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Early Denver Street Car Lines


January 2, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

During the late nineteenth century, cities found themselves dealing with growing urban populations and how to transport them. At first, private companies formed to provide transportation services, using rail tracks, rail cars, and horses and mules. The Denver Horse Railroad Company began service on December 17, 1871, with a line from 7th and Larimer Streets to 27th and Champa Streets (which was open prairie at the time). The fare was ten cents and it was regulated by the Colorado Territorial legislature, which issued the franchise for the company.

As a result of this early line, the city spread. Curtis Park, the city’s first public park, was created at the end of the line. Once prominent businessmen began to build homes near it, the new area developed rapidly. Fashionable development was then expected to occur to the northeast of Curtis Park but wealthier citizens bulked when immigrants began to populate the area across the tracks and instead built their homes to the south and east. The original Curtis Park area was absorbed by the larger Five Points neighborhood. Due to proactive preservation efforts in the last part of the twentieth century, the Curtis Park area resurged. Many of the other early street car line neighborhoods followed suit: Five Points, Highland, Jefferson Park, Auraria, Baker, and Capitol Hill among them.

As the community grew, so did the amount of track and number of companies. Nearly every Denver neighborhood had its own streetcar line. Nearly all of the early companies continued to use “horse-power” although some took advantage of gravity on downhill areas. By 1884, there were more than 15 miles of passenger track in Denver and 45 passenger cars. By this time, several small companies were began experimenting with electric cable cars.

Electricity caught on rapidly, though it took a few years to work out the practical applications. The Denver Tramway Company was formed in 1886 by John Evans, William Byers, and other investors. The new electric cable cars used ground-level wiring for a sort time. Passengers had to step over electric cabling which resulted in shocks. Costumer complaints prompted them to switch to overhead electricity for the trolleys soon thereafter.

In 1888, the Denver City Cable Rail Way Company incorporated. Its powerhouse, maintenance facility and car barn was located at 18th Street, between Larimer and Lawrence Streets. The building opened in 1889 and now houses the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The multiple small companies were consolidated into the Denver Tramway Company in 1899 with160 route miles. The company operated until April, 1971 when its bus operation was sold to the City of Denver, becoming Denver Metro Transit. It became part of the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in 1974.

Many long-time Denver residents have fond memories of riding the last of the streetcars. For many years, the Cherrelyn car continued to operate as the sole remaining part of the horse-drawn car system. It ran a short route on South Broadway. Others may have memories of the original wooden Larimer Street viaduct.

Over the years, these transportation companies made it possible for the Denver metro area to grow with new neighborhoods and suburbs developing. In fact, Highland grew to a population of 5,000 before it was annexed by Denver in 1890. These residential areas allowed people to live in one area and to work in another as well as to travel across town to participate in recreational activities and attend amusement parks such as Elitch Gardens.


Please join me next week as I explore Mary Elitch and the first years of Eltich’s Gardens’ operation. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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