There was once a time when the streetcar, or trolley, could be found all over American cities. These now-historic vehicles once transported commuters around cities, only to be replaced by cars and buses. One famous private collection of a plethora of America’s forgotten streetcars is reaching the end of the line. Soon, the ‘Trolley Graveyard,’ officially known as the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company, will be headed to the scrapper.
Train content is back by reader demand! Having an interest in a ton of different vehicles is difficult. How do I give all of them attention at once!? I also love vehicles that float but have rarely dipped my toes into those waters. However, with summer finally here, I can get back out there and enjoy some lovely train action, including seeing what’s going on at America’s largest train museum, the Illinois Railway Museum, which is now back in regular operation.
One place that I’ve been wanting to check out for years is the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company (above). Located in Windber, Pennsylvania, the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company is a private collection of streetcars (also called trolleys, depending on your region) owned by Ed Metka. His goal was to save and restore forgotten pieces of transportation history. Instead, so many of the cars fell victim to vandalism and disrepair.
Now, as Railfan & Railroad Magazine reports, most of the streetcars will never see restoration. Any part of the collection that cannot be saved will be headed for the scrapper.
Streetcars Used To Haul Millions Of Riders Around America
The history of the streetcar dates back nearly 200 years. As the Smithsonian National Museum of American History writes, American cities of the 19th century were smaller, walkable cities. Many citizens were able to simply walk from their dwellings to the shops and to their workplaces. As these cities grew, so did their forms of transportation. If you had to go farther than you’d want to or could walk, you could board a horse-drawn carriage, an early form of bus.
The first streetcar is often reported to be the New York and Harlem Railroad. Designed by coachbuilder John Stephenson, the railroad opened in 1832. Stephenson’s design called for coaches that rode on rails and were pulled by horses. Steam engines were introduced in 1837 for limited use and the first electric streetcar didn’t arrive in the city until 1888. Streetcars began exploding in popularity around North America. New Orleans got its first streetcars in 1834, and Toronto started its first line in 1849. Chicago was a little late to the party, opening up its first streetcar line in 1859.
Streetcars began hitting their stride after the Civil War. As I mentioned previously, there was some experimentation in propulsion. Horses and mules were dominant, but steam saw some implementation. After the Civil War, cable cars began sprouting up around American cities. Cable cars solved a number of problems with using animals for propulsion. There was no need to feed an animal or pick up its waste, thus reducing city pollution.
Yeah, cities back in those days had piles of waste in their streets. Plus, cable cars were faster and carried more passengers. And did I say there was no poop involved?
Cable cars began replacing the horsecar, but they had their own problems. See, cable cars run using a constantly moving cable embedded into the ground. When a cable car needs to stop, it disconnects from the cable and the operator engages a brake. As the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association writes, maintaining a cable car system was expensive, and at times, riding in a cable car back then was dangerous. Since the cable ran at a constant speed, the operator didn’t really have the ability to trim speed for obstacles or perhaps sharp curves.
For most cities, the cable car was a short-lived transition technology. In the 1880s, electric technology reached a point where it was ready to revolutionize the streetcar. As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes, Frank J. Sprague would change streetcars forever. MIT notes that Sprague spent a lot of his younger years filling the pages of notebooks with mechanical drawings. In 1883, he began working for Thomas Edison, where he developed an electric motor with potential for industrial applications. With Edison, Sprague assisted with the development of the three-wire electrical light system and helped Edison’s firm learn the idea of using mathematical formulas for experiments as opposed to trial-and-error.
Sprague eventually realized that his heart was in transportation, not lighting. In 1884, he left Edison’s company and founded the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. There, Sprague worked on developing a successful electric streetcar. He wasn’t the first, but Sprague wanted to perfect the idea. Earlier in the 1880s, Charles J. Van Depoele of Chicago and Leo Daft of Greenville, New Jersey both had somewhat successful streetcars. Depoele invented the trolley pole, a pole that delivers power to a streetcar from an overhead line. Leo’s idea was the troller, a truck that ran along an overhead line to power the streetcar.
