August 2010 postcards

 My Wednesday Postcards feature kicked off in August 2010 with selections from Canada, U.S.A. and Australia: Two typical city cars from either side of a Great Lake, a classic interurban from small town Ohio and Victorian cable trams gliding through dignified Melbourne … and a very patient horse.


  • Aug. 4:
    Toronto — King Street looking east from Yonge Street, circa 1916.
  • Aug. 11:
    St. Marys, Ohio — East Spring Street, circa 1902-1911.
  • Aug. 18:
    Rochester, N.Y. — Unspecified downtown location, circa 1907.
  • Aug. 25:
    Melbourne — Town Hall and Swanston Street, circa 1890-1910.

4th August, 2010

TORONTO — This card is one of my all-time favourites, and not just because of the wooden Toronto Railway streetcar taking centre stage. It’s emblematic of early 2oth Century Toronto in the best sense: The buildings, street furniture, many of the fashions and indeed the general scene — including the streetcar — are distinctively North American. And yet, just above the King route car we see a Union Jack fluttering from the front of a building, while the police officer directing traffic wears an unmistakeably British-style helmet.
What’s also remarkable is that the photographer is more interested in this comparatively mundane tableau of daily life than in the massive edifice on the near corner. Completed in 1915, the 20-storey Royal Bank of Canada building was the tallest structure in the British Empire until 1928.
Examples of this general type of Toronto Railway car continued in service with the new Toronto Transportation Commission after 1921, and indeed the last wasn’t retired until 1951. This image, however, appears to show the car as it would have looked under TRC ownership, most notably suggested by the old-fashioned wire fender. Unfortunately, tinting and retouching obscure other key details, especially the car number.
What’s most exciting about this scene, perhaps, is what hasn’t changed in nearly a century:
The former Royal Bank Building is still there, albeit drawfed by modern neighbours. And streetcars still glide past on King Street, though no longer on Yonge Street thanks to the subway opened beneath Toronto’s main thoroughfare nearly 60 years ago; one of the entrances to King station, obscured here by the streetcar, is on the sidewalk in front of the bank building. And of course this Canadian Light Rail Vehicle bears scant resemblance to its TRC predecessor, though with members of the CLRV fleet hovering at or just below the 30-year mark the cars are well on the way to becoming vintage in their own right.
This slide is courtesy of my good friend, Torontonian Rob Hutchinson, who had to dig a little when I asked him to find a picture of this spot. It’s a challenging location to shoot, he pointed out, since all the skyscrapers tend to block out the sun. The Royal Bank, meanwhile, has long since moved to more modern high-rise premises of its own nearby. Rob also pointed out that the grand old building’s ground floor is home to a mattress shop; look closely and you can make out what appears to be a neon Sealy sign in the windows just above the Bell Canada telephone booths — yet another surviving anachronism.
I can’t promise such a neat then-and-now presentation every week, but this one simply cried out for the comparison.

