October 2010 postcards

We bounced back and forth across the Atlantic in October 2010, which would sadly prove to be the last month of my Wednesday Postcards feature. From Philadelphia, again, we headed to England for the first time in the series, catching a glimpse of Sheffield’s original tram system as it looked in the 1930s, before German bombers wreaked havoc on the city centre. After that it was back stateside to the Buckeye state once again, where we paused to remark on one of the transit world’s curiosities, the long-lived horsecars of Middletown, Ohio. The month, and the series as such, ended with peek at a classic Edwardian tramcar in Derby, England. 
  • Oct. 6:
    Philadelphia — Market west from Tenth, circa 1900s.
  • Oct. 13:
    Sheffield, England — Angel and High streets, circa 1930s.
  • Oct. 20: 
    Middletown, Ohio — “Rapid transit,” circa 1914.
  • Oct. 27:
    Derby, England — Victoria Street, circa 1904-1910.

6th October, 2010

We’re back in Philadelphia, again — I know, it didn’t take long, but it’s an historic American town it its own right and a focus of much trolley and railroad history. All three elements are present in this view. Of course there is the streetcar, seen going about its business eastbound on Market Street.

Most recognizeable, straddling the city’s main street in the distance, is Philadelphia City Hall. The spindly figure atop its tower is a statue of William Penn (1644-1718), the English Quaker credited with founding the city and the colony of Pennsylvania. (The state’s name is Latin for “Penn’s Woods,” although it technically honors his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, at the behest of King Charles II.) Constructed on a square laid out by the younger Penn nearly 200 years before, the complex is a gem of French Second Empire architecture — which was considerably more en vogue when the the building was started in 1871 than it was when the massive project was completed in 1901.

March 20, 2009 view of the Reading Terminal building, from the opposite direction (looking east). Photo by Flickr user daBinsi via Creative Commons license. Click for photostream.

Somewhat less obvious in the postcard view is the mighty Reading Terminal, serving as downtown station and corporate headquarters for the Reading Railroad. Completed in 1893, the building with its arcaded midsection can be seen on the right side of the street just above and slightly back of the trolley.

Based on the early car type and apparent lack of auto traffic, I’d place this postcard image in the first decade of the 20th Century. What’s interesting here is that with two significant city landmarks in sight, the photographer chose an otherwise ordinary street scene which makes no mention of either. That’s happy for us as tram fans, but an interesting decision nonetheless. The caption merely says: “Market St. west from Tenth St. Philadelphia.”

I would quibble just a tiny bit, perhaps. The proximity of City Hall and the Reading Terminal makes me think this was taken a perhaps as much as a half-block west of 10th, so likely between 10th and 11th. In any case not technically incorrect, but given how long these blocks are I think the photographer was somewhere midblock, and perhaps closer to 11th.

The scene has changed over the years, but remains broadly recognizeable today even amid much high-rise development. City Hall is still there of course. So, too, is the Reading Terminal, although the last trains departed in 1984. It was redeveloped as part of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and entertainment complex, while the famed Reading Terminal Market survived the end of rail service and also was renovated. The market is one of my favorite spots in Philadelphia. It’s a great place to eat and people-watch. While I don’t imbibe myself, its indoor beer garden can be an oasis amid the chaos — a nice place to sit and contemplate, well, whatever.

Of course trolley tracks are long gone from Market Street, as alluded to in my Sept. 1st postcard taken a few blocks east. The remaining subway-surface trolley lines terminate (or begin, if you prefer) undeground at 13th and Juniper nearby, while the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated line has stations at both at that location and at 11th and Market. Trolley tracks do still cross Market in this area, on 11th and 12th streets: They are the disused irons of the former Route 23 which was “suspended” in 1992 and is served by diesel buses. SEPTA still maintains plans to restore light rail service, though the restoration date has been a moving target and is now somewhere between 2014 and 2021 — although funding has yet to be secured.

While I have traversed those tracks by streetcar, during a fan trip seven or eight years ago, I look forward to the day when the great Reading Terminal is once again accessible by regular trolley service.

13th October, 2010

Most of our Wednesday postcards thus far have been plucked from the first two decades of the 20th Century, when trams — and picture postcards — were in many respects at their most radiant. This week’s card breaks new ground in two ways: It is the most recent view to date, and after dancing around the Commonwealth a bit it’s also our first visit to the motherland proper.

Welcome to Sheffield, England, between the wars — and very likely during the early-to-mid 1930s. It was, of course, a period of economic turmoil and growing political unrest worldwide. British power and prestige were waning and headed for the ultimate test; if Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee marked high noon for the British Empire, the 1930s were in many ways a superficially brilliant ‘Indian Summer.’

