Sometimes it’s easy to forget that transportation issues haven’t always been what they are today. In fact, many of the forms of transportation we use today weren’t even a twinkle in an inventor’s eye just a couple of centuries ago. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the situation in Fort Collins might change so dramatically within the next century, that our children and grandchildren will face an entirely different scenario than what we groan and whine about now. But it’s very likely they will. To get a sense of just how much things can change, here’s a look back to Fort Collins over a century ago.
The history of transportation in Fort Collins begins, as it does everywhere, with feet — the only form of transportation that we’re born with. When you need to transport more than just yourself, then a pack animal can come in handy. The natives built harnesses for their dogs to haul their tipis and other goods around. The arrival of the Europeans added horses, donkeys, and mules to the mix. But any animal that can be trained to carry a load was put to use.
Many of the earliest pioneers couldn’t travel west by train because the rail road hadn’t been laid yet. So they either traveled by a horse drawn coach (if they were somewhat wealthy and didn’t have many goods to bring with them) or, more likely, they traveled with a team of oxen that moved slowly, but could haul a lot and didn’t require that extra feed be brought along for them as they were quite happy foraging along the way. (To learn more about what it was like as an early pioneer coming to Colorado, check out this Forgotten Fort Collins post entitled, “Crossing the Plains in 1862.”)
Once here, people generally traveled around by walking, riding a horse, or riding in a horse-drawn buggy. This worked OK for the general populace, but it had severe limitations for those with goods to sell (namely all the farmers and ranchers). That’s why, when the railroad companies were looking for a route to lay track between Cheyenne and Denver, there was quite a bit of campaigning on the part of local politicians and others to entice a line through the fairly new town of Fort Collins.
The first line to come through town was the Colorado & Southern in 1877, and the City leaders were pleased to have the route run right down the center of Mason street. This general appreciation for all such new railway lines is summed up the Fort Collins Courier on May 25, 1882 which declares,
“Another powerful strand in Colorado’s spreading network of railways has been woven by the completion of the Denver extension of the Burlington & Missouri. Colorado gratefully responds to the advances of her mighty friends. Railroads mean cheap transportation, cheap transportation means population, population means development, development means wealth, and wealth means power.”
But as delighted as local residents were to have a local line come through town, there were also concerns that the railway companies could essentially hold a monopoly over transportation in an area.
“The business of railroading is unlike that of any other. Comparatively few towns can have more than one line between the same points. When a line is constructed to a town it practically annihilates all previous methods of transportation. The companies left to their own will, hold the communities they were organized to serve at their mercy.” — November 1, 1888, Fort Collins Courier.
Railroads meant that stage lines, like the one from Laporte to Virginia Dale, were no longer needed. But as these alternatives forms of transportation were cast aside, that meant even more reliance upon the railroads. This sometimes put Larimer county residents at the mercy of those who ran the trains.
“The demand for coal the past week has been greatly in excess of the supply. Dealers have used every effort to obtain a supply but are met every time with the reply of the railway authorities that they have no cars. There is no excuse for this state of things. The railway company without sufficient enterprise to keep abreast of the needs of a growing community in the way of transportation facilities had about as well tear up its tracks and break its engines up into old iron . This cry “no cars” repeated every fall and winter is not justified by any rule of business or reason . There is absolutely no excuse for it . The company knows the requirements of the people along its lines and should be comto meet them or get out of the way for a company that will.” — November 15, 1888, Fort Collins Courier.
Railroads were really a mixed bag. They did nothing at all to help people get to areas where there was no train station. They didn’t help at all when it came to local commutes. Costs could be prohibitive. And your travel time was at the mercy of the train schedule and availability. But despite all this, they were an economic boon for local farmers and ranchers. They made traveling to Cheyenne or Denver much easier. And they allowed for an influx of goods that local settlers would have had a hard time gaining access to otherwise. So the train was an imperfect system, but it still beat the pants off of everything else locals had going at the time for hauling goods or long distance travel.
But to get from home to work, or from your house to a friend’s, you were still stuck with your feet or your horse. And if you were a woman or kid, then your husband/dad probably had the family’s only horse with him, meaning you were pretty much restricted to where you could walk. So the introduction of the bicycle was a real hit in early Fort Collins. Though the Penny Farthing was a bit unsteady to ride (The Penny Farthing is the bicycle with the ginormous front wheel.), it provided a freedom that was previously unknown. And once the safety bicycle came out in the late 1880s (which is essentially the type of bicycle that we use today), even women and children could pedal about safely and comfortably to get where they wanted to go.
Unfortunately then, as now, bicycle facilities weren’t all that one might hope for. Most city roads weren’t paved yet, so bicyclists were crossing rutted, gravel strewn streets that were muddy in rain and dusty all the rest of the time. Another solution was needed that worked as well for business men in suits as it did for mom’s with young kids and bags of groceries. After many years of talking about it, the City finally installed a streetcar system that connected commercial and residential neighborhoods with far flung areas such as the Grandview cemetery (which was far to the west of town) and Lindenmeier Lake, which was a favorite recreation area for residents. The first streetcar ran on August 8, 1907, at a time when most families couldn’t afford to buy an automobile.
Access to affordable transportation for both goods and people was increasingly considered by many to be almost a right of residency. There was also a sense that the more varied and complete a transportation system was, the better the region would do economically. As one Fort Collins Courier article explained on May 8, 1890,
“To keep the primacy which we now hold, we must retain all the means now employed and grasp all others within our roach . We must not not [sic] only keep our present mileage of rialroad [sic] and telegraphs, but build more; not only keep all our present vehicles of transportation, but increase them. As our population increases and its labor multiplies it [sic] products for exchange, all the means for effecting that exchange must keep pace with the national growth ; and it is just as essential to the national prosperity that our circulation should increase as it is that railroads, telegraphs, steamships and wagons should.”
As with any kind of change, there are always those who think the way things were during their childhood and early adulthood are really the way things should stay in perpetuity. Thus, despite radical changes in transportation taking place in Fort Collins and Colorado, one Fort Collins Weekly Courier article from July 13, 1899, stated somewhat matter-of-factly,
“Despite electric cars, bicycles and automobiles, the horse is bound to be a big factor in Twentieth century civilization. He is good all times of the year, in storm and in sunshine, in mud, in snowdrifts and in floods. When the bicycle and the automobile, and even the electric cars, are unable to move, the ready, faithful horse, mans best friend in the brute creation, is called into use and his services appreciated. Yes, indeed, the horse is here to stay.”