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Copyright 2000
Oregon Live ®

Astoria trolley rides on smile power

Everyone is happy at the success of the largely volunteer effort to help revitalize downtown

Sunday, October 31, 1999

By Jonathan Nelson, Correspondent, The Oregonian

ASTORIA -- The Old 300 sways gently from side to side as the clickity-clack of the wheels on the track provides a backbeat to the staccato clangs from the bell Jim Wilkins rings at each intersection.

Pedestrians turn, smile and wave as the trolley moves along Astoria's riverfront.

"There's something about that car; when people see it they smile and when they climb aboard they smile and when they leave they smile," Wilkins said.

The smiles extend to City Hall and the business community as leaders in this north coast town marvel at the success of their latest effort to revitalize downtown Astoria.

In one of the state's oldest cities, vibrant shops slowly replace empty storefronts as the city and community continue a thoughtful and steady progression of improvements. Some of the most recent successes include an aquatic center, movie theater and the Oregon State University seafood consumer school in the east end of town. Work is under way to transform a downtown movie theater into a performing arts center.

The trolley project, however, evolved without the cumbersome legal or governmental restrictions often associated with redevelopment. The driving force behind the trolley was much simpler -- volunteers.

More than 200 Astorians gave 3,200 hours of their time to refurbish the 1913 trolley, put it on the tracks and give people a new way to see Astoria. Gov. John Kitzhaber recently awarded the Astoria Riverfront Trolley Taskforce one of eight Governor's Economic and Community Development Awards for the year.

Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen said the award validates the dreams and visions of those who first talked of putting a trolley on the tracks almost two decades ago.

"It tells us we're not crazy," Van Dusen laughed.

The trolley idea first surfaced in 1980 as part of an artist's rendering of one possible look for a redeveloped riverfront. Mitch Mitchum, the city's public works director, said that drawing so closely resembles the Old 300 trolley, including the color scheme, that it's "eerie."

City leaders first attempted to get a trolley in 1986 to enhance the annual regatta in Astoria. After a series of negotiations with the railroad union, city officials determined that insurance for the trolley was too expensive.

The project lay dormant until the early 1990s when Burlington Northern abandoned the tracks and the city took control through a federal rail banking program that gives local municipalities the tacks for free.

By November 1998, project organizers found Old 300 rotting at a trolley museum in Gales Creek near Forest Grove, where it was taken after being used to carry passengers between Portland and Lake Oswego. The San Antonio Museum of Art, which owns the trolley, agreed to lease Old 300 to Astoria for $1 a year for five years with the option of another five-year lease.

Wilkins was given the task of refurbishing the trolley, and used equipment from his construction business to haul it from Gales Creek to Astoria.

Built in 1913 by the American Car Company in St. Louis, Old 300 began life working for the San Antonio Transit Authority. By the time it arrived in Astoria, Wilkins said the trolley was a mess.

Much of the wooden frame was rotten. The canvas roof and wooden support beams needed replacing. Windows were damaged and the electrical system needed rewiring. The steel and cast iron undercarriage, however, remained in good shape.

Wilkins organized hundreds of volunteers. He gave Ed Overbay, a master wood craftsman, the delicate task of replacing and repairing much of the trolley's shell. Bill Cook, Astoria's harbormaster, directed the roof repairs, drawing on his experience with similar work on numerous old ships.

Volunteers worked weeknights and weekends from December to May, when the trolley was back on the tracks sporting a fresh coat of red and cream paint. The interior reveals none of the neglect the car sustained. Dark wooden benches glisten beneath original light fixtures shaped like buttercups. A generator that sits on its own car provides the power that drives the trolley along a 3.5-mile stretch of track.

Wilkins developed a training program for 50 volunteer drivers and numerous conductors who operate the trolley. From June 8 to Sept. 30, more than 20,000 passengers plunked down the $1 fare to take the 40-minute trip from the West End Mooring Basin to the East End Mooring Basin.

During the ride, conductors recite bits and pieces of the city's history. To the north, passengers look toward the Columbia River and hear how the shore once was full of canneries. Today, they see shops, restaurants and a few fish processors.

Looking to the south, the town's signature Victorian homes sprout from the hillside and the regal Astoria Column comes into view atop Coxcomb Hill.

Even trolley service has a chapter in the city's history, dating back to 1887 when horse-drawn carriages taxied people through downtown. The service ended in 1922 after a fire burned downtown.

For now, the trolley's schedule has been pared from when it ran every day to weekends only. But plans are under way for next summer.

Do you have news of Clatsop, Columbia or Tillamook counties? You can reach Jonathan Nelson at 503-543-8366 or by e-mail at scoop@ados.com.

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