Our real-photo view, by celebrated Scottish postcard publisher Valentine’s, is taken at the junction of Angel and High streets in Sheffield city center. My card is not postmarked, though I’m fairly comfortable with the early-to-mid ’30s date, based on the buildings and the trams.

It was a time of stylish decadence for those who could afford to indulge modern luxuries. The Jazz Age (though by now they were calling it “Swing”) produced some of the 20th Century’s most beloved popular compositions, its syncopated rhythms growing in popularity and respectability with everyone from the Prince of Wales to many of his younger subjects. And the striking lines of Art Deco design could be appreciated by rich and poor alike through wide application in architecture, typography, household goods and personal items, notably jewelry. Even fashion — again for those who could afford it — was sleek and streamlined. Think Wallis Simpson and Queen Elizabeth: Bitter enemies with some very different ideas about style, and each in her way a doyenne for women of the age.

The pedestrians in this picture may be a bit hard to see, though even in “Northern, industrial Sheffield” one gets a sense that they are largely in keeping with the stylish cuts of the age. The pair of Art Deco commercial blocks, meanwhile, might be a far cry from such monumental creations as BBC’s Broadcasting House or London Underground’s headquarters at 55 Broadway, but undoubtedly brought a touch of stark, stylish modernity to what otherwise seems to be a soot-stained Victorian cityscape.

Two of the three Sheffield Corporation Tramways cars bridge form a chronological bridge between the contrasting eras represented by the buildings. Car 454, in the foreground, is part of an order built as recently as 1926-27, though built to an orthodox “rocker-panel” design little changed from cars built as much as a decade earlier. Note how even at this late date the cars wear the corporation’s traditional, fully lined-out blue and cream livery, complete with delicate striping and the ornate lettering used here since horsecar days. Such elaborate paint schemes were largely obsolete in North America by this time, though some Sheffield cars would continue to be adorned this way for many years to come. Still, it appears a glimpse of the future has swayed into the frame in the distance, visible behind the looming overhead mast. That third tram appears to be a member of the slightly later category of so-called “Standard” cars, updated versions of the traditional double-deckers with straight panels and cleaner, more streamlined lines over all. Modest improvements would follow until construction ceased in 1939, and it was only after the war that an all-new, truly streamlined class of tram, the “Roberts” cars, finally appeared in Sheffield.

Of course, by the time the prototype Roberts car appeared in 1946 this scene was largely a memory. A major industrial center, Sheffield was destined to take a pounding, courtesy of the Luftwaffe. The Sheffield Blitz of 1940 entailed two bouts of heavy bombing, on the nights of the 12th and the 15th. According to this BBC retrospective, the Burtons shop on the corner was shelled, while the C&A Modes building behind (the second Deco block with a central tower) suffered a direct hit, as described by this companion BBC page (which also shows their Majesties the King and Queen visiting Sheffield to tour the damage). I’ve found some sources which suggest the Burtons building may have survived the war, only to be replaced later. Its successor has a definite postwar feel which lends some credence to that suggestion. Anyone who can offer a more detailed account is welcome to do so.

The first night of the blitz saw mostly civilian targets hit, including residential areas and this part of the city center; industry would take its turn in the Germans’ crosshairs two nights later. As described by this Sheffield City Council resource page, more than 330 German aircraft are believed to have attacked the city that first night. Almost 700 people would die in the raids and tens of thousands left homeless.

Still, Sheffield and its industries — and its tram system — soldiered on and survived those grim war years. It wasn’t until after the war that local industry began to decline, while the city’s trams didn’t finally succumb until 1960. As recalled recently by the BBC, Sheffield was the last English city to abandon its tram network, A half-century ago this month, on 8 Oct., 1960. The last large British system to go was Glasgow, in 1962, leaving Blackpool as the last first-generation electric tram system in the United Kingdom.

There is, as many of you doubtlessly know, a happy ending. In 1994 Sheffield inaugurated Britain’s second second-generation tramway system with the opening of the Supertram light rail network. Trams once again glide past this junction — albeit only on High Street — calling at what is known as the Castle Square stop.

As for the Burtons site, it is now a Primark store. Had I owned this postcard when I visited Sheffield in March 2009 I would have done a better job of capturing a modern day image of the site. As it is, this shot from about a block away will have to do. Here we see Meadowhall-bound tram 103 on a Yellow service approaching Castle Square, and the distinctive Primark building at the corner of Angel Street.

In a cheerful nod to the end of the old system, one of the modern LRVs has recently been painted in a cream and blue livery reminiscent of that used during the old system’s last days, as reported by The Star newspaper, and also illustrated here on the Supertram website. The design reportedly will remain in use until the end of the year.

