September 2010 postcards

There were five Wednesdays in September, 2010. Shamefully, I only got around to filling four of then with my Wednesday Postcards feature. They were, I hope, four enjoyable and informative selections: Trolleys before a grande dame of American retailing, an author’s retreat, a mighty industrial town with a tragic history and a regal-sounding outpost of the British Empire.  
  • Sept. 1:
    Philadelphia —  Eighth and Market, circa 192os.
  • Sept. 8:
    Elmira, N.Y. — Lake and Water Streets, circa 1900-1910.
  • Sept. 15:
    Buffalo, N.Y. — Main Street downtown, circa 1902-1910.
  • Sept. 22:
    Adelaide, South Australia — King William Street, circa 1909-1910.

1st September, 2010

Ah, September. It puts one in mind of summer’s end (here in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) and going back to school. With the return to classes comes back to school shopping — and a perfect introduction to this week’s postcard.

Here we are looking west on Market Street in beautiful downtown Philadelphia, and I do mean that. For while there remains much of beauty and interest in Central City today, this 1920s view illustrates the core of Benjamin Franklin’s metropolis in an era when the motor car was in the ascendant but not yet dominant, when trolley cars still plied the city’s main thoroughfare and when several grand downtown department stores held haughty sway over local commerce.

Numerous names vied for retail supremacy, such as Wanamakers (with its famous organ), Lit Bros. and Gimbles. This, the northwest corner of Eighth and Market, is the domain of Strawbridge and Clothier’s. The stately pile, together with the trolley closest to the camera, helps us date this photo to between 1923 and about 1928.

To wit, a bit of history. Founded in the 1860s by two Quaker merchants, Strawbridge and Clothier’s — latterly known as Strawbridge’s — was a fixture in Philadelphia life for about 140 years. Built in the grand retail tradition, Strawbridge’s once boasted among its amenities “marble floors and polished mahogany counters, wide aisles and gracious staircases and plush restrooms for the ladies,” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article published when the store finally succumbed a few years ago. It had been, the writer pointed out, “‘as distinctively Philadelphian as Carpenters’ Hall or the Betsy Ross House,’ this newspaper noted on the store’s 75th anniversary.” A copy of that 2006 story, together with a related blog post by the Save Ardmore Coalition, can be found here. The 1943 Inquirer editorial quoted in the store’s obituary was earlier cast in stone and proudly displayed in the store itself, as another local journalist noted with bitter irony upon the store’s demise.

Yes, the demise. Strawbridge’s ultimately followed the tragic path taken by many American department stores, from the humble to the great. Struggling to remain relevant in a suburbanized America, the family ultimately sold out to a corporate conglomerate — in this case the May Department Stores Co. — in 1996. May was in turn acquired by Federated Department Stores in 2005, and finis was written for Strawbridge’s in 2006.

Let’s turn the clock back again. It’s the Roaring ’20s, and the building which would shut its doors to shoppers in 2006 didn’t yet exist when our postcard picture was taken. This five-story structure of Victorian lineage was the one built and expanded by the store’s founders during their greatest years. Construction on its Art Deco replacement — which still stands (albeit amidst controversy over its future usage) didn’t begin until circa 1928.

That brings us back to the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co. trolley standing at the corner. While postcard tinting once again obscures a trolley’s number, this is very clearly a member of PRT’s 8000, or “eighty-hundred” series cars, built in three groups between 1923 and 1926. Constructed by the legendary Philadelphia-based Brill Co., the group of 535 cars comprised 8000-8384 (delivered 1923), 8385-8484 (delivered 1925) and 8485-8534 (delivered 1926). A detailed history of the class may be found in Harold E. Cox’s invaluable “Surface Cars of Philadelphia, 1911-1965.”

The trolley immediately behind, meanwhile, appears to be one of Philadelphia’s far more numerous — and noted — “Nearside” cars, of which 1,500 were ordered between 1911 and 1913 (cars 6000-7499). To paraphrase Dr. Cox, the later 8000 series represented a modified form of the earlier type.

