In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, street cars were a significant mode of public transportation in the Eau Claire area. Early street cars in Eau Claire were drawn by horses or mules. Later cars were conveyed by an electrical current from an overhead wire, which the street car connected to by connector bar.
In the mid-19th century, animal-drawn street cars served as a replacement for omnibuses, which were essentially horse-drawn carts with enough space for many passengers. Street cars pulled on rails proved to be more efficient than the old omnibuses; the small metal wheels of the street car offered less rolling resistance and, thus, allowed the draft animals to haul heavier loads with less effort. The introduction of electric street cars eliminated the large stables and cost of maintaining a large number of animals.
At its peak, Eau Claire once hosted about 12 ½ miles of city rail. The rail system also connected neighboring cities and towns. In 1898, a line was extended to Lake Hallie (then Lafayette) and on to Chippewa Falls. In 1914, a service line connected Eau Claire to Altoona. Altogether, these additional interurban lines added another 12 ½ miles of track.
In its five decades of operation, the Eau Claire rail system was managed under various companies and titles. It was sold at least six times and never owned by any single individual or firm for much more than a decade. Perhaps the most famous owners of the railway were a group of wealthy businessmen well known in the Eau Claire area. Between 1905 and 1914, lumbermen Orin Ingram and John Owen, and long-time Eau Claire businessman Byron Buffington, managed the street car system under the Eau Claire Railway and Light Company.
Table of contents
Street Car History
Early Street Cars
The city of Eau Claire first considered the possibility of building a street railway in 1877. That same year, the city council granted Amasa E. Swift, a Midwestern businessman, and associates a 30-year charter to operate the city railway. A year later, Swift and his partners organized the Eau Claire City Railway Company.
The company laid tracks throughout Eau Claire, and the first regular service in city began on December 11, 1879 in the Shawtown neighborhood. A week later, the Eau Claire City Railway Company officially celebrated the completion of the rail system by organizing a free trip over the entire line for dozens of prominent Eau Claire citizens. According to The Daily Free Press, Eau Claire was only the third city in the state to adopt street car service.
The original rail system in Eau Claire, finished in 1879, extended from a depot on Omaha Street westward to Shawtown, with a half-mile track extending from East Grand Avenue (then Kelsey Street) down South Barstow Street, although the city augmented this system with new extensions over time.
Early street cars were pulled by team of animals. Two-horse teams were used when weather was good or loads were light. In winter, however, it sometimes took teams of up to six horses to pull the cars through heavy snow. Mules were sometimes used instead of horses, which some residents found a humorous sight. As a local reporter put it, seeing these “dwarfish creatures tugging away at a car reminds one of a rat with his tail caught in a bear trap trying to pill out his difficulty.”
Moved by Lightening
In October 1889, the first electric-powered rail car was introduced in Eau Claire in the Shawtown neighborhood, and a large crowd gathered to watch. A local reporter observed that “a stranger who did not know that the first trip of a car over the new electric street railway was taking place would have thought that it was a circus day. The sidewalks along the line of the track were filled with people, all anxious to see the new car go ‘by lightening.’ ”
The transition to electric propulsion was a progressive move by the City of Eau Claire. According to Robert E. Epp, author of Chippewa Valley Electric Railway Company, Eau Claire was only the fourth city in the entire United States to employ electric street cars.
Yet not everyone applauded the new electric rail system. The local telephone company alleged the new street cars produced a noise in some telephones that practically rendered them useless. Some people complained the new electric cars jerked passengers much more than the older mule-drawn carts had. Also, street cars occasionally collided with carriages, and the sound of the electric cars sometimes spooked horses into running away with their loads.
Nevertheless, the new street cars proved to be an immediate success. Ridership jumped by more than 40 percent and the third ward line – which the rail company had previously operated at a loss – now turned a profit.
In the summer of 1908, Electric Park was created by the Chippewa Valley’s Electric Railways Light and Power Company in Lake Hallie. Like other electric parks created by by rail and power companies across the country, the park at Lake Hallie featured amusement park rides and an outdoor movie theater – attractions designed to increase street car usage.
Despite its earlier success, however, streetcar ridership began to decline in the 1910s and by the 1920s, Eau Claire’s street car system was in poor financial health. A number of factors contributed to this situation, including the increased use of personal automobiles (the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908) and the start up of the Motor Bus Company in Chippewa Falls, which competed with the rail for service to and from surrounding communities.
In 1922, the Northern States Power Company, then the owner of the Eau Claire-area street car system, increased service hours in a bid to entice more riders to use the system. Much to the company’s displeasure, patronage actually decreased.
In 1924, Northern States conducted a traffic study in an effort to determine how to reverse growing losses. The study concluded that discontinuing interurban service was the answer; the company ended the service in August of 1926.
Street car service within Eau Claire continued, but not for long. Beginning in 1931, motor buses began replacing street cars. Finally, on the evening of April 9, 1932, the street car made its final round in Eau Claire.
“After more than half a century of operation,” the Eau Claire Leader reported the following morning, “…the raucous sound of the street car was stilled here yesterday, and in its places was heard the powerful but muffled purr of the big motor busses which now exclusively constitute the transportation system operated here by the Northern States Power Co.”
In 1999, long-time Eau Claire resident Lois Austin, then age 84, recalled that “lurching buses took the place of the streetcar’s solid and dignified ride and then all of the motor cars arrived.”
Today, a park shelter at Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls is the last intact vestige of 25 miles of street car rail.
''“Completed.” Daily Free Press. December 18, 1879. Giffey, Tom. “A Clang with a Bang” Leader Telegram. August 5, 2001. History of Northern Wisconsin. Chicago: The Western Historical Company. 1881 “Fist Through Car.” Eau Claire Free Press. October 31, 1889 “Telephone Service.” Daily Free Press. November 6, 1889. “The New Street Cars.” Daily Free Press. November 11, 1889. “Seen on the Street Cars.” Daily Free Press. November 14, 1889. “Electric Park at Lake Halllie.” Eau Claire Leader. January 4, 1908. Austin, Lois. “The Yellow Street Car.” Eau Claire County Senior Review. June 1999. “Street Cars Abandoned After 52 Years Service” Eau Claire Leader. April 10, 1932. Epp., Robert E. “Interurban Electric Railway Study: Chippewa Valley Electric Railway Company,” An independent study with Prof. Raymond E. Specht, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, 1965.''
“It was in the early twenties and, as a promotion to get people to ride the trolley car to the park, free movies were shown Sunday night. We sat on wooden benches in tall grass which was wet with dew by the time the film got rolling. The pictures were projected on to a white plaster screen. The projection room was on the second floor of a square tower in the back of the benches. We waited for dusk to come. The bats flew around the front of the screen. Then, the magic began.” — Lois Austin, 1999, remembering Electric Park near Lake Hallie.