Preserving a piece of Scranton’s trolley history.

The sign, as carefully unfurled on my living room floor. The font and condition of the Marion Street panel suggest a later splice -- and indeed, the weakness of that splice revealed itself as the uppermost destination, Armory, split off as I unrolled the aging linen.

It was one of those eBay items I had to have. That’s why I didn’t place a bid.

What was billed as the destination sign from a Scranton streetcar showed up on the Internet auction site a few months ago. The seller was in Scranton, and according to the listing the item came from a collection in the city’s Hill Section. There were other items, mostly a scattering of odd parts from Laurel Line interurban cars — esoteric bits and pieces of no special interest to me and probably not holding much interest for anyone except for someone actually restoring an interurban car. And no Laurel Line cars are known to survive.

The rollsign was a different story. Unlike a window frame or seat handle, this is the sort of item which would interest a wider spectrum of trolley fans and local history buffs alike: These names, these yellowed white letters against a black background, they speak indelibly of time and place, of neighborhoods and communities, of places where iron rails once echoed to the screech and clang of machines long since reduced to scrap metal. Such artifacts speak to people of local history in a personal, tangible way.

Destination signs have always been popular collectibles with transit fans. I own a number of them, but most are from buses and probably none of them are this old or this rare. Scranton isn’t, say, Boston or Philadelphia or Toronto, where hundreds of PCC cars survived in active service for decades after Scranton’s trolley system closed in 1954.

The question then, was how much interest there might be in this auction. When I stumbled on the listing it still had almost a week to run. I think the hit counter was still in the low double digits, and no one had yet bid at the $200 opening price.

Another possible stumbling block: Transit destination signs have in recent years become a hot property with interior designers — largely because such artifacts have gained popularity with their hipster clients. The real things are, of course, becoming an endangered breed as electronic signs are finally replacing the dwindling pool of conventional roll signs, even on larger systems which resisted the switch a generation ago (such as Philadelphia’s 30-year-old Kawasaki light rail vehicles). With the genuine article becoming harder and harder to find, such designers have taken to creating reproduction signs and prints and selling them for obscene prices. Such loft-friendly recreations are selling between $75 and $250 on eBay, replete with egregiously modern fonts and, often, made-up destinations — real places, but not necessarily sites that appeared on actual trolley signs — designed to conjure up the romance of the rails as these ersatz collectibles hang against exposed brick in the Park Slope flats where they serve as “conversation pieces.”

And those are just the fake ones. The real thing, even from a smaller city, often comes with a hefty asking price. A sample of current eBay listings: Indianapolis, $125; New York City area signs typically run from $200 to as much as $1,500 — yes, $1,500; even an Albany, N.Y., bus sign is listed with a minimum bid of $399. That seller suggests it would make for “wonderful artwork, when matted and framed.”

Considering I paid a specialist dealer $30 for a Boston PCC trolley rollsign only a decade ago, this is utter madness. In 1999 a junkyard owner in Ontario agreed to let me have the sign from a retired Hamilton Street Railway diesel bus for about $10, provided I extracted it myself. And the good folks at Blackpool Transport gave me a bus destination sign during a visit to their shops two years ago; turns out they use them as masking when painting.

The last thing I wanted was to get into a bidding war over this sign. Such a war seemed likely either to end in the disappointment of seeing the sign wind up in the hands of someone who wouldn’t truly appreciate its historic value, or in my spending half a paycheck on what appeared to be a very fragile piece of old cloth.

The sign’s age and apparent condition militated against too much interest from the interior designer crowd — aging destination signs may or may not be fragile, but if they actually saw any service they’re almost always dirty, greasy and even a touch odoriferous. Hence more reasons why the repros have gained in popularity. This specimen would surely have left black paint flaked all over the hardwood floor of some brownstone, leaving its trendy owners unhappy indeed.

With all respect and love for my adopted city, I also doubt there’s a huge market for signs celebrating Nay Aug Park or Marion Street. While Coney Island, Flatbush and the 7 Train might resonate with people around the world, “G.R. Suburban” simply wouldn’t. My choice, then, was to cross my fingers and hope the sort of locals and hardcore trolley fans who would know what this sign is wouldn’t see it or wouldn’t be willing to fork over 200 bucks for it.

They didn’t, and a week later the auction ended with no bids. I contacted the seller — a local antique dealer — and asked if he was willing to sell it to me directly. He responded by doing exactly what eBay advises against: He said yes.