Well, that settles it. I’m going to have to go and see for myself.

20th October, 2010

One of the personal benefits of the Wednesday Postcards series has been learning more about the history behind cards I’ve owned for years but which I’ve not previously taken the time to research.

We have such an example this week, with a card I probably purchased sometime in the early 1990s. It shows an open-sided horse car and is inscribed with the apparently sardonic description: “Rapid Transit, Middletown, Ohio.” My specimen is neither mailed nor dated, but given the 2oth Century popularity of postcards and the tone of the description, one gets the feeling that it was made after the horse car era had ended in most places. So, was the publisher looking back at Middletown’s horse car days with a wry laugh? Or is this meant to poke fun at a town trapped in the past?

Turns out it’s the latter. Yes, the Internet is an amazing thing. It didn’t take me long to learn that the Middletown cars were among America’s last animal-hauled streetcars, drawn by mules in the line’s last years. One site even pointed me to a book I already have in my own collection, Harry Christiansen’s 1971 “Ohio Trolley Trails” Vol. 1. Embarassed, I flipped to page 111 to find a page-long description of the Middletown horse car saga, followed by a page of photos including one of this very postcard, which the author dates to 1914.

Case closed? Well, not completely.

Mr. Christiansen and other sources suggested the Middletown horse cars, abandoned in 1918, may have been the last in the United States. I suspected that wasn’t true — though it certainly was among the last — but wanted to check a few points for myself. Joe Thompson does not mention Middletown on his Horse Car Home Page, but does confirm that Pittsburgh’s Sarah Street line survived until 1923. He also notes that New York’s Bleecker Street horse car line in Manhattan survived until 1917, so it’s certainly possible Middletown was second-to-last in America. Sandwiched between such distinguished company, little Middletown doesn’t seem so ridiculous after all.

Except that contemporaries didn’t necessarily see it that way. The New York and Pittsburgh lines were curious holdouts in big cities with large, modern transportation systems. While Middletown was connected to the outside world by railroads and electric interurban service, travellers arriving at the train depots were greeted by diminutive mule cars — and that drew derisive comments from in town and without.

My postcard was only one of several depicting the line’s open and closed cars during the early 1900s, most bearing some variation on the “rapid transit” theme. Illustrations of several can be found here, in the historic images collection of the Middletown Public Library. One of the library’s cards, seen here, carries this message from the sender: “I have my opinions of anyone who would miss a car like this. Haven’t you?”

I even found a copy of my card in the library’s collection, which dates the image even earlier, circa 1909. Whatever the date, the library’s description provides a specific location for this view: In front of the Sebald Block on the south side of Third Street (Central Avenue) “between Broad and the canal.”

The canal? Oh yes, we’re in another Ohio canal town. Readers may recall one of my August, 2010 cards, which depicted an interurban rolling through St. Marys, Ohio. Middletown, like St. Marys, was located on the Miami and Erie Canal that linked Cincinnati with Lake Erie.

According to Mr. Christiansen, the line opened in 1879 as the Middleton & Madison Passenger Street Railway Co., linking the town with railroad stations on its western and eastern outskirts: Respectively, the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton station in West Middletown (then Madison) and the Big Four station to the east. More information about each of those stations may be found on this page about Butler County, Ohio, railroad stations. The horsecar line changed hands over the years, including a period under CH&D ownership. In fact, the car in the postcard carries an advertisement for CH&D excursion fares, including an 80-cent Cincinnati ticket.

Alas, postcard publishers and locals weren’t the only people left scratching their heads over the line’s survival. “Horse cars were unheard of, except as history, in World War I days,” Mr. Christansen wrote, “and travelers stood in amazement at Third and Main to watch the driver unhitch the mule from one end of the car, and then hook the animal up to the other end.”

In 1916, Popular Science monthly took note of “at least” two surviving horse car operations in the U.S., namely Middletown, Ohio and New York City. The short piece notes that the Middletown line “went into bankruptcy several years ago (and) a junk dealer bought it for four hundred dollars.” Though still making a profit, the periodical suggested the owner could “pull up his tracks and sell them and his equipment (to) realize many times his original investment.” The article goes on to note an order by the public Service Commission of New York “that the horse-cars must go.”

Popular Science offered this post-script: “The reason for the demise of these municipal curios is that the picturesque equipment of 1860 can not meet the traffic demands of the 1916 public.” And doesn’t that sound like some of the arguments being put forth in Melbourne in 2010?

The “junk dealer” referred to by Popular Science is apparently Isaac Silverman, who bought the line in 1914, according to Middletown Library postcard captions. Mr. Christiansen says the system consisted in its last days of “two cars and five mules” in its last days, when Mr. Silverman “owned the one-mile hayburner line.”

