| NO RICE-A-RONI NEEDED
By Forest Riggs
Unlike New Orleans or San Francisco, in Galveston, you won’t find any streetcar named “Desire” or hear the clanging bells of vintage cars laboring to get up and down steep hills. What you will find, however, is a great Island adventure — one that is inexpensive, fun and sure to put a smile on the face of riders and observers alike.
‘Clang-clang-clang went the trolley…’
Quaint Galveston Island, so steeped in a magical charm that is coupled with a colorful past, has a long history of providing residents and visitors with various forms of public transportation. Starting in 1867, when the island was beginning to grow and businesses were expanding in and around the busy harbor and port, large wagons were pulled by mules and carried paying riders through the muddy streets to their destinations. These mule routes traversed the city and made several designated stops along the way. Between the mud that followed heavy rains and the manure that came from the horses and mules, the trip was not very pleasant and offered little comfort.
Thank you, Thomas Edison
In 1891, as an evolving commerce center, Galveston with its growing population was determined to keep up with other major cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Electricity and the utilization of harnessed power were still pretty new, especially as far as using the “newfangled invention” to make life easier and many tasks less laborious. The cars ran on electricity supplied by wires that stretched above the routes. Long metal poles (conductors) ran from atop the cars to the sparking lines supplying power. These trolleys were popular in major cities, especially those with bustling commerce and a population that needed better means of transportation. The electric-powered trolleys remained in service on the island until 1938.
Making way to clear the streets of clutter (horses and mules were gone, save an ice or milk wagon), the trolley routes were disappearing and fast. The world was changing fast. Taxicabs were all the rage and the island, like most cities, counted on the cars to transport paying riders. Cabs were considered “higher class” rides as opposed to piling on a rambling and less private trolley car.
Cabs remained the ticket and are still used by many today, however, Uber and rideshares have put a dent in the taxicab business. Thanks to wealthy Galveston son and visionary George Mitchell, as well as other island entities that were working to save and restore historic Galveston, consideration of downtown transportation, became a passionate project. Somewhere along the way, the thought of returning streetcars or trolleys to the island blossomed into a pregnant idea. Galveston Island Transit welcomed the addition of the “cool” looking trolley cars and managing their operation.
The City of Galveston purchased four electric-diesel streetcars that would once again ramble around the downtown and Seawall areas. The cars were made to resemble the original trolley cars and to appeal to tourists and locals. Streets were closed and tracks were laid in routes that would provide inexpensive transportation to aid in the rapidly booming tourist industry. The colorful cars, complete with advertising panels, became a fun and common site around the island. Locals and visitors enjoyed the views and ease with which to get around the island.
‘Wey hey, blow the man down…’
All was great until September 8, 2008. Hurricane Ike struck the island and did so with tremendous force and, in some places, brought a 12-foot wall of water resulting from storm surge and backed-up bay water. The high water covered everything in its path and when retreated, left foul-smelling, mud-covered structures all over the island. The beautiful trolley cars were ruined; all four had been submerged underwater and left wrapped in salty, stinky mud.
‘Throw out the lifeline…’
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Transit Authority agreed to fund the cleaning, repair, and restoration of the seemingly destroyed streetcars. Originally three cars were to be restored to the cost of $3.8 million. The damaged cars would be loaded and taken to Gomaco Trolley Company, located in Ida Grove, Iowa. Originally manufactured by Miner Railcar Pennsylvania, the cars would remain at Gomaco until fully restored. What was planned to be a few years of repair and restoration turned into a much longer undertaking.
While the cars were being restored, the City of Galveston purchased four rubber-wheeled streetcars to expand the downtown trolley routes. The diesel-powered cars were well received and connected the east end with the west. Numerous stops were created along the new routes returned to the streets of Galveston, greatly increasing one’s ability to get around the island without having to drive or walk.
Thirteen years after Ike had destroyed the cars, on October 1, 2021, the refurbished beauties returned to the tracks of Galveston. Much fanfare and celebration welcomed the shiny, restored cars, again showing the resiliency and determination to rise from the ashes that so represents the spirit and soul of Galveston. The rubber-wheeled cars remain a fun and well-utilized asset for the island.
The fare to ride the Galveston Island Transit system cars is $1.00 and includes transfers. Accompanied minors ride free. The cars run seven days a week, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The historic downtown route includes seven stops as well as points along the seawall. The cars have an 80-person capacity, 40 standing, and 40 sitting; ample seating is usually available. The 63,000-pound diesel-electric powered cars travel at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour.
What a treat! Whether resident or visitor, Galveston Island Trolley cars are a fun and charming way to ramble through the downtown shopping area or pass through historic neighborhoods taking in the architectural beauties that line the route. “Ding, ding, ding went the bell!” Check them out.