Streetcar Friends Tracking Forgotten Stories of Des Moines

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DES MOINES, Iowa  --  Earl Short has been working on a project for years, to uncover the history of the Des Moines trolley system.

The trolley was first used as a horse-drawn transport starting in 1866. Then in the 1880s, the electric streetcar was introduced; it ran until 1951. Some electric buses also ran the trolley route into the 1960s.

“The streets were not good in the early days,” said Short. “The tracks were an easy way to get around, it was a cheap way to get around. We didn't have a car when I was growing up.”

Short has followed every former track line in the city. He has photos and maps of the area, as well as historic images of the old cars and people on them.

“He’s just captured so much history of Des Moines,” said Jerry Tormey, a board member of the Des Moines Historical Society. “Not only about the trolleys, but all the information on the peripherals, pictures that would be hard to track down, he's been doing this for several years.”

“You really had to hang on,” said Betty Smith of Des Moines, whose husband was a trolley driver. “They were full, they were just packed with people, a lot of times you had to stand up and hang on to a strap and swing back-and-forth.”

Short has given dozens of presentations to groups about the Des Moines streetcar system. He recently worked with the Des Moines Plan and Zoning Commission to designate a remnant of the trolley system--a streetcar turnaround at 49th and University near the entrance to Waveland Golf Course--as historic.

His long-term goal is to partner with another historic group in town that is restoring an old rail depot on the east side of Des Moines.

“Hopefully we can bring that only Des Moines streetcar left in existence down from Boone and bring it here and put it on that rail line,” said Short.

If you would like to see the Des Moines Streetcar Friends Facebook Page, click here.