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Little Rock Launches River Rail Electric Streetcars


November 1, 2004


The Central Arkansas Transit Authority in Little Rock is celebrating the debut of the 2.1-mile River Rail Electric Streetcar system Nov. 1 with free rides for the first week, through Nov. 7.

The service will enter operation today with three new trolleys based on the design of the double-truck Birnie cars that operated in the area until 1947. CATA reported that, despite the vintage design, the new trolleys are air-conditioned and equipped with on-board wheelchair lifts.

The grand opening, with the theme "Ridin' in the Rocks," kicks off this morning with dedication ceremonies at the Alltel Streetcar Stop, located in front of the North Little Rock City Services Building. Dignitaries scheduled to participate will include North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, CATA Board President Bob Major, and chamber of commerce officials.

The North Little Rock dignitaries will then ride the streetcar across the Arkansas River, on the Main Street Bridge, to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, where Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey and Little Rock chamber officials will conduct another brief dedication ceremony.

"It's been a long time coming," said Keith Jones, CATA executive director and general manager. "We're excited that the vision has become a reality. It's taken a lot of work and coordination among Pulaski County, North Little Rock, and Little Rock. However, with the leadership of Judge Villines and Mayors Hays and Dailey, we've completed Phase 1 of our system, and look forward to extending the rails to the [Clinton] Presidential Library and the Heifer Project Headquarters by the end of 2005."

Jones said CATA believes the revival of streetcars in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock will not only attract visitors and tourists, but will serve as a means of convenient access to attractions such as Alltel Arena and the River Market District.

The celebration continues with a complimentary lunch Friday, Nov. 5, at the River Market's east pavilion, also featuring live music and door prizes, and a Family Fun Day Saturday afternoon, Nov. 6. Entertainers including a magician, musicians, singers, clowns, mimes, and face painters will be stationed at all 11 streetcar stops.

A Step into History

According to CATA, the history of streetcars in central Arkansas dates back to 1891, when the City Electric Street Railway Co. ordered the first 30 streetcars for operation in Little Rock. Four years later, the line added 10 open streetcars to its fleet; the open cars were converted to trailer cars in 1905 and used for transporting crowds to the summertime parks and playgrounds at Forrest Park, Kavanaugh Field, and White City in the Heights.

By 1900, the streetcars slowly hummed along 20 miles of track. A year later, the Little Rock Railway and Electric Co. took over and expanded the system. By 1910, Little Rock had a population of 45,000, and another 13 miles of track had been laid. By then, the rail car fleet had grown to 104 cars. Across the river in Argenta, the area now known as North Little Rock, streetcars ran along three lines covering 5.5 miles.

However, trolley ridership in both cities had peaked by 1918. Arkansas Power & Light Co. took over the streetcar company in 1926, and used buses to provide extended service beyond the streetcar routes.

Capital Transportation Co. took control of the declining trolley system in 1935, CATA noted, when the end of service seemed imminent. But the outbreak of World War II gave streetcars renewed life when only three rail lines still operated. The war kept streetcars in operation largely because of the scarcity of rubber and gasoline. Their reprieve expired soon after the war ended, and the Little Rock system retired its last nine trolleys on Christmas Day 1947, after the last trolley had completed its run.

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