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Trolley Magic in Yakima Valley

July 6, 2016
Karl Pasten feels it every time he takes a ride on the Yakima Valley Trolleys. Whenever one of the system’s early-20th-century cars rock gently through the back streets of Yakima, a sense of friendly, childlike joy seems to settle over passengers and passers-by alike.
 
“People smile first,” he says, “and then they wave. And then you smile back and wave.” It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from or how old you are, it seems there’s just something special about seeing an old railcar pass by.
 
Pasten calls it “trolley magic.” And, as the unpaid executive director of the city-owned system that began operating in 1907, he loves what it brings to downtown Yakima.
 
The trolleys run on weekends throughout the summer, drawing riders from all over the region — and all over the world. The system has carried passengers from China, England, Switzerland and France, among others. It’s the last remaining vintage interurban electric railway left in the United States, and it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places for 20 years.
 
With the whistle toot-tooting softly, the trolley clatters along four and half miles of rail from YVT’s headquarters, a few blocks south of downtown Yakima, all the way to the town of Selah, Yakima’s nearest neighbor to the north.
 
Children pause on playgrounds when they hear that whistle, drivers wave over their steering wheels and pedestrians smile from sidewalks, often while reaching for their phones to snap pictures.
 
Bill Allen running the trolley. Image courtesy of John Taylor.
 
Bill Allen, a retired mechanic who volunteers as a motorman and serves as YVT’s chief mechanic, is happy to play along. He dons an authentic uniform and cap for each trip, and with his silver hair and neatly trimmed Van Dyke, looks as though he just stepped off a luxury train arriving from 1939.
 
“I just do it to have fun,” says Allen, a regular at YVT volunteers’ twice-a-week work parties. “And I get to do it and not sit home and wear out.”
 
Other volunteers have similar stories. Retiree Gary Wirt remembers the trolleys being “all over town” when he was a boy. Now, having returned to Yakima to retire, he enjoys “twisting a wrench” and spending time working and joking with the rest of the crew. Same with Bob Patton, who pulls shifts as a motorman and helps out with whatever else needs to be done.
 
“We’re all a team here,” Allen says, standing by the rails near the car barn as Wirt hoses down a diesel shuttle car. “If I do it right, we all did it right. If I do it wrong …” Allen shrugs, and suddenly laughter echoes through the yard.
 
Laughs have sometimes been hard to come by around the trolley yard over the years. The system’s fate has followed winding tracks for decades. Kenneth G. Johnson compiled a year-by-year timeline for YVT a few years ago, tracing its beginnings as an urban passenger and fruit-shipping line that snaked 48 miles in and around town at its zenith in 1920.
 
But as Yakima grew, the rail system’s fortunes rocked back and forth. The North Fourth Street line was abandoned because of frequent holdups by bandits. General manager Nick Richard, who had led YVT since 1909, retired in 1933. By 1935, the system had given up its interurban runs to Wiley City and Selah. Passenger runs ceased altogether in 1947.
 
In the 1970s, however, YVT enjoyed a brief period of renewal, during which city leaders granted a ten-year operating franchise agreement that brought back passenger service in 1974. The city purchased two vintage 1907 trolley cars from a town in Portugal to serve as the flagships for YVT — and both still operate today. To commemorate the American Bicentennial, the cars are numbered 1776 and 1976.
 
Yakima’s rekindled love for the trolleys turned out to be fickle, though, and in 1984, then-owner Union Pacific Railroad handed the whole system over to the city of Yakima for $1.
 
Interior of the brill car. Image courtesy of John Taylor.
 
These days, Pasten and the other volunteers who maintain YVT’s five trolleys, historic car barn, powerhouse and the Yakima Electric Railway Museum and gift shop need to conjure up all the “trolley magic” they can to keep the system running. If they had three wishes, at least two of them would be for money — to bring the wooden car barn up to modern seismic standards, to upgrade the powerhouse, to maintain the equipment, to repair and extend the system’s rail lines, and to expand the trolley and museum’s hours of operation.
 
More immediately, they need money to clear a rockslide that buried a few dozen yards of track over the winter just short of Selah. But before they remove the slide, they need to make sure the rest of the vicinity is stable, Pasten says. They also need to install about two miles of the overhead copper wire that sends power to the cars — thieves stole the wire ten years ago. Pasten says YVT has new wire, but still needs to get it put up.
 
It all adds up to nearly $8 million, but Pasten is a realist. “Couple million would really make everything work,” he says. “But even half or a third or a fourth of that would be wonderful.”
 
Pasten is hopeful that with four new members on the Yakima City Council and a new city manager coming to town, Yakima will see the value of the trolleys to tourism and local economic development.
 
A few years ago, the city hired a consultant to suggest how civic and business leaders could reinvigorate Yakima’s downtown area, according to Pasten. The consultant’s top two suggestions: 1.) Build a plaza; or 2.) Use the trolleys to enhance the downtown area’s atmosphere.
 
Since then, Pasten has been trying to get city officials to take tours of YVT and imagine the possibilities.
“When you go through here and actually see the place, you get a whole different understanding of it,” he says.
Meantime, the work crew has some sagging overhead wires that need adjusting, so Wirt and Allen decide they’ll go check them out.
 
“We got some hurdles,” Wirt says.
 
“Oh, yeah,” Allen agrees. “Every day we got hurdles.”
 

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John Taylor

John Taylor is the digital managing editor for six Townsquare Media radio stations in Yakima, Wash. A veteran newspaper editor, page designer and reporter, his favorite pursuits usually involve writing, the outdoors or out-of-the-way bars. He's on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn.

More stories by John Taylor

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