11th August, 2010

It’s still Wednesday — barely — and so I still have time to present this week’s postcard.
This one is decidedly more obscure, but very much a favorite. Ornate facades look down on an oversized interurban about to depart for points beyond the fields that open wide at the edge of town. After rolling at thrilling velocity past strings of farms and stopping at a few crossroads, the varnished ark will once again slow down to street speeds as it enters another burgh that looks much like the one before. Strip away a few distinguishing features, and this really could be Anytown, U.S.A. circa 1910.
Thankfully, the card tells us where it is: East Spring Street in St. Marys, Ohio — not just the heartland of America, but very much the heartland of America’s interurban trolley lines, which thickly blanketed much of the Midwest. Located in Auglaize County in the western part of the state, St. Marys (no apostrophe) was a major traffic point on the Western Ohio Railway, which opened in March 1902. The somewhat smudged postmark appears to read “1911,” which would date this image to the line’s first decade, and certainly among its glory years.
The image also offers a hint of another transportation icon, the Miami and Erie Canal. The metalwork at right, below the triangular building, forms part of a bridge carrying the roadway across the canal. As described in this historical pamphlet, the canal linking Ohio’s “western interior” with Cincinnati and Cleveland was opened in stages between 1825 and 1845.
Its fate is similar to that of many early 19th Century American canals, such as the former Erie Canal, which passed through my own hometown: After mid-century, railroads swiftly rendered animal-hauled canal transportation all but obsolete. Vast portions were either filled and redeveloped or partially reborn as railroads or highways, but not all; some segments survived in use into the 1900s, and survived into the present day as recreational waterways and tourist attractions. (This sounds a lot like Western New York!) One such remnant of the Miami and Erie still flows through Auglaize County, where a modern canal boat replica can be seen on static display in St. Marys.
Canal construction also left another significant mark on the local landscape: The 13,500-acre Grand Lake St. Marys, an artificial lake built as a feeder reservoir for the canal. Said to retain the title of the largest body of water built without the use of machinery, it remains a popular recreational attraction.
The community’s long history as a transportation and trade center stretched back before canal days, as French explorers discovered when they forged links with the local Indian communities. So it was that in the early 1900s, St. Marys looked primed to become a major hub for a new transportation system. According to “The Lima Route,” Scott D. Trostel’s comprehensive 1998 history of the region’s interurban network, the Western Ohio Railway planned to make St. Marys “the center of the mainline operations” for the line. Before the burghers of Sidney, Ohio intervened, the main line was intended to pass through St. Marys. In the end, Sidney got the main line and St. Marys was relegated to a branch, albeit an important one. And while the W.O. did construct a large power plant, four-track carbarn and freight depot in St. Marys, Trostel tells us financial considerations led to the line’s main repair shops being built in Wapakoneta, about 10 miles east. The decision must have rubbed some salt in the wound for St. Marys residents a half-century after “Wapak,” as the locals call it, won the battle to become the Auglaize County seat.
No matter. The power plant was a major point of local pride, and the coming of the interurban transformed daily life not just for townsfolk but for farming folk. “The awful isolation between rural residents and the cities was ending,” Trostel wrote, speaking of how everything from produce and daily newspapers to even a high school education became more easily available to those who lived along the line.
Interurbans were more relevant than the major steam railroads in providing a level of local and medium-range transportation that connected smaller cities and towns. Trolleys did what most railroads didn’t, running right down Main Street in the towns and picking up passengers at isolated country crossroads beside farm fields. For many, it was the closest you could come to “door-to-door” service without a horse!
St. Marys was dead center on on the W.O.’s Wapakoneta-Celina branch, with another branch heading south from St. Marys to New Bremen, Minster and Ft. Loramie. The W.O. system itself extended north to Lima and Findlay and south to Piqua, with numerous connections to other electric lines along the way. A number of these systems eventually formed a cooperative network known as The Lima Route (hence the book title), extending in roughly a Y shape from Cleveland and Toledo to Dayton; from Wapak, one could board cars for a 154-mile through-service to Cleveland, Trostel writes. Thus, this lone set of rails in the middle of East Spring Street offered access and opportunities to a significant part of the Buckeye State and beyond.
But you know how this ends. The great years came and went. Auto ownership increased after World War I, as did the company’s expenses. Shaky corporate financing and The Great Depression completed the picture: The last runs were made in January 1932.
According to Trostel’s book, 1905 Jewett combine number 40 was still in existence in 1998 and stored in New Bremen, Ohio awaiting restoration. I’ve found no references to it on the Internet; if anyone else has information, I’d be curious to know its fate.
And that brings me back to this simple, yet remarkable postcard.
Compared with the highly stylized, colorized cards so typical of the era, this is a plain black-and-white image that’s not even centered on the card. For all that (and postal smudges), the level of detail is quite good. You can read much of the writing on the walls and awnings of the Glass Block building at right, which appears to be a kind of department store selling stoves, pianos and carpets among other things.
There is some retouching around the interurban, though not a lot, and the car itself is in fairly sharp focus. Unfortunately, I can’t really make out the lettering on its metal destination sign, nor the car number on the lower right side of the bumper. In any case, most of the line’s passenger cars were a mix of Kuhlman, Niles and Jewett products dating from 1902-1905; based on other photos in the book this looks to me like one of the 1902 Kuhlman cars, but I don’t know enough about them to be sure. I also can’t tell you much about the automobile parked outside the Glass Block, so anyone with information on either is also welcome to share!
The card itself was postmarked on June 5 of what appears to be 1911, mailed from someone named Kate to Mrs. E.P. Nash, 137 E. William St., Delaware, Ohio — another interurban town, this time on the Columbus, Delaware and Marion line. For what it’s worth, a chain auto parts store occupies that address today, according to Google maps, set well back from the street behind rows of parking. Mrs. Nash’s place, I’m guessing, is long gone.
Also fascinating is that while the card bears no publisher’s mark, it does contain translations for “post card” in what appear to be as many as a dozen languages, many seemingly eastern European. It stands as a monument to the massive influx of immigration to America in the early 20th century, west-central Ohio included.
Given my primary focus on collecting tram items from Britain, Canada, Australia and my native upstate New York, how did this card come to be in my collection?
I have a lost friend and St. Marys native to thank. He saw it on eBay a few years ago, and knowing of my hobby he tipped me off to the auction.
Thanks to him, I also got to see St. Marys in person once. That’s where I bought my copy of the Trostel Lima Route book at a shop on Spring Street, and had a chance to see what the area looked like a century after this picture was taken. Certainly many things had changed, but the scene is recognizeable enough; not sure if I got a decent picture of the bridge, though, so no before-and-after this time. And certainly no trolleys.
The card is a worthy specimen in its own right. The memories more so.

