These colors don’t run: Visiting the last streetcar in Syracuse.*

Syracuse streetcar 1036 at Central Square Station Museum.

It was another one of those field trips I meant to get around to eventually.

At the end of a sleepy side street in a tiny Upstate New York village, there sits a century-old train station. Central Square’s aptly-named Railroad Street dead-ends at the tracks, where freight trains still rumble past the long-retired depot, once a hub of village life. Today, the station lives on as the focus of a small museum, with an eclectic assortment of memorabilia inside and a small collection of rail equipment outside.

This is in every sense a railroad museum. To me, anyway, one of the vehicles on display in the yard stands out like a sore thumb — or maybe more accurately a sight for sore eyes. On the lawn facing the street, all dressed up with nowhere to go, stands Syracuse streetcar 1036, a 1916 Kuhlman-built Peter Witt car that served the Salt City for about a quarter-century until its retirement.

Depot interior view, including vintage station sign that reportedly was returned from Ohio.

The trolley has done a little bit of rambling since it was lifted off Syracuse irons more than 70 years ago, as described here on the museum’s website, and this was not our first encounter. I saw it for the first time at the New York State Fairgrounds in November 2005, inside one of the exhibition buildings during a model train show. It was then a traveling exhibit, not on permanent display. Despite some interesting artifacts inside, the outside was daubed in gaudy hues that looked nothing like how it spent its last years in service. Between the paint job and poor lighting, the few pictures I took were less than memorable.

The following year I moved to Scranton and the trolley was donated to the Central New York Chapter, National Railway Historical Society, proprietors of the Central Square museum. So we both went to new homes in 2006 (and hence the asterisk after the title, since Central Square is decidedly not in Syracuse, but close enough). Despite passing through Syracuse many times over the coming years, it was summer 2011 before I managed to take a 20-mile side trip north on Interstate 81 to the museum. And even then, for some unfathomable reason I did this in the evening, when the museum was closed.

It wouldn’t be a proper railfan outing without a three-quarters view.

Still, it sent shivers up my spine as I turned into Railroad Street and saw that familiar outline over the fence, my headlights picking out green and cream in the darkness. Syracuse was, like my hometown of Rochester, a New York State Railways property, and its streetcars were painted in the same basic livery also used on NYS Rys city cars in Rochester and Utica. Museum volunteers have given 1036 a cosmetic makeover including a reasonable recreation of the paint scheme carried by many NYS Rys cars throughout their last decade or so of operation, right down to the distinctive white bow ties that were worn around the headlights and trolley-catchers.

Before and after photos displayed inside 1036 show how it appeared before Central Square volunteers began repainting project. Above is basically how it looked when I saw it in Syracuse in 2005.

True sports fans know how the heart skips a beat at the sight of their home team’s logo, especially on throwback jerseys that kindle treasured childhood memories. NYS Rys colors might have disappeared from the streets of Rochester more than 30 years before I was born, but they also have been a familiar part of my life for nearly 30 years — on paper, that is, and mostly in black and white (trolley fans understand that this makes perfect sense). However, a series of paintings reproduced in an old Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority annual report and a few vintage slides gave me a reasonably good idea what NYS Rys cars actually looked like: dark green body (described as olive but in reality deeper than that), cream window surrounds (with that cream being closer to yellow), deep red sashes, reddish-brown roof, gold lettering and trim and white lower panels. It might sound like a cacophony of colors, but as applied the overall effect harmonized rather well, from what I could tell. There seem to have been minor livery variations from city to city, and even on cars within the same city. But in essence, this is what city streetcars looked like in Syracuse, Rochester and Utica between the late 1920s and 1941, when all three systems ran their last trolleys (in January, March and April, respectively, and not counting the Rochester subway).

Model of Rochester 1237 at NYMT.

I did catch a few other glimpses here and there, including on an O scale model of a Rochester Peter Witt car at the New York Museum of Transportation. But it wasn’t until a summer night last year that, for the first time in my life, a New York State Railways streetcar (actually it last served Syracuse Transit Corporation, from November 1939 until retirement, albeit in the same colors) stood before my eyes in the proper attire. Thrilling, yes, and also just the tiniest bit spooky, as if some ghost from the 1930s was looming under the dim light of a nearby streetlamp. I snapped a few poor images with the iPhone and vowed to return.

Life being what it is, more than a year would pass before I came back in the daylight. Even then, it was close to 4 p.m. on a grey Sunday in early October, and a steady drizzle descended as I approached the museum. With 1036 my real draw, I spent as much time as I could photographing the car from every possible angle, switching from camera to iPhone as incessant droplets began to fog the big lens.

Rear view, including 1941 license plate apparently affixed for road trailer.

Long since stripped of trucks and electrical equipment, the car is mounted on a rubber-tired trailer. Some interior features remain, together with a few photos and historical displays, but this museum piece is very much a work in progress. Naturally, it’s tempting to dream of seeing 1036 restored to running condition, or at the very least moved indoors and given a full cosmetic restoration, neither of which would seem likely anytime in the near future. Happily the car is in the hands of a preservation group who cares for it, and that’s important.

If you find yourself in this part of Oswego County, stop by and pay a visit to a 96-year-old relic of a bygone era in Upstate transportation history. In the meanwhile, check out this flickr gallery for more photos from my Oct. 7, 2012 visit to Central Square.

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3 Responses to These colors don’t run: Visiting the last streetcar in Syracuse.*

  1. Matt Nawn says:

    Interesting post and story how the carbody of #1036 was saved. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Christine says:

    Add this to the growing list of places I’d like to visit in Upstate New York. Thanks for this post.

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