SEPTA trolley book to debut in January

trolley_coverToday has not been a happy one for Philadelphia commuters or for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as SEPTA’s City Division workers  went out on strike after their contract expired at midnight. One hopes that for all involved this strike will be short-lived and capped by an amicable resolution.

On a happier note, I’m pleased to announce that my photographic history of the highs — and lows — of Philadelphia trolley operations since 1968 will be released under Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Modern America series in January. The book already has a sale page on Amazon.

An introductory essay on the development of streetcars in the city since 1859 kicks off an all-color collection of images illustrating the trolleys from their near nadir in the late 1960s through today, as SEPTA is in the early stages of choosing the next generation of streetcars to grace Philadelphia rails. There’s plenty to satisfy railfans, but I’ve also worked to curate a story that will appeal to those interested in local history and the evolution of Philly’s cityscape over nearly a half century, including the gritty and graffiti-laden 1970s.

The city’s loss of industry and shift of population toward automobiles and suburban lifestyles is part of the story, but so, too is the decades-long shadow of deliberate underinvestment by SEPTA’s predecessor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, during its final years under National City Lines ownership.

Bondo and the colorful new “Gulf Oil” paint scheme of 1973 (applied even as some cars were still being repainted in PTC’s green and cream livery) livened up the trolleys during a difficult decade, but SEPTA’s struggles to maintain a state of good repair amid  years of insufficient funding took their toll, as the images show. The Woodland Depot fire of 1975 claimed 60 cars, and pushed SEPTA officials toward desperately needed action. Third-hand cars from Toronto were a stop-gap measure. The 1980s general overhaul (GOH) program for PCC cars was another successful step, though tarnished by how quickly many of the cars were retired as the North Philadelphia lines met their demise.

Perhaps the greatest success story of the era was the design and construction of SEPTA’s Kawasaki light rail cars for use on the subway-surface and suburban trolley lines. Those durable cars continue to serve reliably today (well, not literally this day), 35 years after they were first introduced, even as their successors have yet to be identified, let alone purchased or built.

Then there is the often bizarre story of the renewed Route 15, with its “PCC-II”cars — essentially LRVs beneath PCC shells. Trolleys certainly returned to Girard Avenue, but not without some hiccups, as the book relates.

This is not a comprehensive or definitive survey, but hopefully an informative look at a mode of transportation which survived in Philadelphia against what often appeared to be some long odds, and continues to serve the city well.




Posted in _Misc. | 1 Comment

Beautiful on the inside: Preserved Philadelphia PCC car undergoing interior makeover

Stepping inside ex-Philadelphia Transportation Co. PCC car 2743 really is like stepping back in time. For the moment it isn’t quite the right time, but that’s starting to change.

Efforts are underway to repaint the 1947 streamlined streetcar’s drab 1980s interior colors so they match up with the recreated late ’50s exterior paint scheme which was applied last year.

Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys founding member Harry Donahue is seen painting the interior window posts on Philadelphia PCC car 2743 on July 2, 2016 at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Orbisonia, Pennsylvania.

Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys founding member Harry Donahue  is seen painting the inside window posts on PCC car 2743 at the Rockhill Trolley Museum on July 2, 2016. (Roger DuPuis photo)

“This is going to look great,” Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys (FPT) founding member Harry Donahue said with admiration as he stood back during a break in painting recently to survey progress on the project.

For Donahue, who grew up riding and photographing trolleys in his native Philadelphia, the transformation of 2743’s seats, walls and ceilings immediately rekindled memories from more than 50 years ago, when streetcars still clanged along 14 city routes. Today, only six of those routes remain.

For Donahue and FPT, which helped raise funds for the renovations, the hope is that 2743’s backdated appearance will rekindle similar memories for other visitors to the Rockhill Trolley Museum in central Pennsylvania, where the car has resided since 1994, and that it will give younger visitors a sense of what Philadelphia’s large fleet of Art Deco PCC cars looked like inside and out during what many consider to have been the last years of their heyday.


Car 2743 was part of a 210-unit order produced for the privately owned Philadelphia Transportation Co. in 1947-48. The single-ended, all-electric vehicles were built to the standee window body design which characterized most postwar PCC cars constructed in North America until production ceased in 1952.


Motorman John Engleman was preparing to take 2743, right, out on a run in 1967 when he snapped this photo at PTC’s Germantown Depot. The private operation would be sold to SEPTA the following year. (John Engleman photo courtesy FPT.)