18th August, 2010

For the second week in a row I’m focusing on a trolley scene from a canal town near a big lake, as seen in the first decade of the 20th Century.
The similarities end there.
Leaving small-town Ohio behind (though we’ll return to the Buckeye state shortly), we visit my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., circa 1907. Far from a branch-line stop on the interurban, Rochester was — then as now — New York state’s third-largest city. Although it slipped in the national rankings from 24th to 25th largest urban place between 1900 and 1910, census figures also show significant growth in that decade, from 162,608 to 218,149.
Rochester was a major manufacturing and industrial center, though — as we saw last week in western Ohio — by this time railroads had long since eclipsed slow-moving canal boats as the engines of commerce. Indeed, by 1907 the once-mighty Erie Canal, subject of song and national folklore, was but a glimmer of its former self. The state by this time had already begun work on a massive improvement plan that would see the waterway enlarged, improved and re-routed around upstate New York’s inner cities by 1918, with the last canal boat passing through downtown Rochester in 1919.
In 1907, the city was well served by major railroads as well as being the hub of a growing regional interurban network. As represented on this card, it also was home to a growing local streetcar system with several hundred cars. The two-volume “Ninety Four Years of Rochester Railways,” by the late William Reed Gordon, contains a wealth of information, including the following staggering statistic: A 1908 document states that ridership for the fiscal year ended June 1907 was 64,000,000, or an average of over 5,000,000 per month (see Vol. I, pg. 102). I’d like to find separate confirmation of that number, but in very rough terms it equates to about 22 streetcar rides per resident per month. In the era before widespread auto ownership, that may not be so far-fetched. And 1907 would prove to be a watershed moment in the system’s development, as we shall see.
However the subject of this attractively-colorized specimen isn’t the trolley, of course, but patient Old Dobbin and his alert rider. According to this Website, the city’s original mounted police unit operated from 1887 to 1932 (like the trolleys, the horses were driven off the streets by increasing auto traffic) and was reinstated in 1977.
Sadly, the characters which make this such a compelling portrait also infringe on what makes it interesting to me as a trolley fan: The officer and his equine partner are blocking what would otherwise be a nearly perfect three-quarters view of the streetcar. And on the front of the car, we might have gotten a clearer look at two vital bits of information: Its number, and what line it was working.
Colorization here is a mixed blessing. Unlike many tinted postcards, this one got the trolley car’s paint scheme essentially right: Rochester Railway Co. cars at the time indeed wore a golden yellow hue as their base color. The problem is that between motion and tinting, the side numbers and side-mounted roof destination board are blurry. I can make out the car number as possibly in the 570s; the route names are an illegible mystery.
No matter. Based on the car design — especially windows and trucks — and the fuzzy side numbers, I’m pegging this car in the 570s, part of a group of cars (560-579) built by Cleveland’s G.C. Kuhlman Car Co. circa 1907, according to roster information and pictures in Mr. Gordon’s books. (One member of the class, 574, seems to have been slightly longer but otherwise similar.) Note also the chimney for the car’s stove — a feature used to warm Rochester streetcars for many years.
The card is not postmarked, but apparently was one of two that may have been mailed in an envelope, based on the message (see below). Given the trolley’s origins and date of 9-8-07 pencilled by the sender, it’s entirely plausible to believe that this card dates to that year and shows a relatively new streetcar making the rounds downtown.
