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Wrong Side of the Tracks

Our Past - Places

Did you ever hear anybody from Forest Grove say “I live on the wrong side of the tracks?” I’m guessing you haven’t. Why? Because Forest Grove, by definition, has no “wrong side of the tracks,” that’s why!

In the 19th and 20th centuries, as railroads were expanding all across the United States, most of the rails were built to go down the centers of towns. The thinking was to provide more convenient access to passengers and freight for the hotels and businesses in the downtown area. This thinking applied equally to towns both large and small; in fact, many small towns were built around the railroad stations. Many small towns were built that way, but not Forest Grove. Our town was built around the beautiful school nestled among the tall old trees. Our nod to tracks, initially at least, was the trolley track that ran down Pacific Avenue, and around to 21st Avenue, thence to the front of Pacific University.

When the time came to let in the bigger trains, early in the 20th century, the town fathers of Forest Grove chose to keep the “Iron Monster” steam trains with their noise, soot, steam, smoke and cinders outside the city limits. Their track curved past the southeastern edge of town on its way toward McMinnville and points south.

As a result, the prevailing westerly winds blew the train’s mess away from Forest Grove’s beautiful downtown. Why was that significant? In all the countless other cities and towns around America bisected by steam train tracks, the prevailing westerly winds blew the mess all over the eastern side of town. Quickly this became the less desirable real estate, and just as quickly the west side of town increased in value. It’s no coincidence that “the poor side of town, aka the wrong side of the tracks,” was so quickly and clearly defined prior to the middle of the 20th century.

Thanks to the foresight of its leaders, Forest Grove declined the steam trains. Instead, two different electric railroad lines were allowed into our city limits. Both of them ran into town just south of Pacific Avenue, and each had its station adjacent to 19th Avenue, just a couple of blocks apart. Their clean and relatively quiet service ensured convenient travel for the town’s citizens in the two decades before bus and truck service became the norm.

So, next time you wander our lovely streets and historic districts admiring the variety and quality of the homes you see, say a quiet thanks to all those who chose the electric train service more than a century ago. They are the ones who gave us a very special – even unique – place with no “wrong side of the tracks.”

If you would like to learn more about our electric trains, come on down to the station that served one of them, the Southern Pacific Red Electric. It’s open Wednesday mornings from 9:30am until noon, or just about any day by appointment. You will be delighted to learn that it’s on the right side of the tracks.

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