In an era when U.S. cities had or were moving toward abandoning their streetcars, Philadelphia in the immediate postwar years wasn’t just buying new ones; PTC was buying some two-man cars, equipped with conductor stations. Among those was 2743, which was used on the long and busy Route 23, which wended from South Philadelphia north through Center City to Germantown and Chestnut Hill. In fact, the line has remained the city’s busiest surface route even since the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority “temporarily” converted it to buses in 1992. (Late last year, SEPTA split the line in two parts, with the lower half re-designated as Route 45).

While 2743 was later converted to one-man (operator-only) configuration, Donahue estimates that it spent up to 80 percent of its working life on Route 23, based on available records. Unlike many of its sisters, he added, 2743 was never assigned to operation in the surface car subway between City Hall and West Philadelphia, nor was it ever repainted in any of the new paint schemes applied to some cars by SEPTA in the 1970s. Photos show 2743 remained in a simplified version of the PTC green and cream, with SEPTA’s second generation round red logos, until it went through the agency’s general overhaul (GOH) program in 1984. From that process the cars all emerged in a standardized color scheme of bluish-white with red and blue striping. There were some minor variations during the program; earlier cars had wide stripes, for example, while 2743 carried the later, narrower color band into its retirement.

The GOH project saw 112 all-electric PCC cars thoroughly rebuilt to add another decade or so of life, intended to carry them along until SEPTA could determine what to do with the street-running North Philadelphia routes to which they were assigned. The five West Philadelphia subway-surface routes had been equipped with durable new Kawasaki light rail vehicles in 1980-81, but a SEPTA report at that time suggested conversion of the North Philadelphia lines to buses due to declining ridership (citing loss of population and jobs in many of the neighborhoods they served as underlying factors) together with the substantial cost of replacing infrastructure which had substantially deteriorated since in the days when PTC began cutting back on maintenance as its sale to the public sector SEPTA loomed.

The last of those routes, including 23 (as noted above) were “temporarily” switched over to buses in 1992, with SEPTA telling the city it would look to purchase new cars and resume trolley service by 1997. Of them, only Girard Avenue Route 15 has had rail service restored, with 18 heavily rebuilt PCC cars (dubbed PCC-IIs) re-opening the line in 2005.

Thus, despite the high standards of craftsmanship employed in the GOH program, 2743 and the other cars which emerged would have generally short working lives in Philadelphia. Some of the rebuilt cars remained on the property until the early 2000s for charters and special services, such as the Chestnut Hill Trolley and Center City Welcome Line, which used portions of Route 23, where the wires and rails were still intact. Many others were scrapped, sold or stored, however. Some went on to new lives in San Francisco, where they continue to thrive on that city’s F-Market line alongside other historic streetcars from around the world.


Car 2743 is seen in SEPTA livery at Rockhill during the museum’s inaugural PCC Car Day in 2012. It is flanked on either side by PCCs from Newark, New Jersey. (Roger DuPuis photo)

Others found new homes in museums, as 2743 did at Rockhill. Volunteers there spent several years working to re-gauge the car from Philadelphia’s broad (5 ft 2 1/4 in) city trolley track spacing to operate on Rockhill’s standard gauge (4 ft 8 1/2 in) line. The single-ended car also had a front trolley pole installed to permit operation on the rural single-track museum line, which lacks turning loops. Otherwise, it would spend more than a decade in museum operation looking exactly as it had when serving Philadelphia commuters between 1984 and 1992.

Back to the future

Enter FPT. The group, which has helped fund projects at several museums, raised more than $30,000 toward restoration of 2743 to its later PTC appearance. (Donahue explained that the cream roof paint scheme was chosen over the original silver roof paint scheme — seen today on SEPTA’s Girard Avenue cars — because it was more recent, lasted longer and was more likely to be remembered by more riders.)


Green and cream 2743 is seen in Carbarn 2 at Rockhill, March 2016. (Roger DuPuis photo.)

Donations from Rockhill’s many supporters helped push the project ahead. Car 2743 was trucked to Star Trak Inc., in Boonton, New Jersey for exterior body work and repainting. It returned to Rockhill in 2015 resplendent in PTC colors.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. Volunteer restoration projects are the work of many hands, many talents and many wallets, as well as much time.

The car may have returned in shiny green and cream, but step inside, and 2743 was still wearing the subdued blue-gray paint applied  by the SEPTA during renovations in the 1980s, accented by stainless steel fittings and dark blue seats. The next phase, then, was to put the trolley’s innards in historical sync with its shell.