Critics aside, it had its fans. “Most residents loved the quaint transit operation,” Mr. Christiansen wrote, but Armco Steel (then American Rolling Mill Co.) was pushing for more modern transportation. Still, there were tears and nostalgia when the horse cars passed from the scene in May 1918.

While it may not have been America’s last horse car line, Middletown’s animal tramway was, Mr. Christiansen noted, probably the only one “that went directly to buses without long intervening electric trolley operation.”

Of course, interurban and railroad service to Middletown for years to come, although they, too, ultimately went the way of the little mule cars. The southwestern Ohio city has its own bus system today, according to its home page comprised of six 28-passenger buses and two 9-passenger paratransit buses.

Mr. Christiansen reported that physical evidence of the horse cars had all but disappeared, with the barn and stable replaced by an apartment and the rails paved over. History would, however, resurface nearly 60 years later. This Middletown Library photo, from July 1976, says the tracks were rediscovered that Bicentennial summer when Central Avenue was rebuilt.

An interesting sidelight of this exercise has been the discovery that many other postcard views of this line were produced, including both open and closed cards. It’s going to be fun trying to acquire copies of my own.

27th October, 2010

It’s back to Blighty this week with a relatively new addition to my postcard collection, inspired by my 2009 trip to England.

We are on Victoria Street in Derby, with a classic Edwardian tramcar in the street and a group of working men in dark coats and characteristic cloth caps passing by on the pavement. Other than a few horse-drawn vehicles and clusters of pedestrians there doesn’t seem to be much else going on.

Derby — that’s pronounced “Darby” for my fellow North Americans — is an historic and industrial city in the East Midlands. It boasts a long history as an important centre of railway travel and railway carriage construction.

I spent a few hours at the modern incarnation of its venerable Midland station in 2009 between trains en route from Blackpool to Crich Tramway Village (via Matlock station). Sadly, I barely stepped outside of the busy station, spending most of my layover time in the cafe and bookshop after a very long day. I rather wish I had seen this useful site and gone exploring (like one of the posters I also found the hordes of rowdy post-match football fans that Saturday evening a bit irritating), but no matter.

This week’s postcard, meanwhile, is an eBay bargain I acquired about two months ago. Although not postally used, I would estimate it dates from the first decade of the 20th century, when Derby’s electric trams were still new. The car is seen at the system’s hub, the tramways office on Victoria Street — that’s the building at right with the arched doorways and workingmen walking past. That would probably explain why the tram appears to be standing unattended in the street, awaiting a motorman for its next trip. More information about the building can be found in the middle of this page about city centre architecture in Derby.

I didn’t know much about Derby’s tramways prior to researching this card. Electric operation was relatively short-lived, opening in 1904 and closing in 1934. Horse cars had been in operation since 1880, and survived to overlap the new electric cars for a few years. An account of transport operations under Derby Corporation auspices can be found here, at Peter Gould’s site. More pictures and history can be found in this well-researched blog post by Brett Payne. Another of Brett’s posts offers more history about the tramways building site, including this 2008 photo of a bus standing approximately where the tram was in our postcard.

One of Derby’s electric trams, car 1, is preserved at Crich. I saw it on display indoors during my 2009 visit; alas, my photo wasn’t very good and so I shall refer readers to this much better view at geograph.org, taken about a month after my visit.

Look familiar? Here we see a green and cream trolleybus in 1967, not far from where the tram was standing in our postcard (the bus appears to be one building closer to the intersection). Says photographer Alan Murray-Rust: "As it was 40 years ago, Victoria Street remains today an important picking up point for bus services, and the buildings are still there. Has the 60s facade of the Spotted Horse been modernised in the meantime? Double Diamond has certainly disappeared." Image Copyright Alan Murray-Rust. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Derby’s use of electric traction did not end with the trams. Trolley buses, first used in 1932, were the primary replacement for tramcars. The twin wire system went through numerous expansions, but despite its success ultimately succumbed to motorisation in 1967. Some of Brian Dominic’s atmospheric images depicting Derby trolley buses and their environment can be found here. Even more Derby trolley bus photos can be found at Tony Griffin’s Bus, Lorry & Railway Archive here. Still more photos of vintage Derby transport can be found at the Bygone Derbyshire site here, with some interesting perspective on the subject here. Operating examples may be seen at the Black Country Living Museum, East Anglia Transport Museum and the Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft.

The fact that Derby’s trams bowed out early and its trolleybuses survived into the late 1960s definitely seems to have given the electric buses an edge in the nostalgia department.

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