Issaquah Valley Trolley is back on track, poised to return
August 14, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Quietly, after a decadeslong coal and timber boom fueled expansion, passenger rail service to Issaquah ceased 90 years ago.
For the past dozen years, streetcar enthusiasts toiled in a sometimes-frustrating effort to re-create the experience of riding through Issaquah by rail on a refurbished 1925 trolley car. The stop-and-go process to establish regular trolley service in downtown Issaquah is nearing a significant milestone, backers said, as crews renovate a historic streetcar for service.
In March, Issaquah Valley Trolley Project organizers celebrated as the 87-year-old streetcar departed Issaquah for Ida Grove, Iowa, and the Gomaco Trolley Co. — a streetcar manufacturer and restorer.
The streetcar is expected to return to Issaquah in late August or early September and conduct training runs from the Issaquah Train Depot. Organizers intend to start regular trolley service along a stretch of downtown track on weekends in October, after the Salmon Days Festival.
Barb Justice, grants coordinator for the nonprofit trolley project, and city Transportation Manager Gary Costa traveled to Ida Grove in late June to see the $744,700 restoration effort up close.
In Ida Grove, trolley project organizers encountered a dismantled car as crews prepared to install updated electrical and hydraulic systems. The team at the shop had already installed a fiberglass roof and steel-reinforced under-frame. The streetcar is also due to receive fresh coats of cream and red paint.
The effort remade the trolley “from the wheels up — including the wheels,” Justice told City Council members Aug. 6.
“I thought the thrill I got when they took it away was as a good of a thrill as I would get, but it was unbelievable,” she said in a separate interview. “Even though they had been sending pictures and all, just to see it there in the plant, it was quite amazing.”
How to help
Issaquah Valley Trolley Project leaders need additional members for the volunteer organization. Organizers need streetcar operators, conductors, mechanics, volunteer coordinators, website managers, fundraisers, event planners and more. Call 391-8186 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about volunteer opportunities.
Iowa homecoming for project organizer
Supporters cobbled together donations, grants and lodging tax revenue to restore the track and streetcar.
The city acts as the certified acceptance agency, or administrator, for federal grants attached to the project and trolley project contracts require City Council approval.
“It’s been a good partnership,” trolley project Chairwoman Jean Cerar told council members Aug. 6. “It’s going to be a fun ride, and we hope you’ll join us.”
The city spent $926.10 to send Costa to Iowa and intends to recoup the cost after the trolley program reimburses the city for project costs.
“It’s moving along pretty well,” Costa said in a recent interview. “It looks pretty good.”
Justice flew into Cedar Rapids to visit family and then drove west across the Hawkeye State to Ida Grove, population 2,142. The trip represented a homecoming of sorts for Justice. The longtime Klahanie resident grew up about 100 miles from Ida Grove and attended classes at Iowa State University in Ames.
Once refurbishment is complete, crews plan to load the streetcar onto a flatbed trailer for a journey across the Missouri River, Midwestern prairies and the Cascades along Interstate 90 to Issaquah.
Plans call for the streetcar to run from the Issaquah Train Depot to the bridge across the East Fork of Issaquah Creek at Darigold, and then back to the historic depot.
“We will give them a feeling of what it was like back then and to show them that rail was very important and that it’s still very important — that we need a mixture of transportation,” Justice said.
Timbers on the bridge across the East Fork need replacing before the streetcar can head farther north, but Justice said the structure is safe.
“Hopefully, there’s enough money left in our kitty that we can get that done this fall, but it may be next spring,” she added.
Supporters characterize the trolley as a transit project, but others said the effort is better described as a tourist attraction.
The trolley, as a tourist attraction, could act as a magnet for streetcar enthusiasts from around the globe.
“It also brings visitors from far and wide,” Justice said. “When the publicity gets out there, people come from all over the world.”
Streetcar project rolls down long track
Issaquah History Museums Executive Director Erica Maniez said the streetcar could act as a gateway to interest riders in local history.
“We’re hoping that the trolley helps people discover other, hidden parts of Issaquah’s history — or at least so far hidden to them,” she said.
Organizers plan to display the streetcar during Salmon Days, but do not plan to conduct trips during the festival due to the large crowds along the track.
Trolley organizers inherited a pair of cars from Aspen, Colo., in late 2002 and early 2003. Car No. 519, a relic from Aspen, is the vehicle in the Gomaco Trolley Co. shop.
The streetcars ran on streets in Lisbon, Portugal, for decades until trolley enthusiasts in Aspen imported the vehicles in the late 1970s for a proposed downtown line. Plans for the line languished, however, and the streetcars deteriorated for years in outdoor storage.
In November 2002, Aspen voters rejected a ballot measure to establish a trolley line, and city leaders offered the trolleys to interested communities, including Issaquah.
Once in Issaquah, the unused trolleys awaited restoration in a downtown barn for years, until organizers selected contractors.
(The trolley project also received a 1930s trolley car from San Francisco in 2003.)
Gomaco Trolley Co. is the latest contractor selected to undertake the Issaquah streetcar refurbishment.
In March 2011, City Council members awarded the restoration contract to Mukilteo-based Advanced Construction, but the company later defaulted on the contract. The city then negotiated a settlement to release Advanced Construction and select the next-lowest bidder, Gomaco.
“We were so lucky to have them be able to do the work for us, because they’re so caring,” Justice said.