Whatever flaws PTC possessed, the transit company showed good taste in choosing vehicle colors. The interior scheme used on the all-electric PCC cars comprised a cream ceiling and two-tone green wall panels, all in lighter shades than used on the exterior. The seats were upholstered in brown, with green frames to match the lower wall panels. That detail is an interesting one. The frames were originally fully chromed, Donahue noted, but PTC in the 1950s started painting them, leaving only the upper handholds and vertical stanchions untouched. SEPTA continued the practice, with blue used on the lower frames in GOH cars. Why PTC chose to make more work for themselves is unclear, and any answers to that question would be welcome. (Interested fans may want to compare 2743, when completed, with restored 2733 in the basement lobby of SEPTA’s downtown Philadelphia headquarters. That specimen includes the silver roof and fully-chromed seat frames.)

Over the past few months, Donahue and other volunteers, including this author, have trekked to Rockhill from around Pennsylvania and nearby states, carefully repainting the ceiling, walls and seat frames. The contrast, as the work progresses, has been dramatic, as the brighter PTC colors evoke the car’s earlier atmosphere of warmth and Art Deco style that was lost under the clincal and uniform GOH tones applied a generation later.


Harry Donahue and James Kelleher work inside 2743 on a sweltering June afternoon. (Roger DuPuis photo.)

A few important curatorial points should be made here. The renovations are not a full restoration in the true sense of the word, due to structural changes made by SEPTA in the 1980s. The GOH project replaced the original armrests and hand-cranked windows with straight panels and school-bus style side windows, as well as adding stainless steel trim and modified windshields. Fully restoring the car to its pre-GOH appearance would be a more expensive and labor-intensive process than is possible at the present time. So while the old colors do cover some newer structural elements, the final appearance should give visitors a substantial sense of what the car looked like in the 1960s, thanks to Donahue’s careful matching of original color samples.

The project also has provided an opportunity to tell the story of trolley cars to a new generation, as younger volunteers like James Kelleher, a talented art student home from college for the summer, have helped take part in the painting.

Other elements underway include lamination of some period advertisements which already were on the car, as well as the search for vintage 1950s or ’60s ads which can be reproduced, as well as PTC-era Route 23 schedules for display in the timetable racks.


Volunteer James Kelleher is seen painting above the center doors inside 2743 on July 2, 2016. The dramatic effect created by the new paint is beginning to emerge. (Roger DuPuis photo)

Donahue, meanwhile, is at work on another key element: seat restoration. Working with a southeastern Pennsylvania upholsterer, he has been sending the seat cushions and backs out to have their dark blue SEPTA coverings replaced with brown material, as in PTC days. Being a volunteer effort, Donahue has been shuttling the seats between the museum and the upholstery shop, more than 100 miles away, just as he has done with the paint and other material necessary for the work.

The seat restorations are being funded by individual donations, and as of late June, 12 double seats had been paid for, leaving many double and single seats yet to be done. The cost of a double seat is $235, while a single seat costs $195.

Anyone interested in donating a seat or otherwise assisting with the project can visit FPT’s Facebook page, email the group at, or write to FPT Inc., P.O. Box 33397, Philadelphia, PA 19142.


This plaque, which had been installed above the center doors to commemorate the 1980s renovations undertaken by SEPTA, will be replaced in that spot by a vintage St. Louis Car Co. builder’s plaque. It will be re-installed elsewhere inside the car. (Roger DuPuis photo.)






Posted in _Misc. | 3 Comments

An Electric City homecoming.

Headed home: 505 is loaded aboard a Silk Road Transport trailer in preparation for its move from the Rockhill Trolley Museum to Scranton. Photo by Chuck Kumpas courtesy of Rockhill.

In the parlance of trolley-restoration types, many forlorn cars are revived from “chicken coop” condition.

Scranton Transit 505 — one of the last two streetcars to run in the Electric City on Dec. 18, 1954 — makes such basket cases look pristine.

“I call it the skeletal remains,” Electric City Trolley Museum Association member Andy Maginnis told The Times-Tribune as what’s left of the the 1929 Osgood Bradley Electromobile returned to its hometown earlier this month from the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Southcentral Pennsylvania.

Car 505 is seen departing Scranton’s Nay Aug Park in 1953. Photo courtesy Rockhill Trolley Museum.

