“We are … East Penn:” Two hours at a top-notch traction meet.

Quality of craftsmanship and realistic operation are hallmarks of layout modules displayed at East Penn Traction Club events. Here, a converted storefront structure serves as an off-street trolley terminal playing host to a Bachmann Baltimore Peter Witt car and a Brill deck roof car in early Philadelphia colors.

It still defies credibility.

I was half a block away when I realized what I had done: Happily plunked down $25 for gas, walked out of the station with a candy bar and two bottles of iced tea and then drove away. That’s right, without pumping said gas.

Even more happily, the clerk was prepared when I returned a few minutes later, breatlessly running into the store. “OK, you’re on pump 11 now,” she said with bemusement before I could utter the first syllable explaining that an old woman and her Oldsmobile were occupying the pump I’d just casually sailed away from.

My poor scattered mind, I must confess, already was 100 miles away in Phil-a-delph-i-a.

Trackside view of what I believe to be an O scale model of Red Arrow center door car 76. The prototype of this outstanding model is now resident at the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa.

Saturday was — as I termed it in my previous post — gameday for American trolley enthusiasts. Borrowing their masterfully understated description once again: “In the spring of odd numbered years, the East Penn Traction Club sponsors the largest trolley-only model meet in the country.” And, it should be noted, this is in the home of the largest surviving original streetcar system in the country.

Fifty states. Three-hundred million people. If you have any interest in modelling American streetcars this is the premiere event to attend. There are plenty of bigger train shows, to be sure. And there are other traction shows; in the interest of full disclosure, I have yet to attend any of them, but hope to do so soon. Still, this is reportedly the biggest one of ours: At which hardcore traction and transit buffs don’t feel so much like bastards at a family reunion. Forget having to sift through boxes of God awful boxcars to find that lone Tyco single-truck trolley which probably doesn’t even run. Forget scanning layouts the size of football fields to spot a Bachmann Brill car looking decidedly out of place trundling back and forth on a short stretch of badly contrived street track while silvery Amtrak trains whizz past on the mainline. Holy anachronism, Batman! (And not in the good way.)

Even if I could build something this realistic, where on earth would I put it? And how exactly to move it using a compact sedan ...?

This is our family, our turf, our history, our comfort zone. And for someone like me — modeller, enthusiast, historian — the East Penn meet is more than just a “toy train show.” Books and memoribilia (read: artifacts) are as much a part of the offerings as models and hard-to-find parts in every major scale. Still, true to form, as at all good train shows, the layouts serve not just as amusing displays but examples of the kind of realistic, museum-quality craftsmanship we all hope to achieve on our own home layouts some day.

I admit to feeling a chill run down my spine as I watched two HO scale PCC cars gently glide past one another on a stretch of realistic brick-paved street trackage, poles emitting tiny sparks as they swished against the burnished web of brass overhead. Scale aside, it truly felt as if I were standing on an overpass waiting for the perfect photo up — iPhone in hand like a klutzy Gulliver, I was, in a way — as two trolley cars went about their rounds. Truly a case of art imitating life, in a way the dusty models in my apartment will probably never do!

"Making you want to sing, 'God Save the King!'" Look what I found for sale among the volumes on offer by New England traction historian and bookseller Bradley H. Clarke. There were a few other UK titles to boot.

That 50-state reference belies a larger point. Aside from the fact that there was plenty of Canadian content — and some visitors, I gather — the range of goods on hand spanned the continent and beyond. My own haul this time consisted mostly of books, focusing on lines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Quebec and my beautiful, beloved Britain.

Then too, I took home an N scale carbody I’ll modify to represent a car from my native Rochester and a reprint of a vintage Detroit streetcar photo. I browsed veritable libraries of books covering every North American system of any size, enquired about the price of a London bus destination sign, chatted with an Australian about his N-Scale T-Trak layout and ran into enthusiast friends from several parts of Pennsylvania.

Some educational reading

My favorite purchase? It’s going to be one of the books, I think. Craig R. Semsel’s “Built to Move Millions: Streetcar Building in Ohio” (2008: Indiana University Press) appealed for appealed for several reasons.

As alluded to in my Historic Postcards series, many of the streetcars and interurbans used in Rochester and what I consider my home region of upstate New York (basically from Syracuse to the Niagara Frontier) were constructed by plants in the Buckeye state (including Ohio subsidiaries of Philadelphia-based traction juggernaut J.G. Brill). Given its relevance to that personal geographical niche, this book is likely to be a useful addition to my library.

Click image to visit Indiana University Press product page for "Built to Move Millions," by Craig R. Semsel.

More importantly, perhaps, I wanted to see how a professional historian and academic tackles this area of industrial history that has predominantly been the preserve of capable and learned amateurs, but amateurs nonetheless. According to IUP’s page on the book, Semsel teaches history at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. As if the Cleveland Peter Witt cars on the cover weren’t temptation enough, I was sold by the rear cover blurb:

At the beginning of the 20th century, the street railway industry was one of the largest in the nation. Once ubiquitously visible on the city streets, by mid-century the streetcar was nothing more than a distant memory. Ohio was home to several large streetcar systems, especially in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and had more interurban tracks than any other state in the union. Thus, Ohio served as one of the street railway industry’s greatest centers of manufacturing.

“Built to Move Millions” examines the manufacture of streetcars and interurbans within the state of Ohio between 1900 and 1940. In addition to discussing the five major car builders that were active in Ohio during this period, the book addresses Ohio companies that manufactured the various components that went into these vehicles.

Yes, I think this 312-page title is most assuredly going to bump several British history tomes that were on my immediate to-read list.

Postgame action

SEPTA suburban Kawasaki LRV 107 unloads on the inbound platform at 69th Street following a rain-streaked Saturday evening trip from Media.

I should point out that the trolley meet was formally a two-day affair — four, if you count Thursday’s setup activities and Sunday’s tours of private home layouts. My visit was, then, decidedly brief: About two hours, and perhaps a little less, toward the end of Saturday afternoon. I missed the tours, the how-to clinics and was only vaguely aware of a loudspeaker announcement heralding model contest results.

Having dropped my fair share of cash in record time and bade farewell to some friends, I prepared to return toward the Turnpike, and ultimately, Northeast Pennsylvania. A clumsy lane change brought me into King of Prussia and a quick dinner. Being so close to Norristown, would it have made sense to leave Southeastern Pennsylvania without at least a token round trip on the real thing? Of course not.

In some ways, the true focal point of this picture is the big white cup of coffee in the hand of that young man at right. He sat behind me on the car and damn did that Dunkin' Donuts brew smell good. For, while the headlights of Norristown car 152 appear to be piercing raindrops at 69th Street, it's merely a fine mist. May 14, 2011 couldn't make up its mind: Neither warm nor cold, not quite drenched but certainly not dry. In short, it faded into an ideal night for a bracing cup of java aboard a swaying Norristown High Speed Line car.

A misty May twilight, then, produced my first trolley trips of 2011: Norristown to 69th Street, thence to Media on the 101 and return.

The next thing I know three hours have passed, it’s nine at night and the last handful of cash I was saving for the Turnpike tolls had magically transformed into a cache of tokens and a few souvenir transfers (from what must be among the last systems in America still using old-fashioned paper transfer tickets).

There are ATMs at the Turnpike service plazas, after all.

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This entry was posted in USA: Heritage, USA: LRT/Streetcars, _Scale modelling. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “We are … East Penn:” Two hours at a top-notch traction meet.

  1. Albert Guckes says:

    Nice blog type entry. I am a former Phila guy now living in North Carolina and hated to miss this meet.

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