West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District
The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. [†] Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
As Des Moines' most-fully developed example of a Victorian streetcar corridor, the West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District illustrates the influence of this new transportation technology on the development of suburban Des Moines, specifically in North Des Moines. While other Victorian streetcar corridors also remain in the city—notably the University Avenue line on the west side, the East Ninth Street line on the east side, and the Sevastopol line on the south side-the West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District retains its integrity as the highest developed of them.
We now know that the 6th Avenue streetcar line and the West Ninth Street line competed with one another. The West Ninth Street line was the earlier of the two and ran on narrow gauge trackage. The 6th Avenue line was a broad gauge (or standard gauge) line. The presence of two streetcar lines serving virtually the same neighborhood was unique in Des Moines. An additional line subsequently served the neighborhood along 11th and 12th Streets. The fact that North Des Moines was served by multiple routes underlines its importance as the largest Victorian suburb.
West Ninth Streetcar Line
The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District illustrates the North Des Moines's housing boom during the 1880s and early 1890s, a phenomenon which radically transformed this area from an outlying settlement cluster to Des Moines' fastest growing and largest Victorian suburb. The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District calls attention to the influence of transportation over suburban development in North Des Moines during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Straddling both sides of the West Ninth Streetcar line, the historic district's association with rapid public transportation conferred upon it the status of a preferred location for residential development.
The West Ninth Street line was built in the 1880s by the Des Moines Street Railroad Company (later renamed the Des Moines Street Railway Company). Because this firm's trackage possessed a narrow gauge track three foot in width, it was popularly called the "narrow gauge."
The West Ninth Street line was an extension of the firm's downtown loop and was called the "Red Line." Originally a horse-drawn line, it was electrified during Jefferson S. Polk's improvements of the late 1880s and early 1890s. From downtown, the line ran along 7th Street, turned east at Center Street and ran to 6th Avenue, turned north at School Street and ran to 9th Street, and then followed 9th Street to its northern terminus. The northern terminus changed over the years. In 1888, for example, the 9th Street line ended at Washington Avenue. By 1889, however, the line had been extended to Jefferson Avenue, one block to the north. Later, the line was extended to Crocker Woods, entering the park through Devil's Gap and traveling to the south bank of the Des Moines River opposite the Zoological Gardens (later known as Riverview Park). Still later, the extension to Crocker Woods was abandoned.
The Red Line served both the west side and the east side of Des Moines. When the Red Line completed its route on the west side (described above), it headed east across the Walnut Street bridge and ran to the Victorian suburb known as Capitol Park. The Red Line followed Walnut Street to East 6th Street, where it turned north and ran along Grand Avenue. Then it turned east to East 9th Street, ran north to Filmore Street, turned east to East 12th Street, ran to East Grand Avenue, and turned west to East 6th Street, and finally followed Walnut Street again across the river. The Red Line was originally a narrow gauge railway on both sides of the Des Moines River.
Although both segments of this route were official known as the Red Line, popular parlance gave different names to each segment. The west side route was called the "West 9th Street" line and the east side route was called the "East 9th Street" line. It was purely coincidental that both streets were named "Ninth."
Streetcar service remained operational along the West Ninth Streetcar line into the 1930s, when streetcar service was abandoned and replaced by gas-driven buses in 1936. Streetcar service along the Sevastopol and the Scott Street lines was also replaced by gas buses during this same decade. These three lines were the poorest paying of the company's routes, and gas bus service was introduced as an economy. Following World War II, all streetcar service in Des Moines was terminated, replaced by electric-powered buses. These vehicles were named "curbliners" as the result of a local contest to name the new mode of transportation. The general manager of the Des Moines Metropolitan Transit Authority never heard of such a name before coming to Des Moines. (K. Stephen Spade Informant Interview) Although there was considerable national promotion of the conversion from streetcars to gas buses, the American public generally preferred streetcars. They provided a smoother ride and did not smell.
Because the West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District was located directly on the West 9th Street streetcar line, this corridor enjoyed convenient access to public transportation and proximity to the city's downtown.
