Laramie Streetcars

Fort Collins Birney car 21 on Mountain Ave. at Roosevelt Ave. in 1987. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Remember the Broadway hit “The Musicman?” It featured flim-flam artist “Professor” Harold Hill who promised a boys’ band for the citizens of fictitious River City, Indiana. He planned to follow his usual practice of leaving town once the money was paid to him for uniforms and instruments, but he never intended to place the orders.

Laramie was probably the victim of a similar promoter, Francis M. McHale (1858 -?) who came on the local scene in 1891 from Denver, Colorado. That year McHale was a 33-year-old married man with a young daughter and another child on the way. He was a lawyer and an officer of the Western Farm Mortgage Trust Company of Denver. He had two friends and investors from Denver, William D. Thomas and G.W. Griffith, Jr.

Griffith was involved with McHale in at least three schemes that ultimately failed. However, those failures might have been due to poor business sense rather than intentional fraud like Professor Hill’s.

Streetcars Needed for Growing TownsThe 1880s and 1890s were the heyday for building municipal transit systems. At that time horse-drawn “omnibuses” that were common in many large cities were transitioning to electric power featuring overhead wires or cable systems. Cheyenne’s horse-drawn system began operating in 1888 on light rail.

A corporation was announced in Laramie in 1887 that would build a street railroad with James Vine, Hon. J.W. Blake and Mayor N.F. Spicer as the board of trustees, though nothing seems to have come of their effort. Then another group, the Laramie Improvement Company, was rashly promising “street cars” to its new subdivision east of Laramie in Boomerang ads published in June of 1890, though that didn’t happen either.

The automobile had not come along yet, but interurban rail travel was well underway. The time was right for somebody to come along to suggest a streetcar system for Laramie so residents could get to work, to the picnic grounds at the fish hatchery south of town, and maybe even to the territorial prison and university stock farm on the west. That’s when F.M. McHale entered the picture.

McHale’s Grand PlansIt was March, 1891 when McHale was first reported to be in Laramie. At that time he was interested in buying property in Albany County that might be developed for oil. He was successful in negotiating a trade for the Caldwell & Gardiner ranch, using “property in Colorado” for the trade, as the newspaper said when the deal fell through the following year.

At the same time, McHale was interested in building a “$50,000 hotel at the corner of Second and Garfield” if the current owners would donate the lots and unsightly buildings to him. No one took him up on that offer. He also told the Boomerang reporter that he was working on building a 175 mile railroad from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to facilitate lumber hauling and promote the healing nature of the Springs that “could cure anything from hydrophobia to delirium tremens.”

That was no doubt intended to impress Laramie City Council with the fact that he had grand schemes and money to burn. It should have been a red flag—promises too good to be true.

Fraudulent or Legitimate?By July 11, 1891, McHale was back in Laramie talking up his scheme for a streetcar system. He had received a corporation charter from the state of Wyoming the previous week that allowed him to do business here.

He had persuaded two local businessmen, August Trabing and James Vine, to join him, along with friends Thomas and Griffith of Denver. McHale was to be the president, with Trabing as the vice-president and Vine as the general manager. G.W. Griffith of Denver would be the secretary-treasurer. At the time it looked like the scheme was legitimate.

Vine was one of the original promoters of the first publicized effort to get a streetcar system going in Laramie. Perhaps McHale impressed him as someone who could actually raise the funds needed that had eluded the first would-be developers. McHale let the Laramie City Council know that he would need an exclusive franchise for the streetcar line in order to proceed.

A Horse-drawn SystemSome councilors were skeptical, but McHale used Boomerang interviews to gain public support. He laid out the plans to build eight miles of track using horse-pulled cars on tracks. The project would be funded by stocks or bonds sold around the country for the $100,000 capital investment needed.

By July 22 the city council had drafted an ordinance granting the “Laramie Tramway Company” an exclusive franchise to develop a streetcar system. The ordinance passed unanimously with little discussion, concerns of the skeptical councilors having been addressed with a carefully-worded franchise agreement. What would power the system was left up to the developers, though the use of steam power in neighborhoods was prohibited by law.

The city council protected its own interests by stating in the ordinance that the city would not be liable for any damages from the streetcar operation. Also the tramway company would forfeit the franchise if it didn’t have at least four miles of track laid in one year.

Change in PlansIn August of 1891, McHale was back in Laramie saying that he and the “Denver directors” had changed their minds and would build an electric system instead of horse-drawn. He didn’t say if the Laramie officers of the company, Trabing and Vine, had been consulted.