I’ll spare you a detailed technical explanation of the various models here. Suffice it to say the last Nearsides weren’t retired until 1955. The 8000s lived for two more years, earning historical significance as the last trolleys to serve Market Street. A smaller number of streamlined PCC cars would ultimately supplant the older types as many lines were abandoned and the once-spawling network was whittled down to a shadow of its former self.

Still, Philadelphia remains a great tramway town, home to the largest conventional trolley system in the United States, albeit a vastly smaller network than it once was. Then, too, electric traction continues to serve Market Street commuters, with subway trains calling at Eighth and Market as they have for more than a century — indeed, as they had been for about 20 years before this photo was taken — only today there’s no more Strawbridge’s upstairs from the station.

But what of all those rattling, clanking streetcars which once plied the rails of Philadelphia? Just to take the types mentioned here … Numerous examples of its all-electric PCC cars from the late 1940s survive today, in museums as well as in passenger service — in rebuilt form — in San Francisco and on Girard Avenue in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Nearsides and 8000s, on the other hand, were all but exterminated. Just one of the 1,500 Nearsides — 6618 — survives, preserved at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. I saw it in 1996, but was not able to take a ride.

Of the 8000s, three are known to survive. Car 8042 is now in the possession of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, near Pittsburgh. Car 8530 is understood to be alive and well and preserved by a private collector in rural Pennsylvania. The final car of the class, 8534, has had a somewhat more storied retirement. It was partially restored to its original appearance and maintained in working order for charter trips on the surviving system from the 1970s until the 200os. I was fortunate enough to ride it during a fan trip 10 years ago this month, during a September 2000 visit to Philadelphia. I’ll have those pictures scanned to disc … someday.

We would meet again, however. I now live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where 8534 is preserved, on static display, under a canopy outside the Electric City Trolley museum. Information on ECTM’s collection can be found here, along with some photos of 8534, here. At left is what the two of us looked like on a damp Scranton Sunday in 2007: Another happy day.


8th September, 2010

We’re back to small town America with this week’s Wednesday Postcard.

Small, of course, is a relative term — compared to last week’s subject of Philadelphia, anyway: Elmira N.Y. had about 35,000 people in 1900, which I believe is roughly about the time when this week’s postcard image was taken.

Trolley fans outside of New York State will likely know Elmira’s system, if at all, for its last days, when the fleet was dominated by a collection of new and second-hand Birney cars wearing a smart hex-dash livery. Complemented by a motley assortment of double-truck cars, the doughty little Birneys held down the fort until 1939, when Elmira’s last trolleys said their farewells on a blustery March day.

For a small city, Elmira’s street railway history was remarkably diverse. Riders were served by competing companies even in horsecar days, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the city’s electric streetcar systems were finally merged. Throw in a short-lived suburban steam dummy line, some early double-deckers, two interurbans and two amusement parks (Eldridge Park and Rorick’s Glen) and there you have many hallmarks of the American trolley era in this somewhat obscure upstate New York community.

This postcard shows what Elmira looked like in the glory days of its trolley system — and perhaps of the city itself. While the population didn’t peak until the mid-20th Century (hovering at about 50,000 people) the city’s heyday was arguably much earlier.

As late as 1961, Upstate New York traction historian Shelden S. King could write in “Elmira Trolleys” that “the core city is much the same as it was in trolley days, the population growth of the area being, as in the case of so many communities, in the suburbs.” It is mostly to Mr. King’s slim but scholarly volume to which I turn for the tramway portion of this week’s story. William Reed Gordon’s “Elmira and Chemung Valley Trolleys,” of 1970, is the other.

The general character of Elmira as observed by Mr. King a half-century ago is still discernable today. Drive around town in 2010 — particularly north of the Chemung River — and you’ll find a noticeable amount of late Victorian and early 20th Century architecture in many neighborhoods, both residential (such as in the “Near Westside” area) and commercial. While more modern buildings cleary exist (especially downtown, where urban renewal schemes resulted in a swathe of demolition and many concrete monstrosities in the wake of devastating 1972 flooding) one gets the clear impression that most developments of substance were in place prior to The Great Depression.