6th Avenue Streetcar Line
The 6th Avenue Streetcar line in North Des Moines was an extension line of the Broad Gauge Street Railroad Company, which originally served the downtown loop. This company was the second horse-car streetcar operation in Des Moines.
As with other streetcar routes, the 6th Avenue line changed over time. From the downtown, it originally ran along 4th Street and turned east at School Street. From there, it ran west to 6th Avenue, turned north, and ran to Jefferson Avenue.
Fourth Street provided the 6th Avenue line with its approach into the downtown because 6th Avenue south of School and Center Streets had a severe grade. Said to be of nine percent in the vicinity of Crocker Street, this slope was too steep for horses to manage. To "establish a grade," as such infrastructure projects were known, 6th Avenue was subsequently cut down to reduce its grade at three different times-in 1897, 1906, and 1916.
The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District is located in the River Bend neighborhood of Des Moines, Iowa. The historic district consists of several types of resources. They include the 9th Street public right-of-way, which binds the historic district together as a transportation corridor and materially adds to its character, the frontages of numerous plats abutting 9th Street between University Avenue and Hickman Road; the collection of residential and ancillary buildings situated on residential lots within those plats; a fire station situated at the south end of this corridor, and the site of a school campus. In total, the West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District contains 148 resources.
The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District measures about one mile in length and fronts ten city blocks along its course. This street is straight in its configuration and runs directly north and south within the historic district. The historic district begins at University Avenue in the south and terminates at Hickman Road in the north. To the south of the historic district, 9th Street leads to downtown Des Moines. To the north, Prospect Park—the public parkland—and Prospect Park Second Plat are situated beyond the point where 9th Street terminates with Hickman Road. The public parklands are partially situated on the bluffs above the Des Moines River and partially situated in its floodplain. Public land is also situated at the foot of the historic district adjacent to University Avenue and presently used as the site for Fire Station No. 4.
The West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District embodies a distinct sense of place as a streetcar corridor dating from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. This is evident in the physical layout of the street itself, the improvements which abut it, and the context of the urban area to its south. Ninth Street is uniformly laid out in a straight configuration. Many streets in North Des Moines jog, bend, and abruptly terminate—irregularities due in large part to the effects of laissez faire upon the community's development. Ninth Street is also wider than those streets adjacent to it, another expression of its importance. Ninth Street possesses more varied types of property—single family dwellings, multiple-family dwellings, institutions, and a farmhouse—than those to the east and west. The resources along the corridor are also somewhat larger in size than those adjoining areas. A sense of place is readily apparent when the historic district is approached from the south. Ninth Street narrows from a four-lane to a two-lane street upon entering the district. The corridor's over-story canopy, provided by its street trees, provides another entrance feature at University Avenue. Urban redevelopment has removed most of the street trees to the south. Upon entering the historic district, the viewer continues to travel under this over-story canopy, which includes first growth oaks.
Several notes concerning nomenclature should be mentioned. The name, "West Ninth Street," has been styled in several ways over the years. These stylings also include "Ninth Street," "West 9th Street," and "9th Street." This nomination employs the name "West Ninth Streetcar Line" as the historic name for this property because it was the name employed during the early years of this district's period of significance. Later, the other names were adopted. This nomination also uses "9th Street," however, because it provides a convenient shorthand and is most widely used today. For stylistic reasons, when a sentence begins with "9th Street" in this nomination, the numeral is spelled out.
Another note is also in order. Two important streets in Des Moines are named "Ninth Street"—East Ninth Street and West Ninth Street Each of these streets featured a Victorian streetcar line and each route was named after its street. To distinguish between these two lines, the name of this historic district—"West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District"—includes the directional adjective to distinguish from its East Ninth Street counterpart. In point of fact, west-numbered streets in Des Moines today usually delete the "West" directional adjective in their names, while those east of the Des Moines River continue to carry the "East" directional adjective.
† William C. Page, public historian, and Joanne R. Walroth, project assistant, River Bend Association, Inc., West Ninth Streetcar Line Historic District, nomination document,, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.