The Denver streetcar returns

Preservation, city officials work to restore historic trolley


While major changes are being to Denver across the board, smaller pieces of the city’s history are uncovered in the construction.

When the pavement is stripped on busy roadways, glimpses of the old streetcar line that dominated Denver during much of its early days can sometimes be found. They paint a picture of a bustling and growing city not unlike what you’ll find today.

“If you look, there’s remnants everywhere,” said Kim Grant, director of the Endangered Places program of Colorado Preservation Inc. One example, he said, is the downtown REI building, which used to be the power plant for the Denver Tramway Company, one of the trolley systems.

Although the streetcars shut down as the main way of transportation in 1950, several organizations and metro area residents are working to preserve their history.

Last month, Colorado Preservation, Inc. and Friends of the .04 Trolley held an event on Aug. 22 to raise funds for their restoration efforts of the last trolley to run from Denver to Arvada. The .04 is the streetcar model of this specific trolley.

“This was the last car to ever run through Arvada,” said Walter Weart, president of Friends of the .04. “We have documentation that showed it arrived on July 2nd after midnight when the other cars quit the day before.”

Weart bought the streetcar 15 years ago. He and his wife Susanna had spent the last several years renovating street and train cars, including a caboose. But the Wearts’ restoration efforts fell through, and since then it’s been sitting in storage.

During the event, members of Arvada City Council and the Friends of the .04 took a ride the on the Denver Trolley, run by the Denver Tramway Heritage Society, a nonprofit that also works to preserve the history of the streetcar line.

To Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, president of the board of the tramway society, the streetcars give you an idea of what life was like in Denver’s earliest days.

“It was a city that was built on rail,” he said.

The Denver Trolley runs along the Platte River, stopping at locations such as the Downtown Aquarium and the Children’s Museum. It follows an old bypass track that national trains could use when the rail traffic in Denver was heavy.

Restoring the .04

Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Endangered Places program focuses on saving historic buildings and resources like the streetcar, said Grant. Since it was founded, the department has saved 47 sites and has an additional 44 on its “in progress” list. The Weart’s trolley was first put on the preservation list in 2015.

“These are the kind of sites and resources that tell the story of Colorado’s development,” Grant said. He added that the streetcar presented more of a challenge to the organization since it was once a vehicle and not a building. Finding people to restore a historic item like that can also be tricky.

Susanna Weart said they also worked to get the car put on the state’s register of historic places. The Friends of the .04 would also like to have it put on the national list.

Grant was working for the city of Arvada in 2014 when the Wearts started to bring people together to restore the car. Several people joined together to form the Friends of the .04.

Staff at the city of Arvada wrote and received a State Historical Fund grant for $200,000. The groups are trying to raise an additional $200,000 for the project through events and a GoFundMe page.

Grant estimated that it will take eight months to restore the streetcar. Once it is completed it will be put on display somewhere in Old Towne Arvada. Grant said a final place has not been decided on, but most groups are hopeful it will be in an area where the streetcar tracks used to bring the trolleys in from Denver.

“Until the ‘30s, that was the main way to get from downtown Denver to Arvada, and back,” Grant said.

Streetcar history

The streetcar system started with horse-drawn trolleys in the 1872. Then, the system was converted to the more modern electric car. Some, like the Denver Trolley that runs by the Platte River downtown, ran on an electric-diesel engine.

For Ryan Keeney, the streetcar become an obsession. Keeny said he had always been interested in land use and how it was used for transportation. While working toward his master’s in Geographic Information Systems at the University of Denver, a professor suggested Keeney look into the streetcars.

The suggestion became a capstone project: an in-depth map of the streetcar system that eventually grew to all of Denver and reached out to the suburbs. The streetcar system eventually had 250 miles of track and around 100 trolleys.

To Keeney, the streetcar system’s legacy is the Regional Transportation District. Denver Tramway Corporation continued to run the city’s transit system after the streetcars were discontinued in 1950. The organization ceased operations 21 years later, when the city took over under the name Denver Metro Transit. Voters approved the creation of RTD in 1974.

The expansion of the trolley lines built entire neighborhoods in the city, Keeney said, calling them “micro-transportation districts.” Yazzie-Mintz agreed, adding that the expansion into the suburbs allowed people to live out there and still get into the city for work.

The Denver Tramway Heritage Society has been trying to expand its footprint in Denver. For many of its 31 years, the trolley only ran on weekends and was run almost entirely by volunteers. About five years ago, the nonprofit expanded its trolley services to five days a week during the summer season, Yazzie-Mintz said. They also added a seasonal staff.

The organization received a little more funding this year as well. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which provides grants to nonprofits around the state through tax funds, upped Denver Tramway Heritage Society’s grant from $8,000 to $11,000 this year, Yazzie-Mintz said.

Those funds mostly go back into the trolleys, he added. Recently, the company had to rewind its trolley’s engine, which cost around $30,000. Parts for the historic cars can also be hard to find.

“There’s no AAA for trolleys,” Yazzie-Mintz joked.

But keeping the history alive is important. Yazzie-Mintz said that many of the volunteers that kept the Denver Trolley going was due to their passion for the streetcar system. The trolleys give you “a sense of the history of the city,” he added.

With the city investing in new light rail systems, Yazzie-Mintz said it’s interesting to see the state going back to train tracks. The trolleys were the transportation of Denver’s past, but the still seem to influence the future, he said.

“This trolley really bridges that.”


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