Its moment in the national spotlight came and went even earlier. Outside of its own sphere, Elmira is probably best known for two things: A grim Civil War prison camp and for being the burial place of Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910).

Twain’s arrival was an accident of sorts: A Missouri native, the celebrated author married a local woman, Olivia Langdon. While more-or-less permanently encamped in Connecticut, the family summered in Mrs. Clemens’ hometown for more than 20 years and did a fair bit of writing there; the octagonal study where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sprang to life can still be seen on the grounds of Elmira College, to which it was relocated nearly 60 years ago.

Indeed, this week’s animated postcard scene at Lake and Water streets would likely have been a familar one to Twain in the later years of his life. As this local history page says, “he was often seen roaming the streets of the city looking for a billiards game, or someone to chat with.”

The prison camp, meanwhile, was less of an accident and certainly less celebrated. Elmira’s growing role as a regional railway hub led to creation of a Union training facility, part of which was converted for use as a prisoner of war camp in 1864. More than 12,000 Confederate prisoners were interned in what became known as “Hellmira,” where nearly 3,000 of them died due to primitive conditions and the harsh winter climate. They were buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery, adjacent to the civilian Woodlawn Cemetery which later became the final resting place of Twain and his family.

Incarceration would, however, become a local industry of sorts. Fouded in 1876 as the Elmira Reformatory, the maximum security Elmira Correctional Facility still looms over the city’s west side. A few miles outside town, meanwhile, lies the even more strict Southport Correctional Facility, opened in the 1980s.

To all intents and purposes, however, Elmira was a railroad and industrial town. It still is, though both sectors have declined over the years, as has the population: Roughly 30,000, today, or close to 1890 levels.

Mr. King suggests the system’s physical growth peaked in 1911 “as far as extensions were concerned,” though mileage at that point is unclear. King says track mileage was 31.85 in 1934; that seems to have been before any significant cutbacks save for the interurbans, so it may well reflect the peak mileage, or fairly close. Gordon and King both say there were still 30 miles of track in 1938, when New York State Electric and Gas (the final owner) sought permission to abandon the system.

Operationally, the system seems to have remained strong into the pre-Depression ’20s. Mr. Gordon cited statistics that the Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Co. carried 8.2 million passengers on its city lines in 1923 — up from 8.1 million in 1922 and (incredibly) 7.4 million in 1921, though further context seems elusive. For many years, he wrote, most routes enjoyed 15-minute headways.

The Depression hit Elmira hard, and that included its transit system. The use of so many economical one-man Birney cars may well have helped beleagured little system to survive as long as it did.

The vehicles in this early postcard view — when an arc light suspended over the street illuminated one of the city’s main intersections — likely bowed out before the system did. Based on some educated guesswork, I’d say the open single-trucker in the foreground and a similar vehicle in the distance probably didn’t survive in passenger service beyond the 1910s (the Birneys started arriving in 1919) though some pre-Birney single-truckers did survive in modified form as work cars. The big double-truck car in the center, on the other hand, may well have lasted into the ’20s, when some deck-roofed vehicles as this were retained for rush hour and special event service.

As we’ve seen before, postcard tinting has obscured some details. Gordon publishes a much clearer version of this image in his book, in which he says the open car in the foreground is 61 (in his book that’s fairly clear, together with a Sullivan St. destination sign). The big closed car, he says, is Elmira & Horseheads 20. The third car is not identified. Neither King nor Gordon provides a comprehensive all-time roster (in fact King is mostly quiet on the subject of early cars), so I am hesitant to attatch particulars to either vehicle. I strongly suspect the open cars date to the mid- or late-1890s, while the closed car may be slightly later, perhaps 1899-1901.

If any of these three trolleys saw the dawn of 1930, they likely did so from the confines of the system’s storage yard. A 1933 fire, started by hoboes, destroyed four stored vehicles there; to avoid a repeat, remaining retired cars were scrapped soon afterward, Mr. King wrote, and “little trouble was thereafter encountered with hoboes.”