Ah, but where; that’s the other puzzler for me. Tinting strikes again, as the shop signs are all practically indistinguishable. None of the city’s more recognizeable landmarks can be spotted in this scene, which appears to show a block of fairly ordinary, multi-storey storefront commercial buildings. A search of downtown views in several local history books I own failed to reveal any pictures taken from this vantage point, as far as I could tell. The bay windows on the center building suggested a few possible leads, but in the end none I could positively identify. And so another question for my readers …
Wherever this was shot, it’s emblematic of an important year for the Rochester Railway Co. In 1907, the company successfully sought city permission for numerous expansions of its franchise, both for double-tracking certain lines and extending others. According to Leon R. Brown’s “History of New York State Railways” (printed in vintage company newsletters and complied for modern readers by Charles R. Lowe in 2008) about 17 miles of new track were constructed in 1907, bringing trolley service to some parts of the city’s sparsely developed fringes. Two such extensions were on North Goodman Street and Clifford Avenue — my old neighborhood, incidentally.
As Mr. Brown pointed out, the city sought concessions in return. The most interesting of them, as regards this postcard, was to request the railway replace all single-truck (four-wheel) trolleys with larger, more modern double-truck (eight-wheel) cars. Whether or not this car was ordered in response to that provision, it was one of several batches of new double-truck cars — mostly by Kuhlman — acquired by Rochester Railway Co. during the first decade of the 20th Century.
That brings us back to Ohio, as promised. Imagine my delight, in surfing the web for information about the builder, to find another Kuhlman-built Rochester Railway car depicted here. The Cleveland-based company was founded in the 1890s by German immigrant woodworker Gustav C. Kuhlman. In the early 1900s, Kuhlman’s firm became a wholly owned subsidiary of the J.G. Brill Company, the world renowned Philadelphia-based trolley builder founded by another German immigrant. With plants in several states and overseas, Brill’s products were sold worldwide. As a subsidiary, Kuhlman continued to build and sell vehicles under its own name for nearly 30 years (until being reorganized as J.G. Brill of Ohio practially on its deathbed) to a customer base intensely focused on Ohio and neighboring states — although Montreal and Boston were among the more distant buyers.
Rochester was a repeat customer for Kuhlman, both under the Rochester Railway Co. and successor New York State Railways. Not counting rebuilt cars (and other early vehicles) that likely succumbed early, the backbone of Rochester’s double-truck fleet would be largely comprised of Kuhlman products, with Brill as runner-up (acknowledging, of course, the widespread use of Brill patents and components throughout).
The Buckeye connection was maintained, albeit moving south, when the Cincinnati Car Co. supplied 50 lightweight Peter Witt cars for Rochester in 1916. In many respects the pride of the fleet, these cars were, of course, built to a design pioneered by the Cleveland street railway commissioner whose name they bore.
Thus, Ohio-built streetcars would come to dominate the fleet until surface car operation ended in 1941. The car on this postcard probably didn’t last until to the bitter end, but members of its class certainly soldiered on well into the 1930s. Among the handful of officially preserved Rochester city cars are at least three Kuhlman products, albeit from different groups than this one.
Lastly, a few more notes on the card itself. Published by the Rochester News Company, it appears to have been printed in Germany, as many of the finest postcards were at this time. It wasn’t postmarked, as noted, and seems to have carried the second part of a message from someone named Pearl — to whom we know not, as I don’t have the other card. Amusingly, Pearl notes that she has “got so thin,” though she “never was very stout … naturally weighing about 115 lbs.” In response to receving a photograph from the recipent she promises to reciprocate with “one of mine when I have them taken.”
A timeless exchange, in its way.