Indeed, what rolled into town on the back of a flatbed truck on Nov. 15 doesn’t look like much: two thoroughly rusty sidewalls held together by the spindly ribs of what once were its roof and floor, minus vestibules, ends or interior fittings. I’ve heard the forlorn hulk more charitably described as a trolley in kit-form. That’s because most of the fixtures and fittings were removed and stored in the 1970s. Together with a set of original plans, the Electric City Trolley Museum Association has most of what it needs to turn the carcass back into a working streetcar. ECTMA has a page devoted to the car, including more vintage photos.

The next item on their list? Funding toward what is expected to be a $350,000 restoration. Backers have launched “Project 505” to raise money for the work. According to the newspaper, organizers’ initial goal is to raise $3,000, with a California organization pledging to match that amount if the group can raise it by Jan. 31.

Project 505 chairman Jim Wert told the paper restoration is “at least three years away.” After more than a half-century of rusting away in multiple museums and a scrap yard, that may seem both tantalizingly close and frustratingly distant.

Here is Scranton 505 with Rochester 0243 at the former Rail City museum in 1959. Says Matt Nawn: “Less than five years after it left Scranton, the car was looking pretty rough.” Indeed it was. The remains of 0243, built as passenger car 162 in 1891, are now at the New York Museum of Transportation in suburban Rochester. Like 505, what’s left is basically in kit form.

The trolley’s long, sad journey is outlined in this illustrated Rockhill blog post, with photos reproduced here by the kind permission of the museum’s Matt Nawn.

I sincerely hope to see the day when this trolley is operable again. It is of course significant to Scranton, where I lived for six years, as one of the city’s last two operating cars and one of only three pieces of Scranton Transit rolling stock known to survive. It also rubbed shoulders with three cars from my native city during its first stop in retirement, the defunct Rail City museum in upstate New York, as described here. There, along with 505, were Rochester subway car 60, Rochester sand car 0243 (seen above) and Rochester horsecar 55. All three cars eventually returned to Rochester — like 505’s journey back to Scranton, via somewhat circuitous routes.

I also am hopeful that an artifact I donated to ECTMA last year may come in handy with the eventual restoration of 505.

The project has a Facebook page, while those interested in assisting the cause may send donations to: ECTMA, Project 505, P.O. Box 20019, Scranton, 18502. Checks should made payable to “ECTMA-Project 505.”

Posted in USA: Heritage | Leave a comment

Toronto previews the next generation of Red Rockets.

The Toronto Transit Commission unveiled the next generation of streetcars for the Canadian metropolis with a media event at TTC’s Hillcrest Complex on Thursday, Nov. 15.

Toronto Star reporter Tess Kalinowski offered this comprehensive report including photos and video.

One has to admire Kalinowski’s colorful prose, opening with the assertion that “Toronto’s new ride is a monster,” describing the 30-meter-long Bombardier tram as a “shiny red European-style streetcar” that is “tricked out with panoramic windows, air conditioning and four-door boarding.”

Numbered 4400, the car is the first of 204 vehicles to be built in Thunder Bay under a CDN $1.2 billion order, due to enter revenue service in 2014. The tram debuted today is one of three test cars. Kalinowski reports that “they’ll probably appear first on the 510 Spadina route, though that isn’t firm yet.”

Not present at Thursday’s event? Toronto mayor and streetcar-hater Rob Ford.

Here is coverage from The Toronto Sun and CBC News.


Posted in Canada: LRT/Streetcars | Leave a comment

Princely praise: Charles lauds Melbourne tramways.

Melbourne D-Class (Combino) tram 3519 is seen working a Route 6 service in November 2012, courtesy of Greg Northcott.

Prince Charles has created his share of headlines with his passionate advocacy for environmental causes, architecture and historic preservation. His worldview on sustainability and urban development also embraces tramways, as disclosed in HRH’s recent visit to Australia.

In an address to the Housing Melbourne Symposium, the heir apparent to the British and Commonwealth thrones praised the Victorian metropolis for its commitment to historic preservation and “well used urban spaces,” as well as its dense network of electric tramways.

“Unlike most cities around the world, Melbourne kept its tram system and improved it and is now considered a global leader,” the prince said.

Not Australia, and not a tram, but still public transport: Prince Charles aboard a preserved London Routemaster bus during a recent Royal British Legion publicity event.

There is a certain poignancy in Charles’ remarks. His native land was one of the world’s greatest developers of tramway technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the United Kingdom exporting vehicles and other technology worldwide, including Australia. And yet, like so many Western industrial powers, the U.K.  essentially exterminated its tramways wholesale between the 1930s and 1962, when the demise of the great Glasgow system left only the small, tourist-oriented system in Blackpool operating on mainland Britain.

