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Paper Trail 2.1 (Agincourt Street Railway Co.)


The NITC enterprise was an easy story to tell, since I’ve had such a long-term love affair with the interurban phenomenon. I was a teenager when the old Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee made its last run and recall the wave of nostalgia that overcame me when I did a Chicago-to-Waukegan round trip during its last week of service. Somehow I was keenly aware that an era was passing. And how strange that I should have lived long enough to witness its return.

[This is going to sound very strange, but I actually got verklempt at the first sighting of the Minneapolis light rail one afternoon as a train passed the city-county buildings on its way to the warehouse district.]

That being said, the door was open to a likely NITC predecessor: an Agincourt street railway—i.e., trolley. There was often a parent-child or sibling relationship between such public utilities, and with the power companies that supplied them. I expect that Howard will have something to say.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Sick Transit, Gloria

Budget cuts and evaporating subsidies—remember those?—are changing the face of America. But the folks who call these shots aren’t likely to be inconvenienced by them, especially concerning public transit. Let’s face it: the odds of being run over by a HumVee are much higher than being sideswiped by a bus.

I stumbled—almost literally—over a piece of local history yesterday, a paving project on Fifth Street NE. Three blocks of asphalt pavement have been removed, revealing some of the city’s last 19th century brick pavers and, unexpectedly, remnants of our old street railway. I’m old, but not old enough to have ridden on those rails; the last trolley made its irregular figure 8 about the time I was born. A quick trip to the Fennimore County History Center provides a basic outline of public transit in Agincourt.

It seems there have been two transit lines in Agincourt: an abbreviated horse-drawn line in the early 1880s and a larger electrified system that opened in 1898. The horsecars ran on Broad Street from the Milwaukee Road depot through downtown to Fifth Avenue North (now Ralph Avenue), then turned west to the County Fairgrounds. At 5¢ a ride, the company barely broke even. Any money saved on an economic road bed, however, was spent several times over on the line’s endless expensive repairs. Someone should have given them a cross-stitched sample for Christmas: “A stitch in time saves nine.”

Fourteen years later, the Agincourt Street Railway Company’s stockholders were young enough to have ridden the old horsecars and recalled their endless delays and interruptions. So this stock company built for the ages—witness a substantial hunk of track that is still in place a hundred and twelve years later.

The route negotiated in 1898 is curious, avoiding several of the densest business blocks and largest concentrations of big houses. The latter is no surprise, though, considering the memories of horse poop and the fear of metal-on-metal noise and inconvenient times. What we got for its first ten years was an irregular loop pressing the city limits on the east and north. Introduction of the interurban line in 1909 added a smaller loop on the southwest side and allowed service to the industrial sector. During the 1920s and even into the Depression Era, we had become a community of commuters.

Establishment of the Normal School in 1919 fit neatly into the company’s long term goals. By the late 20s, seventy-five percent of Agincourt’s residents lived and worked within two blocks of a trolley stop. But by the late 40s a national conspiracy of auto manufacturers (Henry Ford), tire companies (Goodyear and Goodrich) and petrochemicals (Rockefeller) effectively put trollies and interurbans out of business. And most of the rails were dug up and recycled as the tanks, planes and jeeps that won the Second World War.

How’d they miss those blocks on Fifth Street?

Howard’s allegation in the last paragraph is all too true. Some times they really are out to get you.

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