The Streetcar that Leads to Downtown Dallas

Betty Streetcar Dallas

If someone asked you where you could find the oldest operating streetcar in the U.S., Dallas wouldn’t likely be one of your first choices. This Texas city, one of the largest in the United States, is not known for its walkability or transit options. Still, just as Pittsburgh has had to contend with its image as an industrial center, so in the future Dallas must shake its image as a doughnut with no center.

The attractiveness of Dallas as a city has been somewhat limited in the recent past because of its lack of a downtown core. That has begun to change. There is a concerted effort to consilidate museums, galleries and performance halls into an arts district. More important is the effort to bring residents downtown, and the number of new residential buildings is nothing short of impressive. Many of those sit across a highway from the arts district and business core, but soon a park built over the highway will connect the two with greenspace.

Before this effort began, something that’s also now helping to energize downtown was put into place. In looking back, the McKinney Avenue Streetcar may be seen as the beginning of the turn away from spawl to the urban core.

When the last Dallas streetcars were replaced by buses in 1956 the local newspapers said that they would be gone forever. Forever only lasted until July of 1989, however. The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority has since evolved from a tourist attraction into the M-Line–an integrated part of the Dallas transit system.

Before moving to Dallas, I had seen photos of the streetcars online. I wrongly assumed they were primarily used by tourists. Several of the cars are quite small and did not seem like they could accomodate many passengers. Leaving the Dallas Museum of Art one day I really felt like jumping on, but couldn’t spare the time. Later I made a special trip to ride the streetcar.

That was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable day I have spent in Dallas thus far.

Boarding in an area of town called Uptown Dallas, I began a conversation with the operator. A fellow passenger joined in and said he had made the trip from Plano by DART, which he does every Sunday just to drink coffee, and later wine, and soak in the people and the atmosphere in Dallas. I found this stunning. First, there are people living in Plano that come to Dallas without riding in a car. Second, downtown Dallas is a place where you can soak in atmosphere.

Where the ride begins in Uptown is just a few steps from the DART stop. The streetcar circles a recently-constructed neighborhood with apartments and shops. Most of the shops look to be chain stores selling clothing, but there are a few that look to be unique, and there is a Starbucks with a sidewalk seating area where one could watch the people, and streetcars, go by-with some frequency at that.

If you’re looking for the quickest way to get somewhere, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for an enjoyable way to get somewhere, its hard to beat. It was a Saturday when I first rode, and indeed some of my fellow riders appeared to be tourists. The operator knew several people he saw along the route and knew some of the passengers. One woman used the streetcar to go to a performance downtown, which she apparently often does.

The downtown end of the route doesn’t have a loop, and so single-ended streetcars in the collection are currently unable to be used. Plans are underway however to loop around the downtown and have a wider array of cars available.

The operator said several of the cars were original to Dallas and had been rescued from being used to store hay, and from being used as a residence. Some of the track also dates back a century. The cars currently used include Rosie (1909), The Green Dragon (1913), Petunia (1920), and Matilda (1925).

Built at the Brill plant in Philadelphia, car 122, “Rosie,” served in Porto, Portugal until 1978. In 1983 she was acquired by and ran in the San Francisco Trolley Festival. A few years Rosie was purchased and moved to Dallas. Rosie is currently the oldest trolley car in regular service in North America.

The streetcars are undoubtedly one of the elements that are combining to give Dallas a respectable downtown. To be fair, if you walk downtown Dallas and then visit another city, say Philadelphia, you know there’s still a long way to go before the there is more completely there, but the folks in the big D should know they can remind those in Philadelphia that it’s there where there are far too many empty tracks without streetcars.

Even today only a handful of U.S. cities have streetcars, and some of those best known for them–Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Brooklyn–either don’t have them anymore, or as in the case of Philadelphia, have recently begin to bring them back. Not so long ago Dallas was looked over by many because it didn’t have a downtown. You have to give it credit–today increasing numbers of Dallas/Fort Worth residents are using public transit and choosing to live downtown. There’s a concerted effort to keep that trend going, and the McKinney Avenue Streetcars are among the charms that will make them stay.

Eric Miller

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me