Similarly, Australia also witnessed the demise of most electric tram systems in the postwar period. Sydney, once said to be the largest system in the British Empire after London, ran its last tram in 1961 (although modern versions returned in 1997). Adelaide’s lone line to the beach survived, but the big holdout was Melbourne, where foresight and civic pride led to the preservation and expansion of what is now the largest streetcar system in the English-speaking world, a comprehensive network of lines that even now includes a small number of vintage vehicles operating alongside cutting-edge modern trams. A representative sample of this colorful fleet can be seen in several photos that accompany this post, kindly submitted by my Canadian friend Greg Northcott, who has been visiting Australia.

Melbourne tram 907, an SW6 class car of 1945, is seen on a service to North Richmond in November 2012, courtesy of Greg Northcott.

Compared with some of his statements on architecture, for example, the prince’s views on the trams of Melbourne would seem fairly uncontroversial and benign. Yet just as his opinions have at times conflicted with policymakers on architecture and urban development, it is worth remembering that tramway retention and creation of new lines has at times been a lightning rod in the U.K. as well as Commonwealth nations. Just ask current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Likewise consider the abortive Leeds Supertram proposal or the ongoing Edinburgh tram debacle.

Still, Charles’ symposium address to what was probably a broadly sympathetic audience is likely to ruffle few feathers. If anything, it is sadly likely to get lost amid the more superficial coverage of his visit to Australia and New Zealand.

Long may she ride: E II R meets Z3.

If nothing else, his comments mark the second time Melbourne’s trams have received the Royal seal of approval in the past year, after Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh took a brief ride on a Melbourne tramcar during their visit to the city on Oct. 26, 2011.

Of course, the sovereign and her consort didn’t just wander into a queue to join the crowds for a trip down to Luna Park or a suburban ramble out to visit Edna at Moonee Ponds. This may well have been a private ride, but it was indeed a real workaday Melbourne tram, Z3 class car 158, specially renovated and decorated for the occasion. And there certainly were crowds — instead of jostling for a seat they were lined up along the sun-drenched sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the Royal couple. Finishing a walkabout, HM and HRH clambered aboard for a short ride to their next engagement, as the Herald Sun so artfully described the scene: “With a wave, and with St Paul’s bells pealing, the Queen boarded a royal rattler for a ride to Government House.”

Z3 class car 162 is signed up for Route 72 in this November 2012 shot by Greg Northcott.

For more on Melbourne’s trams past and present, see:

Posted in Australia & NZ: Heritage, Australia & NZ: LRT/Trams | Leave a comment

Bouncing back from disaster: Christchurch.

Christchurch tourist tram 11, a 1903 Brill product built in Philadelphia for the Dunedin, N.Z. system, is seen in heritage service on Aug. 11, 2007. The car was trapped in the depot and damaged when the Feb. 22, 2011 earthquake struck. It was later taken to the Tramway Historical Society’s tram barn, according to .
Photo by Flickr member Nick Bramhall and used by Creative Commons license. Click image for his photostream.

While we here in America are still working to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy days ago, one heritage tram operation overseas is eyeing a 2013 restoration of service in the wake of a much different natural disaster two years ago.

According to this news report, members of the city council planning committee in Christchurch, New Zealand voted this week to support reinstatement of the central area tramway loop “as soon as practicable,” which appears to be the middle of next year. The line’s infrastructure suffered heavy damage in the Christchurch earthquake of Feb. 22, 2011, which left 185 people dead and caused massive devastation across the city.

The tramway opened in 1995, a commercial tourist operation using vintage vehicles leased from The Tramway Historical Society. Its fleet of cars from New Zealand and Australia –including trams from the original Christchurch system, closed in 1954 — had become symbols of Christchurch in their own right. While not classed as a public transport venture nevertheless carried an estimated 280,000 people per year, according to the news report. More information can be found in another news report from this week.

Efforts to get the line back in working order working order “is reasonably straightforward and most of the relatively small cost of up to (NZ) $1.6 million will be covered by insurance,” according to an editorial by The Press,  adding that it “will restore to the central city a service that, having been fiercely contentious when it was first set up, had become a familiar part of the city.”

Even as the line’s restoration as a heritage service moves forward, there are those who believe the rebirth of Christchurch should see expanded use of tramways in a transportation role.

Some really lovely photos of the line as it looked before the earthquake can be found here, on the Timespanner blog.

Christchurch tram 178 in an Oct. 24, 2010 view by Flickr member chengang1029, used by Creative Commons license. Click for original photostream. Car 178 was built by Boon & Co. in 1921, but referred to as “the Brill.” It was rebuilt for one-man operation in the 1930s.

