Trolleys in God’s country.

Porto car 172 of 1929, home-built by Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto, basks in the late afternoon sun at the Rockhill Trolley Museum. Oct. 9, 2010.

Last month I wrote about the successful return to service of Newark City Subway PCC car 6 at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in the Allegheny Mountains of rural Southcentral Pennsylvania. The buzz generated by that post — along with the fact that I’ve spent this year mostly posting other people’s (generously supplied) pictures and writing about other people’s (kindly offered) firsthand observations — convinced me it was time for my first serious trolley road trip in far, far too long. What more timely destination for me than the new home of car 6? Columbus Day weekend presented the perfect opportunity: Gorgeous weather on tap throughout the region as Rockhill prepared for its annual Fall Spectacular, in which a good chunk of the museum’s collection was likely to make an appearance out on the line.

East Broad Top mikado number 15, a Baldwin product of 1914, is seen on a track paralleling part of the Rockhill mainline on Oct. 9, 2011.

One of the delicious paradoxes of so many North American trolley museums, Rockhill included, is that while many collections are largely comprised of trolleys from decidedly urban areas, the facilities’ locations are anything but. Situated in the tiny borough of Rockhill in Huntingdon County, Pa., this museum is adjacent to (overlapping might be a better term) the famed East Broad Top Railroad, a 150-year-old narrow-gauge steam line that has been hauling tourists for a half century. In fact — somewhat unusually for a trolley museum — Rockhill isn’t even along the line of a former interurban, being quite some distance from any community that ever had a trolley line! It is nevertheless a picturesque setting, and truly God’s country. Headed north on US 522 at day’s end, I passed many a farm proudly displaying biblical verses — some of the inspirational variety, though most of a clearly fire-and-brimstone bent. The side of one barn, in boxcar letters (literally) warned travelers that God is coming.

Perhaps He, too, likes trains?

The operator of Oporto tram 249 waits for an outbound car to clear the mainline before he can ease the 1904 Brill semi-convertible out of the siding and back toward Rockhill Trolley Museum's main station.

If so, this was certainly the place to be on an October Sunday with crystal blue skies and highs in the 80s, as the ear-splitting shriek of steam whistles mingled with the more melodious toots of trolley car air horns and clanging gongs. The museum was operating a 20-minute service over its 1.54-mile line, which is mostly single-track with passing sidings (and a double-track terminus at its outer end, dubbed Blacklog Narrows). This made for plenty of activity as volunteers had to reverse the cars at either end of the line, raising and lowering the trolley poles, flipping the seats, and in the case of single-ended PCCs, driving those trolleys backward on the return trips from Blacklog to the East Broad Top end of the line. Throw in movements of cars in and out of service and mainline cars waiting to pass one another at sylvan sidings and this museum operation had the feel of a busy small town trolley line.

Check out these vintage bulbs inside Oporto 249. One of the volunteers said the museum bought a cache of these rare specimens from the Penn State engineering department a few years ago.

The main, or East Broad Top end of the line was a hive of activity as visitors ambled between the trolley station and EBT’s busy two-story wooden station at Orbisonia (Rockhill’s twin borough). The Blacklog end of the line, while an isolated spot pressed between a sheer rock cliff, a creek and the highway (effectively rendering the question of expansion at that end of the line a moot point), was a focal point of much activity as visitors were given the chance to ride out on one car and ride back on a different vehicle, enabling passengers to experience as many different trolleys as possible. It was not uncommon to have three cars queued up at Blacklog, with passengers crossing the island platform to change cars while operators and conductors went about their duties preparing the trolleys to travel back from whence they came.

 

Traction orange indeed: York Railways approaches the Blacklog Narrows platform. The Brill curved-side car dates to 1924.

The scenery is bucolic and pleasant. For steam aficionados the proximity of East Broad Top makes Rockhill a nice secondary attraction. But for those of us who bleed Traction Orange, it’s the diverse collection of vehicles which makes Rockhill a must-see. Some museums specialize in cars from one region or city. Other, larger facilities collect every type of transit vehicle under the sun. Still others soldier on with one or two operable cars. Rockhill is an interesting case. Its fleet comes mostly from Pennsylvania, yet includes cars broadly representing every stage in the development of North American trolleys between 1900 and the late 1940s.  In the space of an afternoon I rode vehicles from the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. All but two were built for a Pennsylvania system or built in Pennsylvania for export; the exceptions were a car built in Portugal to a classic American design and Newark 6 (built in St. Louis for Minneapolis). This colorful assortment of rolling time machines represents nothing less than a monument to American industrial prowess in an era when cities worldwide moved at a tram’s pace, when Brill, Cincinnati and St. Louis were the exporters before being eclipsed by the noxious handiwork of Ford, Chrysler and G.M.

