The Denver Tramway Company (DTC) was the dominant private transit company in Denver’s history, serving tens of millions of commuters per year at its peak and making it possible for the city to expand beyond its urban core. Established in 1885 by John Evans, William Byers, and other prominent locals, the company started out developing cable car lines in a bruising competition with its chief rival, the Denver City Cable Railway. DTC made an early conversion to electric streetcars, enabling it to emerge as Denver’s primary transit provider by 1900.
Denver Tramway defined the city’s transit for seven decades, but it began to struggle as automobile ownership and suburbanization accelerated after the 1910s. The company converted entirely to bus service in the 1950s but could not stave off a downward spiral of service cuts and declines in ridership. In 1971 the company sold its assets to Denver, and in 1974 the publicly operated Regional Transportation District (RTD) took over DTC’s old buses and routes.
Origins of Transit in Denver
For more than a decade after Denver was established in 1858, the city was small enough that there was no need for public transportation. That changed after 1870, when the completion of the Denver Pacific and Kansas Pacific. Railroads tied Denver into the national rail network. From a town of fewer than 5,000 residents in 1870, Denver rapidly expanded to a metropolis of more than 35,000 people in 1880 and more than 105,000 in 1890.
As the city grew, entrepreneurs saw opportunities for new businesses that would take people more quickly across town. In 1871 the Denver Horse Railroad Company became the city’s first transit company, with its horse-drawn car operating along tracks laid from Auraria to Curtis Park, the city’s first streetcar suburb. By the 1880s, the company was known as Denver City Railway and had fifteen miles of track extending across the plains, facilitating and sometimes directing growth to the southeast and northeast.
Cable Car Competition
Denver City Railway had an exclusive franchise on the use of horse cars, which forestalled competitors within city limits until new technologies became available. That moment arrived in 1885, when property owners on Fifteenth Street, frustrated at the lack of a transit line by their buildings, helped incorporate the Denver Electric and Cable Company. The property owners would build their own transit line using new electric streetcar technology pioneered by University of Denver physics professor Sidney Short. By 1886 the company had reorganized as the Denver Tramway Company, whose leaders included former governor John Evans, his son William Gray Evans, Rocky Mountain News owner William N. Byers, and local developer Henry C. Brown. That summer the company started to run electric streetcars on Fifteenth Street, but the line lasted less than a year before being removed. Short’s technology, which used an electrified third rail, had a bad habit of shocking people and horses when it got wet.
The unsafe electric rail technology and the Denver City Railway’s monopoly on horse and mule cars led DTC to embrace cable cars, which were pulled along tracks by underground cables. In December 1888, the company opened a powerhouse at the southwest corner of Fifteenth Street, Colfax Avenue, and Broadway (in what is now Civic Center Park). The powerhouse had large wheels turning cables that went straight down each thoroughfare. The next year, a fourth line branched out along Tremont Place to Eighteenth Avenue, completing a $2 million investment that yielded a twelve-mile cable network.
Denver City Railway quickly shifted to cable cars as well. The company reincorporated as the Denver City Cable Railway and built its own powerhouse and headquarters at the north corner of Eighteenth and Lawrence Streets, which opened in 1889. The rivalry between Denver City Cable and DTC, the two largest of Denver’s transit companies, spurred the development of one of the most extensive cable-car networks in the country. The Denver City Cable Railway Building drove the largest cable-car system ever run out of a single powerhouse, and the company’s Welton Street line, which stretched about seven miles, was the longest in the United States when it was built.
Dominating Denver Transit
By the early 1890s, new electric streetcar technology using overhead wires had proven superior to cable cars in most situations. DTC had the right to build electric streetcar lines thanks to its early, ill-fated experiment on Fifteenth Street, so in 1893 it quickly converted its major lines to the new system. Meanwhile, Denver City Cable only held a license for horse and cable cars, so its conversion to electricity proceeded more slowly via subsidiaries.
The Panic of 1893 sent Denver City Cable into bankruptcy and also imperiled many smaller competitors, such as the Denver & Park Hill Railway and the Colfax Electric Railway. DTC used its stronger position to buy up smaller lines and expand its electric streetcar network throughout the 1890s, until it finally acquired Denver City Cable in 1898–99. By the time DTC converted its former rival’s thirty miles of cable lines to electricity in the spring of 1900, it was the only major streetcar company left standing in Denver.
DTC’s electric streetcars provided the city’s primary mass transit system for the next fifty years. The company played an important role in the daily lives of tens of millions of commuters per year while also reshaping the city’s landscape. Thanks to DTC’s extensive network, which spanned 155 miles by 1903, people could live miles from work and pay only a nickel to get there. Starting with Curtis Park in the 1870s, streetcars made it possible to develop neighborhoods ever farther from the city’s core, such as City Park, Park Hill, Montclair, South Denver, and Berkeley. Developers either enticed new streetcar lines to serve their parcels or built near existing or proposed lines.