After abandonment in 1939 , double truck cars 500 and 501 (the latter used for the final ceremonial trip) were sold to Arequipa, Peru. There they ran in modified form there for 20 years or more, and an example can be seen here, on Allen Morrison’s Tramways of Peru site. Several Birney carbodies, meanwhile, seem to have wound up in use as cottages near area lakes. I saw at least one Elmira Birney (probably 112 but not certain) and other trolleys still in use for that purpose at Lake Lamoka, N.Y. — legendary resting place for a crop of Upstate trolley carbodies — as late as 2005; if I can ever find my pictures I’ll post them.

A few postscripts are in order.

While Elmira lacks its own rail transit, modern rail vehicles are built in suburban Elmira Heights. Today operated by CAF USA (the parent is Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), S.A.), the former ABB Traction and Adtranz plant has been engaged in railcar assembly since the 1980s. Vehicles built there include Baltimore’s first order of light rail cars. Though the plant has seen good days and lean, it has been a bright spot in the local economy.

Though I grew up 100 miles away, I have a longstanding interest in Elmira which predates even my tramway obsession. Though hard evidence has yet to surface, family lore holds that we are related to Mark Twain on my mother’s paternal side. Another long story, but suffice it to say I have made several pilgrimages to the grave of that lion of American literature.

15th September, 2010

I couldn’t help but offer another New York State postcard this week, but with good personal — and historical — reasons.

Last week’s subject, Elmira, was a one-horse town compared with our subject today: Buffalo, the nation’s eighth largest city in 1900 (pop. 352,387) and a major streetcar operator. Why did I choose Buffalo this week? My birthday is Sept. 14, and this year’s present from my mother was D. David Bregger’s 2008 book “Buffalo’s Historic Streetcars and Buses,” one of the best Arcadia Publishing transportation titles I’ve seen to date (here’s its page), published under its “Images of America” label.

Also, Sept. 14 is a significant date in Buffalo — and American — history. On that day in 1901, President William McKinley died at the Delaware Avenue home of John G. Milburn, eight days after he was shot twice at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition by anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz.

Tragically, then, 1901 has been shrouded in black for the people of Western New York, who have enshrined Mr. McKinley’s name on streets, mounments and a hospital, among other things. Sad, that, as the exposition was otherwise a high point for local prestige. While apparently a bust financially, it was in many ways a glittering display of Buffalo’s (and America’s) growing industrial prowess and remained a cultural touchstone for generations of local residents.The decade, too, was in many ways a watershed for Buffalo’s growth and development. First, population: Number eight in 1900, it grew but had dropped to the nation’s 10th largest city by 1910 (423,715). While its peak would not come until the 1950 census (580,132), Buffalo was bumped from the top 10 after 1910. Contemporary numbers are well below 1900 (276,059 est. as of 2006), as Buffalo has witnessed a half-century of industrial and population decline.

The early 1900s, though, were a booming time. In our postcard — an exceptionally clear black-and-white image — we can see in the distance the distinctive domed roof of what was then the Buffalo Savings Bank, completed in 1901. It was one of several distinctive local structures built in the first decade of the 20th Century, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1906 Larkin Company Administration Building (demolished 1950) and the 1905 Albright (now Albright-Knox) Art Gallery.

As Mr. Bregger’s book points out, this also was an important period for the local transit system. Whatever other impact the Pan-American Exposition had on the local economy, it was a boon for the trolley network. The success of several associated street railway companies in coordinating exposition traffic in 1901 ultimately led to the creation of the International Railway Company in February 1902 with the intention of acquiring and amalgamating a welter of streetcar and interurban lines in Western New York; as the name implies, the system also crossed the US-Canadian border into Ontario, where the company ran tourist trolleys (including the famed Great Gorge Route in the Niagara Falls area) and two of the international bridges across the Niagara River.

Our postcard shows two cars which appear to be from the 800 series. I don’t have roster information at hand today as I am “home” in Rochester and not “home” with my books in Scranton, but I believe these cars probably date from the 1899-1902 period. I’ll check and confirm later.

