They came to be a part of history.
They came out of nostalgia.
They came because they saw streetcars as yet another sign of the economic and social resurgence of downtown Kansas City.
Shortly after 11 a.m. Friday, as the first streetcar in Kansas City since 1957 to carry regular passengers rolled away from Union Station, a huge cheer arose among the 50 passengers who had been allowed to jam inside.
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“My mother used to say hell would freeze over before we had streetcars in Kansas City again,” said Randal Strong-Wallace, 47, whose mother now lives in Wichita.
As the car rolled on, seated passengers and those crammed elbow-to-elbow clasping the straps snapped cellphone pictures and video. The car followed one that carried Mayor Sly James and other dignitaries.
“I always wanted to see light rail or streetcars come back to Kansas City,” Strong-Wallace said.
Thousands of others who gathered Friday morning at Union Station for the official rollout of the 2.2-mile, $100 million streetcar line obviously agreed. The atmosphere throughout the day was one of giddy and grand celebration. The streetcars all morning were as jammed as New York subway cars at rush hour.
If there were any first-day criticisms, it was that there wasn’t more rail to ride. A vote to extend the line failed in the summer of 2014.
The most common question fielded by Brian Hadley, director of safety and security for Herzog Transit Services: “ ‘When will it be extended?’ They want more.”
Still, buoyed by Chamber of Commerce weather and First Friday art and drinks, the trains were packed from the morning send-off and well through happy hour.
The most eager riders were the earliest.
“I have been so looking forward to this, I wouldn’t miss it,” said Kristin Amend Stephen, 53, of Kansas City. For years, she said, she has relished the mass transit systems that animate cities such as Paris and New York.
“I didn’t come down for the Royals thing,” she said of the 2015 World Series celebration. “This is my thing.”
Peggy Trinidad, 65, showed up holding a blue folder with photographs of her late father, Robert Latta, and the trolley car he spent part of his life operating in Kansas City before he retired as a bus driver. She said her brother, John, keeps his father’s old trolley seat in his home.
“I think he’d like this,” she said, looking at the new streetcar, its polished white surface reflecting the bright sun on a clear blue day.
Others came from much farther away. Several news crews from Cincinnati were on hand, with at least one streaming video of Kansas City’s opening. Cincinnati plans to launch its own 3.6-mile trolley line in September, using the same kind of cars.
Among the first in line early Friday were two New Yorkers — Andrew Grahl, 40, and wife Karen, 35, who described themselves as “huge transit enthusiasts.”
“We basically planned our vacation around the opening of light rail in Kansas City,” Andrew Grahl said shortly after 8 a.m. He wasn’t joking. He schedules buses in New York City, and she schedules subways.
Ten hours before, the Grahls had been looking at Mount Rushmore as part of their trip and had just driven in Friday to see the Kansas City opening.
“I’ve been interested in public transit since I was a kid,” he said. “It’s nice to see in this day and age everything expanding, when in the ’50s and ’60s, everything was going away.”
He spoke of the better carbon footprint of mass transit, the environmental and community benefits.
“This is a positive thing for our society,” said Grahl, who has traveled to other cities, including Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for transit openings. “This is a nice starter line. I hope to come back when it’s a full streetcar line.”
Anita Elder, 60, sitting in a wheelchair outside the car, called it “freedom” for her. She lives alone. She doesn’t have lots of money. She likes to get out.
“They say they have access for wheelchairs,” she said excitedly. She took buses to get to Union Station for the opening. “They tell me this is going to be free. That’s the kicker.”
For the historic record: The first passenger in line for the first public ride was Howard Callahan, 55, of Kansas City. He said his family grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
His parents would tell him stories about taking the train into Kansas City’s Union Station, then hopping streetcars to shop downtown during the holiday season. His motivation was nostalgia and history.
Second in line: Sam Beckett, 50, of Kansas City. “I voted for light rail 20 years ago,” he said, and was thrilled for it to be a reality.
Dan Arst, 46, of Kansas City, was third. “I just love the resurgence of Kansas City,” he said.
Wayne Pate, 46, and his wife, Kathy, 57, of Independence, were next. “Just to be part of history,” Wayne Pate said.
The ride is smooth enough, but the starts and stops are sharp enough to challenge the balance of anyone standing who doesn’t hang on to a strap.
Macy Marriott, 23, and her co-workers from UMB Bank boarded the line and rode it back to the Power & Light District stop, one of 16 on the looping round trip between Union Station and the River Market.
She said she and her friends drive to work, pay to park downtown and rarely travel even as far as the River Market for lunch. Now, they said, they might hop on the streetcar if the timing works.
“I’m curious to see what it’s like in six months,” said co-worker Kim Do, 23, recognizing that right now the streetcar is a novelty. At some point, it will face regular traffic and regular passengers.
“My concern, the only one I have, is what it will be like in the winter with snow and sheets of ice,” Marriott said.
Grace Blankenship of Kansas City, North, liked that it’s “so simple and clean and free.”
“There’s no danger of getting lost,” she said. “It goes one way and then comes back.”
Early in the day, streetcar officials said, most riders seemed to be starting from Union Station. The crowd thinned slightly in the afternoon, but it picked up in the early evening with First Friday visitors coming to Union Station after boarding at points north.
Outside Affäre restaurant at 19th and Main streets, Benny Buffa was helping sell bratwurst and sensing a different, streetcar-driven vibe.
“There’s more foot traffic,” he said. “There’s more excitement, even than a regular First Friday.”
David Thompson of Independence, who came downtown with his wife, Carol, thought it was “just great.”
“Now let’s just start investing money and take the line farther out through town,” he said.
Tess McCue was hired by a crowd-control service to be at the stop at 16th and Main streets, mostly to answer questions. How many people does a streetcar hold? (150 can sardine in.) How long does it take to cover the route? (About 20 minutes.) How much does it cost to ride? (Free for riders; taxes pay the freight.)
She found people in an almost universally good mood.
“It’s a very positive vibe,” she said. “And it’s been packed all day.”
Others noticed cars and buses lining up behind the streetcars at stops and speculated on whether they would hamper traffic.
Some were surprised that the streetcars existed at all.
Sara Anderson, 40, flew in from Seattle for a weekend wedding. She was downtown, looking for a place to get something to drink, when she saw the streetcar stop at 14th and Main streets.
“Guess we can ride it,” she said. So she did.
Others had been waiting for this moment for decades. Rob Dodson was among them.
He was 5 years old and going on 6 when his father, now the late Robert Dodson, took him on the very last streetcar ride in Kansas City in June 1957.
“It pulled into the streetcar barn at 48th and Troost,” Dodson, 64, said. “The streetcar was packed. And my dad took me out of the rear door. As we were exiting, he held my left hand and said, ‘The next time you ride a streetcar in Kansas City, it will be 50 years.’ ”
It was 59.
Dodson got on at 20th Street and rode to the River Market, shopped and returned to Union Station.
“I was determined to ride the very first day,” he said, adding of his dad: “He would have been proud. I thought of him all this morning.”