25th August, 2010

We won’t be under the wires for this week’s postcard, but on the ropes.
Mention cable cars, and most people — tram fans and otherwise — immediately think of San Francisco. The city by the bay was the birthplace of cable traction and is the last place in the world where true cable trams (as opposed to funiculars) still operate.
Mention Melbourne, and most tram fans will immediately think of its sprawling electric tramway system, once dominated by distinctive green and gold centre-entrance cars of the various W classes of the 1920s-50s.
Once upon a time, however, Melbourne had one of the world’s greatest cable tramway networks, ultimately operating about 62 miles of routes over 46 miles of double track. For that statistic I turn to the system’s definitive history, “Mind the Curve! A History of the Cable Trams,” by John D. Keating.
It may surprise many Americans to learn that cable cars enjoyed a brief, intense heyday in cities across this country, indeed from coast to coast. While developed as a solution to tackling San Francisco’s hills in horsecar days, cable car systems enjoyed popularity in surprisingly flat and busy cities such as Chicago and New York.
Melbourne, with its broad, flat thoroughfares, took to the mode with a vengeance. Its system “was probably not surpassed in extent by any of the American networks, even that of Chicago, which is often stated to have been the world’s largest,” Mr. Keating wrote.
What is remarkable about the Melbourne system is not just its size, but how long it lasted and the fact that it was operated as a single undertaking. In 19th Century America, a single city’s streetcar system — even in small cities — might be made run by several companies competing for franchises to operate small clusters of routes or even individual lines. This was as true of cable cars (and early electric trolleys) as it was of horse cars.
Not so in Melbourne. A sprawling, 17-route cable system was operated by the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company for most of its life, from 1885 until the time of World War I. (A lone independent operator, in the suburb of Northcote, was incorporated into the main system in 1920.) Under the MTOC’s successor, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways board, the cable system would be dismantled in favour of electric trams, a process really only begun in the 1920s and completed with the retirement of the final cable trams in October 1940.
The exhorbitant expense of constructing and operating cable car lines in city streets swiftly lost ground to considerably cheaper — and more flexible — electric trams in most places as early as the 1890s. Indeed, by the first decade of the 20th Century most American cable car systems had peaked and soon faded from the scene. Chicago’s, for example, were gone by 1906. And while cable cars have survived in San Francisco, the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire saw much of the original system replaced by electric trolleys; those cable lines which survived were typically those serving especially steep routes.
There lies another pecularity of the Melbourne system. Save for some late Victorian experimentation serious development of electric trams in the Melbourne area did not begin until 1906 — and even then it was in the suburbs beyond the cable lines. MTOC’s cable trams had an effective stranglehold on public transport around inner Melbourne, and serious inroads by electric cars were still more than a decade away. The system actually fed on suburban riders who transfered to and from the electric cars at the ends of cable lines, and some sources suggest high ridership along the dense inner Melbourne corridors helped MTOC cope with high operating costs more successfully than cable systems elsewhere. Indeed, as late as 1923 the cable trams were still carrying 150 million passengers per year, according to Jack Cranston’s “The Melbourne Cable Trams, 1885-1940.”
More remarkable still was the rolling stock. Melbourne use cable tram trains, comprised of an open-sided “grip” or “dummy” car, from which the cable was engaged; and a closed trailer car which was towed behind. These vehicles were pure 19th Century, the trailers looking for all the world like an ordinary horse car of the sort which had all-but-disappeared from most English-speaking cities within a few years either side of 1900. While some new vehicles were built, they were typically the same essential design as the original 1880s cars. Lovingly maintained, such vehicles gently glided along busy Melbourne streets well into the automobile era and only disappeared as World War II raged. Archival footage from the final years can be seen below:
“It is a credit to the engineers and builders of the 1880s,” Mr. Cranston wrote, “that the cable system which finally closed down in 1940 operated much as it had in 1890.”
By that time, most of the world’s other cable car systems were all but dead. Tacoma fell in 1938 and Seattle in 1940. The last true cable trams outside San Francisco — in Dunedin, New Zealand — were abandoned in 1957.
As for this postcard. I don’t have a date, but an educated guess would place the image in the 1890s or early 1900s. Key clues to this are the apparent lack of motor traffic, as well as the monstrous old-style utility poles.
The view is on Swanston Street at the impressive Melbourne Town Hall, which actually predates the trams. Completed in 1870, the building was damaged by fire in 1925. Remodeled and enlarged, the building lives on as a Melbourne icon. Its main hall serves as host to entertainment and community events, and is home to the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ, which debuted in 1929.
To maintain a link with the previous two postcard features, note that the organ was restored a decade ago by the Schantz Organ Co. of Orrville, Ohio. A concert celebrating its refurbishment was held in 2001 in conjunction with commemorations marking the centennial of Australia’s federation in 1901.
The cable trams may be long gone, but their electric descendants continue to glide along Swanston Street past the venerable edifice.
Happily, several examples of Melbourne cable trams are preserved at a number of sites. For example, check out The Tramway Museum Society of Victoria — primarily an electric tram museum, but home to several restored cable trams. Then there’s the cleverly recreated cable tram tourist line run by Portland Cable Trams. You may not be able to ride a rope there, but it is probably the next best thing.

1 Response to August 2010 postcards

  1. Christine says:

    I just came across your blog. I love the postcards! I also have a blog – a postcard blog – and every Sunday is Streetcar Sunday. I hope you’ll come check it out.I will be back to see more of these as well.

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