In the early 1900s, DTC consolidated its power under the leadership of William Gray Evans, who became company president in 1902. It did this first by building a large new powerhouse near the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Opened in 1904 and expanded in 1911, the plant became the primary source of power for DTC’s electric streetcars.
Next the company navigated the treacherous waters of Progressive Era antimonopoly politics—newspapers denounced Evans as a Napoleonic dictator—and in 1906 secured a thirty-year franchise. Its future secure, the company built an elegant red brick and white terra-cotta headquarters at the corner of Fourteenth and Arapahoe Streets, just a few blocks from the central loop, where its lines converged at Fifteenth and Lawrence Streets. By the time the new headquarters opened in 1911, DTC was expanding its regional reach with lines like the Denver & Intermountain Railroad to Golden.
Competing with Cars
Exhausted by battles with the press and newly occupied by advocating for the Moffat Tunnel after his friend David Moffat’s death, Evans resigned as DTC’s president in 1913. At the time, it seemed as if his company’s hold on transportation in Denver was secure. Yet the next decade posed unprecedented difficulties for DTC. In the long term, the company’s main problem was the rise of the personal automobile, whose use was increasingly rapidly in the 1910s. In 1914–15, for example, streetcar use in Denver declined 9 percent, while the city’s automobile traffic increased 50 percent. Although the streetcar was safer and cheaper than an automobile, it could not compete with the freedom and convenience of a car. It also could not compete with increasing public subsidies for cars and roads, while franchise regulations held streetcar fares at a nickel. The result, in Denver as elsewhere, was that streetcar ridership peaked around 1920 before entering a decades-long decline.
In the short term, DTC faced problems with its trainmen, whose wages became unbearably low as prices rose with inflation during World War I. When DTC’s wage increases failed to keep up, workers unionized in 1918. The company tried to raise streetcar fares to pay for higher wages, but Denver mayor Dewey Bailey rolled back a one-penny increase, forcing DTC to fire workers and cut service. In these conditions, a short work stoppage in 1919 was the prelude to a major strike that started on August 1, 1920. By August 7, when Mayor Bailey and Governor Oliver Shoup sent in National Guard troops to protect strikebreakers and streetcars, seven people had been killed and dozens injured in one of the deadliest strikes in Colorado history.
More than 700 strikers were fired after the strike, and the union disbanded. Still, franchise regulations kept DTC’s fares too low for it to properly invest in workers or service. Struggling financially, the company was in receivership for several years until it reorganized in 1925. At the same time, DTC started to convert some of its lines outside downtown to buses and trolley coaches—a trackless system where cars with rubber tires are powered by overhead wires.
Buses and Bankruptcy
As cars began to dominate the roads, conversion of downtown streetcars to buses and trolley coaches started in 1940 but was put on hold during World War II, when ridership surged as a result of gasoline rationing. After the war, however, automobile ownership increased and suburbanization accelerated, making DTC’s streetcar network obsolete. DTC ran its final streetcar on June 3, 1950, and by 1955 trolley coaches were also gone, as the company converted entirely to buses. The central loop was torn up; the Denver Tramway Powerhouse was shut down; and the company’s downtown headquarters was sold as it moved operations to an industrial section of South Santa Fe Drive.
By the 1960s, DTC was in a downward spiral of declining ridership and reduced service. Annual ridership plunged by half in a decade, from about 40 million riders in 1960 to fewer than 20 million in 1969. Similar declines happened across the country, but they were steeper in Denver than in other cities. Seeing the writing on the wall, in 1969 the Colorado General Assembly created the Regional Transportation District (RTD) to plan and operate transit in the Denver metropolitan area, which had grown to nearly 1.3 million people.
As DTC lurched toward insolvency, RTD joined with other local authorities—including DTC, the City and County of Denver, and the Denver Regional Council of Governments—to develop goals for service in the Denver area after DTC was gone. In 1971 DTC ceased operations and sold its buses and other assets to the city, which operated the system for several years as Denver Metro Transit. In 1973 voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund RTD, which acquired Denver Metro Transit the next year and became the area’s primary public transportation agency.
Today DTC’s legacy lives on in RTD, its public successor, which operates a fleet of buses throughout the Denver metro area and has built up a network of light rail and commuter trains since 1994. Denverites continue to see DTC’s influence on the city’s growth whenever they encounter oddly wide streets that once carried streetcars or pass one of the numerous small neighborhood shopping areas that developed around streetcar stops.