A Streetcar Named The KU Loop
The squeal of trolley car wheels began resounding across Mount Oread when the KU Loop of the Lawrence Street Railway Company went into service on April 19, 1910, initiating a 23-year period when campus streetcars were a common feature of the KU experience.
Originally, the line ran up the west side of Mississippi Street, curved across the slope through Marvin Grove, and emerged on the top of the hill between Bailey and Strong Halls. Eventually, the KU Loop’s tracks coursed over the hill, southeast to 17th and Louisiana, then north on Louisiana to 11th, east on 11th to Massachusetts, and finally north to 8th Street, which was the hub of the three streetcar routes that served Lawrence.
Up to this time, KU students had been without regularly scheduled motorized transport up the hill. This posed a real problem, since Mount Oread was notorious for its muddy slopes, especially in the winter and spring. As a result, the new five-cent trolley ride (which included transfers) was something of a godsend.
The streetcars also offered an apparently irresistible opportunity for student pranks. KU students quickly became notorious for their trolley tricks, which ranged from grabbing free rides to minor acts of vandalism. One of the favorites was to hide in Marvin Grove (the trees between today’s Spencer Art Museum and Bailey Hall) and wait until the motorman slowed to climb the steepest part of the hill, at which point the prankster would unhook the engine from the cars. At other times, students would take hold of the brass rail attached to the back of the last car and hold on for a precarious albeit no-cost trip. Bicyclists particularly favored this tactic for a pull up the hill or perhaps just around town.
Other typical stunts included “Rocking the car,” in which students would cause the trolley to sway from side to side, and stealing the big white K and U letters from the front of the trolley cars. The streetcar company generally endured these tribulations. But sometimes it took extra precautionary measures, going so far as to shut down the trolleys by 8:00 p.m. on the evenings of KU’s “Nightshirt Parades.” These boisterous get-togethers, held in downtown Lawrence generally on the night before the first home football game, “were excuses for disconnecting the trolley poles from overhead wires, or even commandeering the cars for joy rides,” according to a reminiscence in the University Daily Kansan.
The KU Loop affected the lives of KU students in other ways as well. For some it was a source of employment. Student conductor jobs paid 17½ cents an hour, and those who drew the evening shift from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. could often read their assignments while riding around town. For others, it was an aid to romance. According to one nostalgic KU alumnus, a student who was “courting” a girl near the south end of the Massachusetts Street route had a system worked out with the motorman, who agreed to clang the bell as he approached the girl’s house so the boy would know his ride was coming. In response, the girl would blink the porch light if the boy wanted a ride back to town.
And for many, summertime rides on the KU Loop to catch the cool breeze while coasting down Mount Oread was a welcome respite in the days before air conditioning. (Summer rides on rainy days, however, were not so pleasurable. When it rained, canvas curtains were pulled down on the inside of the cars, which kept the rain out but made for muggy conditions.)
Streetcars had been operating in Lawrence since the early 1870s. Initially, horses and then mules pulled the cars around town. The first electrically powered trolley in Lawrence made its maiden run on September 19, 1909 at 3:01 p.m., rolling down Massachusetts Street with great fanfare. Guided by conductor Charles Royal and a certain “Motorman Duncan,” Car No. 109 started from the Santa Fe Depot on East 7th Street loaded with employees of the Lawrence Railway and Light Company and their friends while hundreds of townspeople cheered.
A number of disputes between the City of Lawrence and the street railway company over the best route up the hill delayed the inauguration of the KU Loop for eight more months, though the line serving Old West Lawrence did include a sheltered stop at McCook Field (site of present-day Memorial Stadium). By January of 1910, authorities finally had selected the route for the KU Loop, but a cold winter that froze the ground as hard as stone delayed construction for a few more months.
The KU Loop, known officially as Route No. 2, was only one of the three streetcar lines that served Lawrence. Route No. 1 traversed the downtown area and East Lawrence, ultimately going nearly as far as Oak Park Cemetery. Route 3, the so-called “Indiana Run,” went from 8th and Massachusetts west to Indiana Street, then north to 4th Street and back the same way. In 1916, when the Kaw Valley Interurban Railway came into town from Kansas City, the Lawrence streetcar company became able to use the interurban’s tracks that crossed the bridge over the Kansas River. The arrangement re-established streetcar service to North Lawrence, which had been without it since the flood of 1903 had washed away the original bridge that had supported the tracks used by the horse- and mule-drawn cars.
Despite their ubiquity in the early part of the twentieth century, the electric streetcar and interurban trolley systems turned out to be one of the shortest-lived phenomena in American transportation history. By the 1930s, street railway companies were abandoning thousands of miles of track in cities and metropolitan areas across the country, and Lawrence was no exception to this general rule. Buses had begun replacing the trolleys on Routes No. 1 and No. 3 in the late 1920s, and the KU Loop – the last streetcar line in Lawrence – ceased operations in the fall of 1933.
The tracks going up Mount Oread were still in place until 1948 when workmen removed what was believed to be the last 60 feet of them to make way for a sidewalk between Bailey and Strong Halls. But work on Jayhawk Boulevard in May of 2014 uncovered additional remaining track under asphalt and dirt. Some track in other parts of the city probably remains buried under several inches of pavement.
Department of History
University of Kansas