It may not have the enduring name recognition of Southern California’s Pacific Electric system, for example, but in its heyday IRC was one of America’s greatest electric railway systems. In addition to the sizeable Buffalo streetcar system, IRC operated the city car systems in nearby Niagara Falls (N.Y.) and Lockport, several interurban lines (including the impresive Buffalo-Niagara High Speed Line, opened 1918), the Canadian lines mentioned above and, starting in the 1920s, buses — including some experimental double-deckers used in Buffalo. According to Mr. Bregger, the system at one time comprised 983 cars and 353 route miles of track.

Unlike Pacific Electric, however, IRC’s great years as a rail operator were comparatively short-lived. The 1930s hit hard, and IRC turned to buses with a vengeance. The tourist operations, interurbans and city streetcar operations in Niagara Falls and Lockport were abandoned before the decade was out, and IRC’s rail operations were limited to Buffalo. While the Nickel City still had a sizeable streetcar system, by 1940 IRC was already making plans to have an all-bus system by 1950, Mr. Bregger writes.

While World War II would give the streetcars a temporary reprieve — and indeed, the system coped with unprecedented loads as Buffalo’s industries geared up for wartime production — IRC remained committed to replacing the trolleys with cheaper, more flexible internal combustion buses. The company had no interest in electric transit, and while ridership remained strong in the immediate postwar years, rising costs and rising auto ownership began to catch up with IRC. Financial difficulties led to reorganization and rebirth as Niagara Frontier Transit on June 1, 1950. The last streetcars ran one month later, on July 1. Sadly, no Buffalo streetcars are known to survive.

Rail transit returned to Main Street — on and below — with the opening of the Metro Rail light rail rapid transit system in 1985. The 6.4-mile system operates on the surface through downtown Buffalo, where Main Street was controversially converted into a transit mall. But much of the line (more than 5 miles) runs through an eight-station subway between the edge of downtown and the South Campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

While not a precise then-and-now photo, the March 2002 photo at left shows Metro Rail trains passing near the former Buffalo Savings Bank building seen in our postcard. Here, the Japanese-built Tokyu Car Corp. LRVs are wearing the former Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (public sector successor to the NFT of 1950) colors in which they were delivered, and which have since been superseded.Oh, and this is another post in which we can play spot the Ohio connection.

It is, in this case, fairly obvious: President McKinley, assassinated in Buffalo, was a native of the Buckeye State. The Republican had represented Ohio in Congress and later served as its governor from 1892 to 1896. He was a longtime resident of Canton, in Stark County, where he was laid to rest in 1901.

There are two trolley-related ties. First, Mr. McKinley’s birthplace was actually in Niles, Ohio. That’s where the Niles Car and Manufacturing Company was founded in — wait for it –1901; among its customers was the Buffalo, Lockport and Rochester Railway, a non-IRC interurban.More relevant to our story is how Mr. McKinley spent his Western New York visit the day before he was shot. It may be hard to tell, but the famous photo above left shows the president, standing in the fourth window from the right, aboard a Great Gorge Route private car during his visit to Niagara Falls.

22nd September, 2010

This week’s postcard celebrates a royal marriage, in a manner of speaking.

Here we see more than a dozen electric tramcars (I count at least 14 before things get hazy) going about their business on King William Street, in the heart of Adelaide, South Australia. As in my Aug. 25 Melbourne postcard, we again see trams passing by another town hall (note the distant tower) in another Australian state capital. There are, however, some key differences. Unlike the Melbourne card, these trams are all electric. That, and this Adelaide view was made perhaps as much as a decade later.

Before discussing Adelaide’s transport history, an explanation of that royal pairing I mentioned. King William Street is named for His Majesty King William IV (1820-1837), sovereign when the city was founded in 1836. More significantly, the city itself is named for his queen consort, the former Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in Thuringia, Germany.

Queen Adelaide’s namesake city has had an eclectic transport history. Steam railways and horse-buses developed in the mid-Victorian years. Organized street transport took a dramatic, if belated leap forward (by North American standards) in 1878 with the introduction of horse trams. The system grew and prospered, with a fairly sprawling network in place by 1900.