OK, this one's an iPhone shot. It's not so hard to guess that this interior view of 1947 Philadelphia PCC car 2743 was taken and edited with the popular Camera+ application.

Before moving on to a little more history about each of the cars I rode on Sunday, a few notes on photography. I’ve been stuck in the 20th century, you see, and my “big camera” is still a film-munching monster purchased way back in 1997. Except that it hasn’t been out of the bag for more than a year, and I’ve been dithering over a digital replacement. I am originally from Rochester, you know, so the idea of abandoning celluloid has been a tough one. A colleague, Denis O’Malley, loaned me his Canon for the day. I paired it up with my iPhone, and the combined results were impressive. Or at least I thought so. You be the judge.

Oporto 249 * Brill, 1904

The conductor on Oporto 249 waits for the car to stop before alighting to throw the switch at Blacklog Narrows. Following is a 1915 Philadelphia and Western snowplow.

Built in Philadelphia in 1904, car 249 looks for all the world like one of the deck-roofed “semi-convertible” cars which were the mainstay of trolley systems all over America in the early 1900s. Built like tanks, these lumbering machines were durable and designed for use in all weather. Their windows could be slid into pockets between the body panels in warm weather, giving the benefits of an open car in summer while otherwise functioning as an ordinary closed car in cooler or wet weather. The name distinguishes these vehicles from convertible cars, a less popular hybrid with removable side panels.

The most significant structural difference between this car and its American cousins is its narrow width, required for tram lines that did — and still do — snake through the close confines of Porto’s ancient cobbled streets. After nearly 70 years overseas car 249 returned to Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, as described on its Rockhill roster page.

A volunteer attends to 249's trolley catcher after changing ends at the EBT end of Rockhill's line. Johnstown 355 is at rear. Note the position of several window sashes. When all were fully retracted, it's easy to see how wide open the passenger compartment would be, allowing extensive flow of air.

Rio 1875 * Built 1912

Rio 1875, a classic open streetcar, or "breezer" of the early 20th century.

The counterpoint to semi-convertible trolleys like 249 were fully open cars such as this vehicle, car 1875 that was built for Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1912. Wildly popular in the warmer months, such cars were of little use for much of the year in places with four distinct seasons. Traction lines experimented with various solutions in those days before air-conditioning. Semi-convertible designs were the most successful answer. Of course, Rio’s balmy clime would be the perfect setting for open trolleys, and they operated there for decades.

This car was assembled in Brazil using local woods reportedly married to Brill components. Like 249, car 1875 represents a key type of American vehicle that was otherwise unavailable to the museum, with open cars having disappeared from North American systems long before most trolley systems were abandoned, victims of increasing street traffic and safety concerns. The Rio car was acquired by Rockhill in 1965, and currently wears a paint scheme reminiscent of that used in Lancaster, Pa.

Rio 1875 prepares to depart from the main station at Rockhill.

York Railways 163 * Brill, 1924

York Railways 163 has operated at Rockhill longer than it did in York (1924-1939).

York Railways 163 is one of the museum’s gems. This 1924 Brill car that ran in the southern Pennsylvania city of York was the focus of a lengthy and painstaking restoration, and it shows.

It’s also a rare example of the Philadelphia builder’s ill-fated attempt to reproduce a design patented by one of its rivals, the Cincinnati Car Co. It’s known as a curved-side car; note the gently curved lower side panels. That aside, this vehicle is generally representative of North American city car designs from the 1910s and ’20s: Elaborate deck roofs were replaced by simple arch roofs, the window profiles are mostly clean and square, while steel construction largely superseded wooden carbodies built in the style of 19th century coachwork (compare 163 with Opporto 249 to see what I mean).

The motorman has just raised the pole to reverse York 163 for a return trip from Blacklog Narrows. Despite the high loading platform one can get a glimpse of the car's distinctive curved side panels. Immediately to the right of the trolley, the land drops off toward the creek below -- over which Route 522, here known as Croghan Pike, crosses on the span at right.

Johnstown Traction 355 * St. Louis Car Co., 1925

Johnstown 355 is flanked by an East Broad Top train, at right, with Opporto 172 behind.

While slightly more conservative in design, Johnstown Traction 355 is conceptually similar to York 163 — basically a “lightweight” steel car of the 1920s, just one more variation on a basic theme seen across the country. Serviceable, utilitarian and reasonably efficient by the standards of the day. What makes it noteworthy is that 355 was among the last of its breed in operation in the United States.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s streetcar system was the last small-city trolley network in America, remarkably surviving until 1960. And while Johnstown was remarkable also for being the smallest city to purchase new PCC cars, many sturdy 1920s vehicles such as these remained in service until the end.  A number of Johnstown’s conventional cars survived into preservation, including 355 and 311 (a 1922 product currently under restoration) at Rockhill. Sadly, none of its 17 PCC cars is reported to have survived, having being cannibalized so their vital components could be sold for further use overseas. I believe the bodies were all scrapped — and I’d be thrilled for someone to tell me otherwise.

