcar ceased service at 2 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, 1956, but demand was so high for nostalgic rides that the company ran it back and forth across the Oak Cliff Viaduct later that day, giving four hours of free rides.

Cars scrapped

The transit company disassembled and scrapped the streetcars for $100-$150 each. Only one was spared, and it was entered into a raffle. The winner was 20-year-old Bobby Sliger of Cedar Hill, who was a messenger at the Oak Cliff Bank & Trust. He and his buddy, 18-year-old Joe Woods of Oak Cliff, had mimeographed their names onto entry blanks because the rules allowed for entering as many times as you wanted.

Sliger told the news he had no idea what to do with the 48-foot car, but he supposed he and Woods would sell it and split the money.

The old Dallas streetcar served the workers, errand-runners and adventure-seekers of Dallas for 84 years. When the Oak Cliff streetcar line to Bishop Arts opens this fall, 60 years after the end of the last line, it will run about 2 miles from downtown to Methodist Dallas Medical Center, with plans to expand it from Union Station to the convention center and eventually, Uptown.

But imagine it as that yellow-and-white car pulled by Sam the white carriage horse. This is just the beginning, again.