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Old east Medford tracks uncovered

A portion of a defunct former electric trolley line that connected east Medford to downtown in the early 1900s was unearthed recently when Avista Utilities installed new gas lines.

“That track looks great for being buried in the ground for 100 years,” said Dave McFadden of Avista. “I hadn’t heard of tracks into east Medford before, and I grew up here.”

The lines, built by Southern Oregon Traction Company, traversed East Main Street and then Keene Way Drive, with the last stop at Capitol Hill. The electrified trolley line ended on its west side near Columbus Avenue, intersecting with another line that went to Jacksonville.

The east Medford line was all but forgotten until Avista started digging up the streets recently near Florence Avenue on East Main.

Avista's Environmental Department was contacted, and an archaeologist was brought in to examine the tracks, installed in 1913 by Southern Oregon Traction Company, founded by Spencer S. Bullis.

According to Oregon train historian Richard Thompson, the Rogue River Valley Railway line was merged with the Southern Oregon Traction Company to provide passenger rail from east Medford to Jacksonville.

The Rogue River Valley Railway, founded in 1891, was six miles long, while the east Medford line was only 2.5 miles and cost just shy of $100,000.

Thompson, who has written extensively about rail lines throughout Oregon, said the average speed on the east Medford line was probably about 10 to 20 mph, while the Jacksonville line probably attained speeds of 35 to 40 mph. “That was considered fast in those days,” he said.

But the rail lines were short-lived in Medford, ending in 1920.

Thompson said the main reason for the demise of the rail line was the lack of development in east Medford at the time. In fact, some of the east Medford line was removed and used to improve the line going to Jacksonville, Thompson said.

In 1918, the owner of the rail system went into bankruptcy, and the original owner of the Jacksonville line, William S. Barnum, took over the business, but abandoned it after two years.

Medford, like communities in Astoria and Salem, once had a thriving passenger rail service. But many Oregon cities saw the rail lines disappear in the 1920s. Passenger rail service continued in the Portland area until the late 1950s. Portland’s light-rail system was revived in 1986 as TriMet.

McFadden said Avista crews tried to not disturb the old tracks, which will be covered over again once workers have finished their work on East Main.

In 100 years time, McFadden said, workers will likely dig up East Main again and find the old tracks still in place.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.

An electrified trolley runs through downtown Medford in the early 1900s. Remnants of the trolley tracks were uncovered recently on East Main Street. photo courtesy of Richard Thompson