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El Paso Trolley First to Connect Two Nations
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Manny Gallardo, Sandra L. Dominguez and Arturo Guerra
Today the Border Jumper leaves the El Paso Convention Center on Santa Fe Street hourly for a trip across the border into Ciudad Juárez. The red and green simulated streetcar with rubber tires is a novelty in El Paso, used as much for entertainment as it is for transportation.
Trolley in the 1950's provided 10 cent tour of two cities in two nations. Photo courtesy of Border Heritage Center El Paso Public Library
In the 1960s when authentic trolleys still cruised the streets, 96 percent of the users were commuters, not tourists. Trolleys were a major mode of transportation, delivering people -- old and young - - to work, school, shopping or to Juárez.
Trolley systems have an extensive history in this nation. Before 1902, horses pulled the trolley through the streets. By 1886, the nation had 525 railways in 300 cities and towns, all powered by horses or mules. The horse-powered trolleys carried passengers, mail, small livestock and building materials.
In San Francisco, a man by the name of Samuel S. Hallidie worried about the hard labor that the horses performed. He felt that there must be a better way to provide transportation. Hallidie thought of using underground cables to pull or move the street cars, and he and his partners put up $50,000 to manufacture the cable system. At 5 a.m. on August 1, 1837, the first cable car rode through the streets of San Francisco.
El Paso had a trolley system from 1882 until the early 1970s. It was a unique system which transported people not only across town, but also from one country to another. Streetcar lines existed between El Paso and Juárez for more than 70 years.
Some El Pasoans might remember stories about Mandy the mule who pulled a trolley across a wooden international bridge into Juárez. Mandy lost this job in 1902 when the new electric cars were put into service.
The first El Paso-Juárez trolley run was made on January 11, 1902, at 11 a.m. The electric car rode out of Pioneer Plaza and over the Stanton International Bridge, making El Paso the first city in the world to operate trolleys between two countries. That day Mandy was placed on a cart at the rear of the electric car, and along with a 12-piece band and 35 guests, took an hour's trip to Juárez to celebrate the special occasion.
In the early 1900s, when automobiles were still relatively scarce, locals and tourists usually rode the streetcars when they wanted to go from one point to another. The trolley was an economical and easily accessible means of transportation. The use of El Paso streetcars was at its peak during the late 1920s, carrying passengers to all areas of the city, including Fort Bliss, Government Hill, Highland Park, the Second Ward and, of course, Juárez. The Ysleta Interurban line connected El Paso and Ysleta from 1913 to 1925.
O. C. Crismon brought the first buses to El Paso as a tourist attraction in 1911. The buses ran about 15 mph and held 14 passengers. The first buses to replace trolley lines came in 1925, replacing the Ysleta line first. By 1940, only the Fort Bliss, Highland Park, and Juárez car lines were still in service.
But the streetcars themselves had numerous problems that affected their operation. Electrical malfunctions that caused circuits to overload would stop the cars suddenly, causing people to fall on the floor and on each other. Early open-air trolleys posed danger for their passengers, especially when the cars stopped abruptly. In 1902, a law was passed in Texas prohibiting open street cars, and the cars were remodeled, allowing the customers to enter and exist from only one side.
During the 1950s, passengers could still board the street-cars in Juárez for one and a half cents (15 centavos); the fare was only 10 cents when boarding in El Paso. Martha Contreras, a former trolley user and Juárez resident, said, "When I went shopping in El Paso, I went on the trolley. I would board on the Avenida 16 de Septiembre and would get off at the downtown plaza."
The City Lines obtained a 5-cent reboarding fare on the El Paso side of the Santa Fe Bridge in 1963, but in 1967 when the Chamizal land transfer moved the border closer to downtown El Paso, fewer people reboarded, preferring to walk.
Mrs. Consuelo Gallardo, who lived in El Paso during the 1960s, recalls, "It would only cost 10 cents and it was safe and dependable. I would go to Juárez and do some shopping where most of the merchandise was inexpensive. The trolley was like my first automobile. It helped me to get around."
The decade of the 1960s was the beginning of the end of an era for the trolley as a landmark and visual link to the past. The line's financial difficulties, traffic congestion and rumors of the toll being raised all spelled doom for the streetcar. Moreover, automobiles had become less expensive and more popular than any other means of personal transportation. People lost interest in buying trolley tokens with the hole in the middle, a novelty up to this time.
Christina Dominguez, a teen-ager in the 1960s, remembers using the trolley frequently to go and visit her mother in Juárez. She recalls the tokens were sold at downtown stores in El Paso. Dominguez says the trolleys were comfortable and had plenty of room and a wide aisle. She likes the fact that El Paso still has the semblance of a trolley with the Border Jumper, although she says, "It makes me feel very 'viejita' (like an old lady) to know that I used to ride on something that is now being preserved and is part of a tour."
In September of 1964, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement to rebuild the bridge, causing the trolleys to suspend operations and forcing customers to use buses instead. Transportation by trolley resumed on Thanksgiving day in 1967.
A city audit in 1968 showed that the Juárez streetcar line budgeted $50,400 for the trolley system while it earned only $42,400 in revenues. The El Paso side earned $319,200 in revenues during this same period.
In the 1970s, officials from both cities met because Juárez merchants wanted the route to end, arguing that only the El Paso stores benefited. They said that the trolley was taking more Mexicans to El Paso than it was Americans to Juárez. In 1971, the Juárez line was delivering 10,000 to 12,000 people a day, and doing it for the cheapest fare in the United States. By March of 1974, the Mexican government canceled all trolleys from going into Juárez.
On September 4, 1974, the last trolley run was made at 6 p.m. Operations stopped and buses took over. The trolleys were moved next to the airport to sit and rust.
The Border Jumper, resembling an old trolley, travels over the freeway and city streets and is a major tour bus service which caters directly to tourists and hotels. The trolley takes locals and visitors along El Paso's Mission Trail, into Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario. During Christmas, the Border Jumper travels on nightly holiday tours. The trolley is also available for chartering and taking people to McKelligon Canyon for "Viva! El Paso," the story of El Paso told through song and dance.
So, while the old days of cable cars will probably never return to El Paso, visitors and natives alike can still tour two cities in two nations in the modern trolley.