Posted in Australia & NZ: Heritage | Leave a comment

Pittsburgh: transit, yes, but is it rapid?

Passengers prepare to board a Port Authority light rail train at the North Side station, June 6, 2012. While I found the North Shore Connector’s design attractive and inviting during my visit four months ago, like a rider quoted in the attached Post-Gazette story I also found operating speeds over the new segment noticeably slow due to multiple signal stops along the $523.4 million extension.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, riders’ frustration has been mounting as service over the new North Shore Connector under the Allegheny River seems to be moving no faster than … well, the rest of Port Authority’s “T” system.

“Cars going from Wood Street to the new Allegheny Station on the North Side generally are making the trips quicker than the nine minutes that is allotted on printed schedules,” the paper reports of the extension, which opened in March. “But they go no faster than about 25 mph and slow to a near-stop or full stop at several signals.”

That may not be “a huge time-waster,” according to reporter Jon Schmitz, “but annoying to riders like Dan Zunko, who expected brisker service along the 1.2-mile extension that cost $523.4 million.” Zunko complained that his daily trip between North Side Station and Steel Plaza might include between three and five signal stops in each direction.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie explained how signalling on the new section offers “a greater level of safety.” While Port Authority is reviewing the entire LRT system to identify ways to improve speed and safety, “we don’t feel it’s worth compromising safety to get people from Downtown to the North Shore in 6-1/2 minutes rather than 7 minutes,” he told the newspaper.

Interestingly, the report goes on to recall how frustrations over the slow speed of LRT have dogged the system since it was modernized in the 1980s. One solution under consideration? Implementing proof-of-payment to eliminate long dwell times at stations due to pay-as-you-leave operation.

I have long been a fan of Pittsburgh and its transit system, but its arcane fare rules are a tradition whose demise is long overdue. Perhaps that has been a bigger time-waster than the 11 “little-used” stops eliminated in June.

Posted in USA: LRT/Streetcars | Leave a comment

Dispatches from Heaton Park.

Work continues on the depot extension at Manchester’s Heaton Park Tramway, documented on a regular basis through the lens of Joe Savage. A few of Joe’s photos from recent weeks follow.

For information on the tramway and how to donate, visit its website.

1937 Blackpool Brush car 623 on the extension last weekend.

View approaching depot sidings.

Gauge checking: Not just for model railways.

Joe at the controls of Stockport 5. Still can’t believe I drove this thing.

Posted in UK: Heritage | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in USA: Heritage | 3 Comments

A classic tram breaks new ground.

Bolton 66 and Standard 147 in Hopton Road, 1st October 2012, by Huw Cairns.

My British friends keep me well supplied with gorgeous photos, as you know. Some of their submissions from the past week cover a few firsts in the heritage department in grand style.

I have much catching up to do over the next few days, and wanted to start with  this amazing view from new contributor Huw Cairns, who captured not just one but two historic trams in Hopton Road, Blackpool, on the evening of 1st October. The occasion was a tour in which Bolton 66 returned to Fleetwood Ferry for the first time in at least three years, being the only the second vintage tram to do so since the system was upgraded for light rail vehicles. A good account of the event features on the British Trams Online news page.

Says Huw:

The evening of the 66 tour was truly unforgettable. It brought back fond memories of the system before the upgrade. A truly great trip, in great company, with some great photo opportunities, one of which you see here.

The picture was taken on Hopton Road, just after the tour had finished. The trams featured are Bolton 66 and Blackpool Standard 147. I hope the picture gives some idea of what it was like when most British towns had trams, something which in most places is just a memory, but not in Blackpool!

Yes, Huw’s shot does capture the essence of the tramway era as it looked in cities up and down the island before buses and cars took possession of Britain’s streets. The second tram is Blackpool Standard 147, which was just returning from separate Illumination duties in the Lancashire resort.

Bolton 66 outside Blackpool’s Rigby Road Depot, courtesy Joe Savage.

At left is another view, in which frequent contributor Joe Savage captured the car preparing for its excursion before darkness fell.

I’ve not had the pleasure of riding Bolton 66. Perhaps someday I can rectify that, and news of this tour does raise hopes that heritage tram operation over the line north to Fleetwood will come to be common once again.

Thanks again to Huw and Joe. I hope to have more for you soon, including some of Joe’s shots from two other events and a field trip I took to visit a survivor from my part of the world.

Posted in UK: Heritage | 2 Comments