Johnstown 355 waits in the passing siding for bullet car 205 to pass.

Oporto 172 *  S.T.C.P. 1929

Though built in 1929, Oporto car 172 looks and feels very much like a "Toonerville Trolley" of the 1900s.

Here we have a bizarre digression of sorts. We’ve progressed from a deck-roofed 1904 semi-convertible car to a smaller version of the same vehicle built 25 years later. Not only is it shorter, but this car is mounted on a single (four-wheel) truck of positively Victorian appearance. Late Victorian, but nevertheless …

Oporto’s trolley operator apparently liked the general design of cars like 249 so much that it decided to start building its own — albeit smaller, as befitting those narrow streets I spoke of above. Thus, long after such diminutive cars would have seemed hopelessly antiquated in America bona fide replicas were being produced in Portugal.  In fact, their much remodeled descendants can still be ridden there today, as I wrote about in posts on June 26 and  July 3 of this year.

Like Oporto 249 and Rio 1875, this vehicle fills a niche in the museum’s collection; it represents a characteristic single-truck trolley of the early 20th century as used in many small towns — except that it was built a quarter-century later for a European metropolis.

The motorman secures the trolley catcher into place at what is now the rear end of Oporto 172 after discharging passengers in the area near Rockhill's gift shop.

Porto back in the day? Hardly. More like my dining room a few months ago. This HO Tyco trolley, while not based on Porto's trams, certainly bears an uncanny resemblance. While some dismiss these little cars as toys compared with more serious models, their charming design is nevertheless highly realistic (save for the window silhouettes) and they remain popular with many modelers today, decades after production ceased. Offered in numerous (and generally fictitious) paint schemes, modelers have used them for many creative repaints. This generic red and cream livery is one of my efforts. I probably paid $10 to $15 for this car five or six years ago, and it is one of the most smooth-running HO models I own.

Oporto 172 gingerly takes the curve into the inside platform track at Blacklog, illustrating the close quarters here where the line is sandwiched between the hillside and the creek (see view of York 163 above).

Philadelphia & Western 205 *  Brill, 1931

Bullet 205 eases over the points at the passing siding on the museum's line. Even at comparatively low speeds, the sight of this car in motion is impressive indeed.

The technological gap between this car and everything I’ve already described is immense. It’s one of 10 high-speed interurban trolleys, dubbed “Bullet” cars, built for the Philadelphia and Western Railroad’s Norristown line in 1931. They were scientifically designed, being put through wind tunnel research for improved aerodynamics.

These streamlined vehicles were designed for high-speed operation over the third-rail suburban route that linked the Montgomery County seat with the 69th Street transit terminal outside Philadelphia, a hub where the Market Street Subway-Elevated trains from Central City met suburban and interurban trolleys and buses. It remains a vital transportation node today, and high-speed rapid transit cars still ply the “Pig & Whistle” route to Norristown. One has to wonder if their modern counterparts will match the bullets’ longevity; car 205 wasn’t retired until 1990.

Car 205 has had trolley poles installed for operation at Rockhill, and still wears the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority colors it carried at retirement. After plodding back and forth on cars like 172 and 249 (much as I love them), a ride on 205 was like upgrading from a Cessna to a 747. The bullets were equipped to do 70 mph and then some in their service days. While I doubt 205 comes anywhere close to such speeds at Rockhill, the ride to from one end to the other seemed to be over before you could blink.

Newark 6 *  St. Louis Car Co., 1946

A long way from Penn Station, Newark PCC car 6 awaits a mid-afternoon call to duty on Oct. 9, 2011.

As I have written extensively about this car before I shan’t repeat its history. Suffice it to say that this postwar PCC, while not built to the heavy duty standards of a P&W bullet car, is light years removed from most of the collection. Like 205, (and 2743 below), its acceleration and ride quality are vastly superior to conventional trolleys. Like the bullet cars, PCC trolleys were the result of applied scientific research. Like the bullet cars, many of them were remarkably long-lived.

Matt Nawn eases Newark PCC car 6 toward the EBT platform using the car's auxiliary backup controller.

