End of the Line: The Capitol Trolley

The Capitol Trolley on its last route through Bismarck.

Dustin White

The 1800s were a time of great change. In 1803, Lewis and Clark first set out on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory. Traveling largely by foot, the voyage was exceptionally difficult, and slow moving. 

Less than a century later, the railway was nearly stretching out across the United States, with North Dakota lying nearly in the center. Traveling across the county was much easier, as well as considerably quicker. 

However, the desire to travel quicker continued to push human limits. While the railroad allowed for a speedy voyage across country, finding a manner to easily get around in town was the issue that needed to be addressed. 

Public transportation provided the answer many were longing for. Starting with horse and buggies, by the late 1800s the electric trolley system had taken the country by storm. 

By 1895, there were nearly 900 electric trolley systems, which consisted of almost 11,000 miles of track in the United States. Yet, there were some who were hesitant in regards to adopting the new technology. 

Newspapers across the country soon praised the new system, but even more, warned of the dangers. 

Stories of crashes began circulating in local papers. Reports of trolley lines snapping and electrocuting pedestrians were printed. A fear began to grow along with the popularity of the trolley system. 

For many though, the benefits outweighed the risks, and in Bismarck, the State Legislature began to push to open a state ran trolley line.

Building Momentum
One hundred years after Lewis and Clark set off on their journey to explore the western United States, a scheme was brewing in Bismarck on how to effectively transport state officers and employees to the capitol. The year was 1903. 

With the state capitol a considerable ways from downtown Bismarck, for many, it was a difficulty to travel across the city. A daily bus for the capitol was maintained by the state, at a cost of $75 a month, but talk was spreading about incorporating a trolley car line. 

Along with the trolley line, a new heating and lighting plan was also proposed, which would also provide power to the new transportation system. The promise was that the trolley line would be self supporting. 

In February of 1903, the push for the trolley line became reality with the Brown bill, which authorized the capitol commission to install an electric light and power plant at the capitol. It would be sufficient to furnish a trolley car line, as well as provide electricity for the capitol, executive building and grounds. 

The bill appropriated $20,000, and once again, promised that the transportation line would be self-supporting, “at all times.”

While the state legislature, and governor, approved the bill, there was public backlash. Misunderstanding soon arose, with a growing group becoming upset that $20,000 was being taken from the general fund for the project. 

The misunderstandings would continue throughout the year, as the trolley system struggled to become operational. However, as it was frequently clarified, the money for the project was not to come out of the general fund, but from the capitol building fund, which was set aside for projects such as this. 

It wouldn’t be until September of 1903, after the state was granted a franchise by the City of Bismarck to operate the trolley line, that construction came under way. However, shortly after excavations began, a starting discovery was made. 

A restored trolley car along the Fort Lincoln Trolley line. Dustin White photo

First Cemetery
As trolley line graders began moving north, workers began discovering graves. At first, it was just a couple, but eventually, the numbers began to swell. 

Unbeknownst to the line graders, they had discovered the city’s first graveyard. 

The graveyard began when, in October of 1872, Private Sharpe, of the Seventeenth Infantry, died in the hospital of Camp Hancock. The post commandant, Captain Clark, selected a site for the military graveyard, which was upon the lots that became occupied by the Presbyterian church. 

After the church was built, interments continued to be buried there; however, citizens of Bismarck began looking for a more suitable area to become a cemetery. 

Rev. I.O. Sloan, pastor of the Presbyterian church, and Dr. B. Slaughter, part of the committee to select the site, chose an area outside of town, and it was laid out for a cemetery. Bodies would be removed from the church to this new burial grounds. 

When the site was first selected through, a title was not able to be obtained, but such a matter was deemed unimportant, as it was understood that the site was to be used as the city cemetery, and until the laying out of Fairview cemetery, all internments had been made there. 