While popular and successful, horse trams clearly had their limitations: Not just the plodding vehicles themselves, but the patchwork of private operators providing the service. As the 20th Century dawned Adelaide civic leaders sought a unified, mechanized solution. In the event, it took until 1906 for the state government to approve creation of the Municipal Tramways Trust with its mandate to electrify the city’s tramways; indeed, the first electric cars did not run until 1909.

As with the horsecars, electric trams got off to a somewhat late start in Adelaide (although a short-lived experimental car was tried in the city 20 years earlier), but once installed the city took to them with a passion. Our postcard is very likely from those earliest years of electric operation — if not, indeed, that very first year. The cars all appear to be members of the initial Type A and Type B designs. Also noteworthy: The relative absence of motor vehicles (though a few can be seen) and the throngs of tram passengers walking and waiting in the street.

While distinctive Australian tramcar designs would eventually emerge (most famously the dropcentre types as used in Melbourne, Sydney and later here in Adelaide), early tramway equipment in Australia tended to be either British or American in origin, whether imported or built locally. American-style single-deck cars prevailed in most places, including Adelaide. Though the bodies were constructed by local coachbuilder Duncan and Fraser, these first 100 cars were distinctively American in appearance and equipped with Brill running gear. Seventy of them (Type A) were partially-open “California” cars, while 30 (Type B) were open sided cars. Such vehicles would have been unmistakeably familiar to any American of the day — albeit slightly dated: The ornate single-truck (four-wheel) vehicles more closely resembled the type of cars with which many North American systems embraced electrification themselves 10 to 15 years earlier.

Longer, double-truck (eight-wheel) cars followed in the next few years, again of a broadly American pattern as translated by local carbuilders. The classic Adelaide urban tram, its variation on the Australian dropcentre type, finally arrived in the 1920s, albeit flanked by another small order of small single-truckers (the “Desert Gold” combination cars of 1918-1919) and four Brill single-truck Birney cars imported in 1925 — and built for Australian left-hand operation.

H-Class tram 367 operates a heritage service in Moseley Square with a Flexity successor in the background, April 2010. Photo by Flickr user xaragmata via creative commons license. Click image for photostream.

The most memorable of local trams arrived in 1929, with the construction of 30 long interurban-style cars for the electrification of a suburban steam railway to Glenelg. Known as the H-Class, these cars had a distinctively American feel to them — albeit being built at a time when most American interurban lines were already on the brink of extinction. They would, however, live far longer than their Yankee counterparts.

Interestingly, it was in bus design that Adelaide turned — for a limited time anyway — to Britain: Double- and single-deck electric trolleybuses were imported from Britain, while double-deck internal combustion buses also enjoyed popularity for a time.

Alas, however, Adelaide mostly fell prey to the postwar trend which largely swept the English-speaking world. The rise in postwar auto ownership undercut public transit use. The last city trams were replaced in 1958, with the trolleybuses abandoned five years later.

But buses did not completely prevail. The Glenelg line soldiered on, continuing to link central Adelaide with the beach-side suburb. Indeed, its slightly reduced fleet of 1929 H-Class cars continuing to provide the service until 2006. Though they had undergone some upgrades over the years, in overall appearance these remarkable cars continued to look as they had when built nearly 80 years before.

Modern Flexity tram at Glenelg, 2007. Photo by Flickr user DrewOtt via creative commons license. Click image for photostream.

In a heartening development, the 21st Century has seen the Glenelg line enter the light rail age with a fleet of new low-floor vehicles and the opening of what are planned to be the first of several extensions. Returning to the topic of this week’s postcard, the initial expansion project returned trams to part of King William Street in 2007. For more information on modern public transit in Adelaide, visit the Adelaide Metro page.

Survivors of the city’s tramway past, meanwhile, continue to delight new generations of fans at the Adelaide Tramway Museum at St. Kilda, whose webpage contains a wealth of photos and information about the system and its history. Among preserved cars are examples of the 1929 H-Class as they appeared at various times over the years. More relevant to this discussion, there one also can see examples of the early Adelaide cars which thronged King William Street in our postcard view. Happily, also, five of the H-Class cars remain on the original system for weekend heritage service.

See? I told you Adelaide had an eclectic transit history. And I didn’t even get into that whole guided bus business.

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