McHale had to work on securing agreements with Superintendent M.N. Grant of the electric light works to furnish the power. He was also working on a deal with the UPRR Rolling Mill in Laramie to get 24 pound rail (measured in pounds per yard) instead of the 16 pound rail that the horse-drawn system would have used.

Neither one is anywhere near the 141 pounds per yard weight of the typical steel rail that the Union Pacific Railroad uses today, but the 24 pounds weight that McHale mentioned would have been adequate, according to Laramie railroad historian Jerry Hansen. McHale also told the Boomerang reporter that the bonds they would sell had been designed and printed by a St. Louis company and “are a beautiful specimen of lithographic art.”

Throughout the fall, apparently, G.W. Griffith was on the east coast attempting to sell the bonds to investors there, perhaps the same ones who had invested in the Western Farm Mortgage Trust Company that he McHale was involved with. Although the Laramie Board of Trade (as reported in the Boomerang) indicated that he was having success, later reports indicated the opposite.

It is possible that a little track got laid over the winter, but that was not reported in the newspaper. A tantalizing bit of history published in the Boomerang’s “50 years ago” column (in 1941) indicated that one streetcar company was using cover of darkness to tear up track laid by a competing company. No verification of that has been found, though Hansen says that he witnessed rails being discovered in an excavation of Third Street in 1955.

Alarms are RaisedLaramie City Council should have been alarmed by a report in the Boomerang on Feb. 5, 1892, that the Western Farm Mortgage Trust Company that McHale was associated with was in trouble. The “trouble” was indeed severe—the Denver sheriff had taken possession of its office and its fixtures, and a receiver for the business was being appointed as required by a court injunction.

It was a bad time for Colorado wheat farmers who had mortgaged their property and expanded operations only to have the price of wheat drop to unprecedented levels. They couldn’t pay their mortgages, and that created a domino effect with the Trust Company going bankrupt.

If that wasn’t alarming, the series of legal notices in the Laramie Sentinel in May through June of 1892 should have been even more disturbing. All the Albany County properties that McHale had “bought” or traded for were to be sold at public auction, per action filed in Denver on April 29, 1892, by plaintiff G.W. Griffith, McHale’s former friend. Albany County Acting Sheriff Charles Yund was to conduct the sale.

On the eve of the date when the franchise for the Laramie Tramway Company was to expire, the Laramie City Council was presented with a request by Trabing, Thomas and Griffith to change the name of the company to the Laramie Electric Tramway and Light Company and give them three years to lay four miles of track instead of one year. In addition to the streetcar track, they wanted the right to establish electric light lines on every alternate street in Laramie, ostensibly for their own use, perhaps so conductors could see their way in the dark.

The council immediately granted this amendment to the original franchise by adopting the amended franchise unanimously. Rules were suspended so all three readings could be at the same time. Not all councilors attended the meeting, however. It was also stated that “Mr. F.M. McHale, originally president of the company is now not connected and is living in Kansas” as reported by the Boomerang.

The End of Grand PlansDespite this lenient change, that was the end of it. Nothing more was reported in the newspapers about a streetcar line for Laramie. Before too much longer automobiles came into common use and there was no more talk of a streetcar system. Unlike Professor Harold Hill, Francis McHale was unable to produce any of the things that he promised to Laramie.

Undoubtedly some people suffered financially from the McHale schemes: farmers in Colorado who lost their farms after unwisely mortgaging their property with the Western Farm Mortgage Trust Company, and the few people in the eastern US and probably in Laramie who bought some of the beautiful pieces of paper that were bonds issued by the Laramie Tramway Company. They lost their entire investment.

Neither August Trabing’s or James Vine’s reputations appeared to be affected by their association with McHale—both of them had served as Laramie mayors at one time.

McHale fades awayAs for McHale himself, apparently he did not receive any recrimination for his schemes. He moved around; the 1900 Federal Census shows him living in the city of Lawrence, Kansas at age 41, with his 36-year-old wife Fannie and their three children, Charlotte, Fannie Jr., and Frank Jr. This is the same town where he and Fannie were married in 1884. It may be that Fannie and the children were living there all the time that the Laramie and Colorado schemes were being developed.

He is further noted in the 1895 Kansas State Census as living in Hoisington, Kansas, a small town in central Kansas. In the 1910 Federal Census the whole family resided in Knoxville, Tennessee. That’s the last that I could locate references to him or his family on Ancestry.com. Perhaps someone could do more research and develop a musical based on his life and grandiose schemes.

Editor’s Note: Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum. Jerry Hansen, long-term student of everything related to rail tracks in Laramie inspired this story which will be archived on the website wyoachs.com.

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