As time passed, obtaining a title for the land was overlooked, and in 1885, a contract for the removal of bodies from the cemetery appeared in a local paper. Indignation among older settlers of the area, as well as family of those buried, quickly rose up, but by then, many of the bodies had been removed. 

While a wooden fence remained to mark off the land, it soon also vanished, as did the public memory of the cemetery, until work on the trolley line began. 

Up and Running
The discovery of an abandoned cemetery did little to deter the work on the trolley line. By October of 1903, there were boasts that the line was nearing completion. 

The boasts would prove to be a bit overly confident, with delays pushing the maiden voyage back a few months. 

However, on February 10, 1904, the first trolley car arrived in Bismarck, and just five days later, it was put into commission. Three days later, the trolley line claimed its first victim. 

On February 18, 1904, the Bismarck Tribune read: “… First Victim – The Trolley line scored its first victim today. Col J. W. Bull and J. W. Dickerson were turning about in a cutter, when one runner caught between the rail and the planking, overturning them int the street. No harm was done except to the dignities of the victims.”

In the nearly three decades that the trolley operated in Bismarck, accidents were infrequent. While a few collisions with wagons occurred in the first couple of years, individuals soon became more aware of the trolley cars. 

Soon, the Bismarck trolley line became a boast of the state, being the first state owned line in the country. Quickly, other cities in North Dakota began constructing their own lines. 

Puttering Out
Few things stopped the trolley line from running. On occasion, a shortage of coal, to power the plant at the capitol, would cause the trolley to have to quit for a day, and winter storms or ice on the rails would pose difficulties, but for those in Bismarck, it was seen as a reliable means of transportation. 

As Bismarck continued to expand, a few issues began to arise though. For those building homes, or living on Fourth Street, some saw the trolley line as a nuisance. Others complained that it would cause traffic jams, as the automobile was becoming more popular. 

The first attempt to shut the trolley line down came in 1925, when the City of Bismarck ordered the state to discontinue it. The city claimed that the franchise that the trolley operated on had expired in 1923, was never renewed, and thus all rails and track had to be removed. Thirty five “large” residents of Fourth Street agreed. 

George Shafer, Attorney General at the time, submitted that it was his opinion that the city had no authority to make such demands, and the state thereby did not have to comply. The state thus ignored the city order.

That wasn’t the last of the matter though. The case would be brought up again in 1927, and then in 1929. At last, in 1931, the old capitol trolley found its end. 

George Shafer, who had then become the governor, would sign the bill that killed the trolly line on March 12, 1931, while the trolley itself made its last run on March 1. 

With its demise, there was the hope that a bus line would fill the void the city now felt, but such a prospect never materialized. 

After it’s final run, the trolley car was hauled to Mandan, where it would begin a new journey, which will be explored in a later article. 

The Fort Lincoln Trolley line continues to keep local history alive. Dustin White photo.

Digging Up Tracks
Once the trolley ceased operation, there continued to be work that had to be done. During the trolley’s years of operation, the City of Bismarck and the State would butt heads on a number of issues. One of those problems centered around paving Fourth Street. 

As automobiles rose in popularity, the need for paved roads increased. Fourth Street in Bismarck wouldn’t be done easily. 

The contention arose when Bismarck made the argument that since the trolley was along Fourth Street, paving it was thus a responsibility of the State. The State disagreed. 

A compromise would eventually be worked out, where the city would pave the majority of the street, but the state was responsible for the paving of the street right adjacent to the trolley tracks. 

Those tracks would eventually pose another problem when Fourth Street had to be repaved. After the trolley ceased operation, much of the track was left as it was cost prohibited to remove it. 

Yet those tracks weren’t forgotten, and when Fourth Street was in need to be repaved, a portion of those tracks were removed. Instead of removing it all though, it was decided to simply pave over the tracks as well, and bury that portion of history. 

Over the years, as work has been done on Fourth Street, additional stretches of the trolley tracks have been removed, as were needed. But still lying below the surface, portions of that history continue to remain.