I was just glad to finally see this car up close and in person. Not only that, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Matt Nawn, one of the museum’s officers who was actively involved in this car’s restoration and who shared his thoughts on the process for my blog post last month. Happily, he didn’t seem too bothered by how much of a Spaz I was being, photographing car 6 from every conceivable angle while he was explaining various aspects of its restoration, or how I hovered to shoot the process as Matt operated the single-ended car in reverse using the auxiliary backup controller tucked behind the back seat. His vintage Public Service operator’s hat certainly looked the part, fitting in well with the car’s 1950s Newark paint scheme. Thanks again, Matt.

Operator Matt Nawn steps down at Blacklog to attend to some matter with PCC 6. I believe he may have needed to lower the front pole on 6 so the conductor at rear could swing the long pole on Oporto 172, at left. "This never would have happened in Newark," someone quipped.

Here we see what is required to lower the rear pole on car 6. The front pole added for museum operation (see first photo above) is attached to a trolley catcher mounted considerably lower.

At first I was angry at that minivan for ruining a great broadside shot. In retrospect, it provides useful contrast with the proportions of street railway equipment, such as car 6 itself and the trucks at left.

Philadelphia 2743 *  St. Louis Car Co., 1947

A friendly chat serves as a prelude to a late-afternoon departure by SEPTA 2743.

I’ll close with the newest of the cars I rode, and another special favorite.

Built for the Philadelphia Transportation Co. in 1947, car 2743 is, like Newark 6, a PCC streetcar of the all-electric postwar design. These vehicles represent the height of first-generation American streetcar development, which came to a halt with an order of PCC cars built for San Francisco in 1952.

Philadelphia’s original PCC fleet ran until 1992, with many units finding new homes at museums and as thoroughly renovated F-Line cars in San Francisco. By 2005, some even returned to service in Philadelphia itself as shells coupled with all-new equipment as PCC-II cars for the restored Girard Avenue line.

Some genuine SEPTA transfers, albeit from 2009, add a touch of realism to the operator's area of 2743.

But I’ve always had a certain fondness for the red, white and blue SEPTA livery applied to these cars during their last original stint in Philadelphia. I thought they wore the minimalist contemporary colors (still used in Philly today, with variations, save for the green-and-cream PCC-II cars) rather well. It represents a significant era in the history of Philadelphia’s trolley system, albeit a sad transitional period when many of the remaining streetcar lines were in decline.

Still, I can’t discount sheer personal sentiment. As this is what Philly PCCs looked like in the years when I was awakening as a railfan, naturally these colors  evoke some nostalgia for PCCs serving out their final days on the streets of Philadelphia.

Even dashing through the woods among the Alleghenies.

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9 Responses to Trolleys in God’s country.

  1. Christine H. says:

    That does it. I must go to Rock Hill! Thanks for posting these great pictures.

  2. Harry Donahue says:

    Great article, Roger; good writing with good photos!!

  3. Valerie Robbins-Rice says:

    Wow! I really enjoyed your article and photos!!! Even though I volunteer there, this makes me want to go there! Your highlighted histories were just right…and since I was glued to the ticket booth the whole weekend, it was great to see your excellent coverage of the many cars that only run special events. And just think, we have a few more gems that run, but which we didn’t have room or time to include in this Columbus Day Weekend’s Fall Spectacular schedule including the Liberty Liner! Maybe the next time… Many thanks for your great coverage!

  4. Fred M Pohl says:

    I would rather see these in museums than the junkyard anyday

  5. Roseanne Hunt says:

    Where is Rock Hill? We’d love to go, read your blog with interest, just don’t know where it is.
    Ed Harkin

    • DuPuis says:

      It is in Southcentral Pennsylvania, on US 522. Can’t really say it is near any large or notable town. It is in the rural heart of the state. If you’re looking at a map, look for Rockhill or Orbisonia.

  6. Steven Goehring says:

    A fine photo tribute to a fine museum, one I enjoy operating at. Thank you for sharing this!

    I’m glad you like Matt’s hat; it was my third transit badge reproduction project. With how much you like streetcars, I encourage you to dive into transit badge research too. It’s a fun thing to learn about, and with image treasure troves like the following archive of past e-Bay auctions, it’s easier than sounding two dings on a foot gong! http://www.worthpoint.com/

    • DuPuis says:

      Steven,

      Many thanks. I have never really picked up the hat badge bug, though heaven knows I collect everything else! I only have two badges, one from my hometown — a 1950s or ’60s Rochester Transit Corp. bus driver’s badge.

      I really had a wonderful time at the museum. Great place, and I hope to get back again next year. Such an excellent collection, cutting across all the major eras.

      Best,
      Roger

  7. Matt Nawn says:

    Roger,

    Thank you very much for this wonderful article and outstanding photos. We’re very glad you enjoyed your day at our museum and having you along for a ride on PSCT #6 was really a pleasure.

    Hope to see you again soon. Your posts are always quite enjoyable; thanks for what you do.

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