I drove over to the shop one Friday before work and shelled out the cash. The lady tending the counter opened a cellar door and emerged with a behemoth.

I have seen a Scranton trolley sign in person before, oddly enough on display at the New York Museum of Transportation; that roll, mounted in what appeared to be an original sign box, was perhaps two feet wide. Laid on its end, the thing I just bought came up to my waist. I smiled, left with my monstrously wide find and loaded it into the trunk. Driving toward downtown Scranton, I started to fear that this was maybe a 1950s bus destination sign — still a great piece of local history, but not what I paid for. It just seemed too big to have come from a trolley.

A photo with the auction showed a pencil sketch on the back of the sign, depicting a whistling man in a peaked hat: “The singing motorman,” I think it said. That would certainly suggest it was a trolley sign. And then it hit me: Could this be from one of Scranton’s 1929 Osgood-Bradley “Electromobiles,” with their massive front destination signs?

It wasn’t until I got home much later that night that I was able to properly examine my purchase. It was then I discovered a second penciled message on an obscure patch of linen near one end of the roll:

This isn’t “History Detectives” territory. I really have no reason to suspect some collector would have gone to the trouble of labeling this as a sign from the last trolley to run in Scranton on Dec. 18, 1954, if it wasn’t — and indeed, the seller never billed it as such.

My hair stood on end as the implications of this discovery washed over me. This wasn’t merely a rare piece of local transit memorabilia. It wasn’t merely an artifact from one of 10 trolley cars which once ran in Scranton. It was apparently a collector’s treasured keepsake from the last trolley car to run on a system which had served the city since 1886. At the very least, that trolley was one of two cars to jointly make the final run, according to this site, which also includes a photo of car 503, the reputed source of my sign.

Except that I knew in my heart this wasn’t “my sign.” This was a piece of Scranton’s history, and needed to be treated as such.

Thanks to its size, it was too big for me to display with ease anywhere in my apartment. Even if I did have a space big enough to do the sign justice, it was far to fragile to support its own weight without restoration or framing — and I shuddered to think about the cost of either. Indeed, one of the panels, Marion St., looked remarkably newer than the other destinations, and its upper splice easily slid apart despite my efforts to unroll the sign as gently as possible.

Splicing the rolls was not uncommon on trolley and bus systems as routes and destinations changed, or as maintenance required. That was especially true in the days when transit companies made many of their own roll signs from cloth, as opposed to the thin plastic versions used in more recent times. The crude lettering and splices for Marion St., compared with the other destinations, suggest that panel may have been added when investment in trolley infrastructure was on the wane. That’s only a guess on my part, just as I can’t really say why there are so few destinations on this sign given the number of locations which were still served by these cars even into the late 1940s. Would the trolley company have gone to the trouble of actually cutting out unused destinations from the signs as routes were eliminated? I think that’s unlikely, although again I don’t know enough to say for sure.

As I was musing about its history, I decided the sign belonged with people who would be able to give it the care it deserved — and maybe a proper public display so visitors could see this important local artifact for themselves. So, on a Summer Sunday as I prepared to drive north out of Scranton, I delivered the sign to the museum, where member David Biles carefully unrolled it on a long table, approvingly surveying its time-worn lettering.

ECTM owns the lone surviving Scranton Electromobile, car 505 (read about it here and see a photo here). Aside from the fact that 505 is a long way from restoration, Dave explained that this original sign would not likely to be used in a vehicle, though it could certainly be useful in creating a new sign as part of a such a restoration project. Most likely, he said it could be a candidate for being displayed in its own right.

I look forward to the day when I can see the sign again, taking pride of place at the museum as a reminder of the days when Scrantonians traveled by trolley.

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2 Responses to Preserving a piece of Scranton’s trolley history.

  1. phoebesnow says:

    This piece has made me quite emotional. What a find! What a story!

  2. quahog says:

    Roll signs! Love those things!

    Have a few signs from Boston streetcars rescued while the cars were on the scrap track back in the 1950s.

    Saw on eBay just last week a 1930s vintage front roll sign from a Boston Elevated Railway type #5 streetcar. Even had the car number written on the roll. That was one from a Salem Street, Medford based car with some ancient destinations on it like SPOT POND to BUNKER HILL. The Buy it Now price was several hundred dollars. Maybe I should have bought it?

    Then again . . . rarity and obscurity doesn’t make something valuable. This stuff is so oddball and unknown to most people that the prices simply don’t seem justified.

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