Seventy years later: Remembering the Rochester streetcars.

A short note of commemoration: On this date 70 years ago, my hometown bade farewell to its streetcars.

Three Rochester streetcars await the call to duty during the system's later years. Noted for its focus on the rail equipment and accurate representation of the cars' livery, this vintage colorized postcard is a favorite with railfans. I own two copies -- one of them, oddly enough, posted from Canada in the 1950s and complete with a stamp depicting the young Queen Elizabeth II.

Rochester Transit Corporation officials and a crowd of about 5,000 people turned out at Main and State on the night of March 31, 1941 to watch trolley cars roll through downtown Rochester for the final time. There was, as was so often the case in such ceremonies elsewhere, some rowdy behavior that required police attention. While the last full day of service was March 31, the last cars returned to East Main Station in the wee hours of April 1. Apparently, many of the people who turned out to watch the final streetcars pass ended up having to take buses home, including one of the last motormen.

Passenger traction in the city would survive another 15 years, in the form of the Rochester Subway, a grade-separated trolley rapid transit line that ran in the bed of the old Erie Canal — and which is the subject of N-Scale modeling efforts I have described elsewhere on the blog.

But Rochester’s streetcar system died eight months before Pearl Harbor, taking with it a mode of transportation which may have come in handy during the long years of war to come. The subway certainly proved its worth during the war, as did the streetcars of Buffalo, 70 miles to the west (closing in 1956 and 1950, respectively). The year 1941, however, sounded the death knell for city streetcars in the central part of New York State: Once sister operations of the former New York State Railways Corp., the trolley networks of Syracuse, Rochester and Utica all closed within a few months of one another in the first five months of the year.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

While rail transit has not returned to Rochester, several streetcars and interurban cars managed to weather out the years as sheds and summer houses until they were rescued for official preservation. None has yet been restored to operable condition, but at least they are in caring hands.

Rochester streetcar 437 seen inside the exhibit hall of the New York Museum of Transportation, Oct. 31, 2010. Car 437 was built in 1904 by the Kuhlman Car Co. of Cleveland for the Rochester Railway Co. It remained in service with successor New York State Railways, Rochester Lines, until 1936. Click image to visit my Flickr photostream and more photos from my visit to NYMT last fall.

None of the cars in the above postcard is believed to survive, and all sisters of the first two cars are probably extinct. The third trolley in the postcard lineup, Cincinnati-built car 1234, was probably among victims of the scrapper’s torch at the system’s Blossom Road ‘bone yard,’ but is survived by fellow 1916 car 1213. Acquired by the Seashore Trolley Museum in 1985, car 1213 was moved from a suburban Webster backyard to the Maine museum, where its restoration is still listed as “in progress” at Seashore’s Town House Restoration Shop. Seashore also holds the body of deck-roofed Kuhlman car 394.

Closer to home, several Rochester-area city and interurban cars can be found at the New York Museum of Transportation in suburban Rush, whose roster page can be found here. One of their Rochester cars, 1904 Kuhlman 437, is seen above.

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One Response to Seventy years later: Remembering the Rochester streetcars.

  1. Jeff Marinoff says:

    I have a very interesting video tape about the history of the Rochester trolley subway. It was produced several years ago by a group in the Rochester area. At the end of the video, it tried to promote a modern light rail system for Rochester. I’m not sure if that video is very widely known about. I have a feeling that it was produced in a very limited quantity and not widely distributed.

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