Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
From the mule-drawn trolley of the 19th century to the rails ripped out by Mexico in the 1970s, tales of the El Paso–Ciudad Juárez streetcar still echo today.
Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.
Mule Car #1, the first mass-transit system to serve El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, was already past its prime by the time it launched in 1882. “Mandy,” the mule that pulled the sole trolley car back and forth across the border, had long served as the engine of San Antonio’s streetcar system before she was retired to El Paso–Juárez, an easier route. There, Mandy earned international celebrity—not for her service, but in spite of it.
“It was my fortune, when in El Paso six years ago, to ride in a car drawn by Mandy,” wrote a reporter in the St. Louis Star in 1905. “I shall not say how slow we traveled, because if I did, I would not be believed. After riding and waiting, principally waiting, for an hour or two, Mandy came to a dead halt in the middle of a block and, to all appearances, went to sleep.”
The newspaper account continues:
Losing patience, I accosted him. ‘Why don’t you make that mule go?’ I asked. ‘Cos it ain’t in a goin’ humor,’ he answered serenely. ‘Why don’t you whip it?’ ‘Ain’t got no whip,’ he answered, beginning to look sullen. ‘But there are lots of loose rocks on the street,’ I persisted. ‘Pick up some of them and pelt him with them.’ The driver rose from his stool, threw away his cigarette stub and eyed me scornfully. ‘Stranger,’ he said, ‘that mule is Mandy. If I should hit Mandy, I would be shot before I had time to draw another breath.’
Electric cars replaced the cranky mule-drawn trolleys in 1902. Local lore holds that on the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new vehicles, Mandy the Mule lined up “to kick that modern improvement to smithereens . . . the first time Mandy was known to kick in all of her El Paso life,” per the history outlined by the late Ron Dawson, founder of the Paso Del Norte Streetcar Preservation Society. Despite Mandy’s best efforts, the electric trolley served the twin cities for decades, until the last streetcar line was shuttered in 1974.
For nearly a century, the international streetcar ferried workers, shoppers, and commuters between El Paso and Juárez. At the height of its service in the 1960s, the line offered more trips to some 600 passengers per day. Before the border was fortified by fences and concertina wire, it was notable as the site of the highest-grossing J.C. Penney department store in the U.S.—in El Paso, where Mexican nationals shopped every day. While it may be hard to believe now—what with the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the former Mexican President Vicente Fox squaring off over who exactly will pay for Trump’s impossible border wall—the transnational trolley once unified the conurbation of Paso del Norte.
With the rise of the domestic automobile, El Paso abandoned its inter-city streetcar lines in the late 1940s, just as many cities did. Skeletons of those abandoned cars still wither under the desert sun in New Mexico, but the international line held strong. El Paso upgraded its Juárez fleet in 1950, buying 20 street–railway cars from San Diego; most cities had turned to buses by that time. With more than 104,000 people crossing the city’s international downtown bridges every day by 1965, El Paso even entertained building an elevated international monorail system.
The transnational trolley had come a long way from Mandy the Mule. But in 1973, Mexico put a stop to it, scuppering the line by abruptly tearing out the rails overnight on the Mexican side of the border. Shopkeepers in Juárez had complained that it was too easy for Mexicans to do their business in the U.S. The following year, El Paso closed its streetcar line for good—many years after most other American cities had done the same.
El Pasoans never entirely abandoned the dream of a transnational streetcar, according to Peter Svarzbein, a representative of the City of El Paso Council. In 2010, Svarzbein—then a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York—launched a whimsical project in his native El Paso promoting the return of border-crossing transit. The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project, a sort of performance artwork (and Svarzbein’s thesis), saw the artist posting ads pledging a new trolley. He made a photomosaic of a streetcar using some 2,000 portraits he took on both sides of the border, for example. He even posted community meet-and-greet events with a faux conductor. The project earned fawning local news coverage; a Kickstarter campaign drew nearly $4,000 in contributions to keep the stunt going.
At the time, Svarzbein says, violence in Juárez was at its worst. He says that the transnational trolley project spurred discussion in a community worried for its neighbors to the south, even as the broader conversation focused on crime spilling over the border. While Svarzbein only planned to spend six months in El Paso working on his thesis, his project evolved, and he’s stayed ever since. Like so many U.S. cities, El Paso was investigating the possibility of relaunching an (inter-city) streetcar system in 2010. Svarzbein worked toward that goal on a number of fronts, with an eye toward preserving the history of the transnational trolley. One such effort was a signature campaign lobbying the city to develop an intra-city vintage streetcar corridor.*
“In many ways, it’s the bridges and trolleys, the ways that we cross, that define our community here on the border—not the walls or the way we separate,” Svarzbein says.
Svarzbein was elected to office in June 2015, and he is now working to see the El Paso streetcar come to life. Construction on the downtown streetcar line continues, and the historic streetcars themselves—the original PCC streetcars that ran on the Juárez line, which are being refurbished in Pennsylvania—should return to El Paso by 2018. The streetcar project is not without its hiccups: Officials just acknowledged that the city lost $3.2 million to a phishing scam. But when the streetcar is finally complete, it will revive something of the village feel from El Paso’s frontier days. And it will give more than a nod to the spirit of mutual cooperation that has long characterized the relationship between El Paso and Juárez.
Thanks to people like Svarzbein and Dawson, the author of the definitive history on the streetcar, El Paso has preserved both the memory of the transnational trolley as well as several of the cars themselves. (Perhaps to the chagrin of Mandy the Mule, who, according to Dawson’s account, died of grief just days after she was replaced by an electric trolley.) Only a mile separates downtown El Paso from downtown Juárez, even if the political gulf is vast. The dream of another Paso del Norte interurban streetcar seems far off, but it’s far from forgotten.
*Correction: This post incorrectly described the goal of Peter Svarzbein’s lobbying campaign. It has been corrected.