MIT writes about how Sprague changed streetcars:
Sprague was able to conquer a number of challenges with a comprehensive system that incorporated several designs he invented himself, including improved electrical energy systems, wheel suspension, automatic controls, automatic brakes and a non-sparking motor that could maintain constant revolutions with varying loads. In 1887, Sprague began the installation of a 12-mile electric rail system in Richmond, VA, for the Richmond Union Passenger Railway. This was to be the first large-scale electric trolley line in the world. It opened with great fanfare on Feb. 2, 1888.
Sprague’s invention was a hit and soon enough, the horsecar and cable car were quickly obsolete. The electric streetcar did what previous technologies could not. An electric streetcar moved faster than a mule, could slow down on command, and didn’t require a complex cable system. By 1917, the Smithsonian writes, there were 45,000 miles of transit track, around 17,000 miles of them were streetcar lines, and there were millions of streetcar riders all over America.
From Streetcars To Cars And Buses
The stride of the streetcar didn’t last. As the Smithsonian writes, streetcars had to battle the government, the corporations, the car, and the bus for survival. From the Smithsonian:
Buses started to replace trolleys in the 1910s. Many commuters considered buses a modern, comfortable, even luxurious replacement for rickety, uncomfortable trolleys. Buses made business sense for transit companies; they were more flexible and cheaper to run than streetcars. In a few cities, auto and auto-supply companies, including General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Standard Oil of California, bought an interest in transit companies and encouraged the conversion from streetcar to bus.
As Vox writes, that paragraph doesn’t really tell the whole story. While General Motors-controlled National City Lines was buying up streetcar lines and converting them into bus lines, the company was buying up streetcar companies that had already lost the battle to the bus and car. As more people bought cars, city traffic began piling up on streets, blocking streetcars, thus making them late to their destinations. Some cities, like Chicago, gave streetcars their own right of way, which made them last a little bit longer.
However, as Vox notes, another critical problem was that streetcar fares became artificially low. You could ride a streetcar for just a nickel. After World War I, five cents didn’t go as far as it used to, but streetcar line owners found it difficult to raise prices as municipal commissions didn’t approve fare hikes. Eventually, and for a number of reasons perhaps worthy of their own piece, America’s streetcar operations went bankrupt and dried up.
The Vintage Electric Streetcar Company
As Modern Cities writes, Ed Metka grew up in Chicago in the 1940s. There, he fell in love with the Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) streetcar. These streetcars were designed by a committee largely consisting of representatives from the remaining large streetcar operations left in the United States. Chicago Rapid Transit Company was one of those represented in the committee, which was later renamed to Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee.
PCC streetcars were designed to keep the streetcar relevant for as long as possible. These streetcars were modern with rubber seals for a quieter interior, a softer suspension for a more forgiving ride, and a bus-like seat for the operator to sit in to operate the streetcar. They were also built to be able to accelerate and stop quickly. PCC streetcars were built between 1935 and 1952. Around 5,000 were built and some were in revenue service well into the 1990s. Today, fewer than 100 PCCs are known to be in operation today.
When these PCC streetcars began retiring from service in the late 1980s, Metka decided to be the one to single-handedly save them from the scrapper. His collection started with 14 PCC streetcars from Boston’s MBTA in 1992. Since they were sold for scrap, Metka got them for $500 to $1000 each, plus the cost of shipping. Metka needed a place to store his streetcars and chose the 21-acre plot once owned by the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company in Pennsylvania. There, the mining company had a shop where it manufactured coal cars.
It would become Metka’s base of operations and unfortunately, a graveyard for dozens of PCC cars. According to Railfan & Railroad Magazine, Metka at one point had almost 60 PCC cars at his Vintage Electric Streetcar Company. Metka has tried to save as many PCC cars as possible with the goal of restoring them and seeing them back in service, perhaps with museums. Many units in the collection have been left to nature and also vandalized. Many are in an unsalvageable state. His site also has buses!
The site has become famous in part thanks to videos showing the unfortunate levels of decay of the PCC units. It seems Metka couldn’t save all of those PCCs and the ones he did save were destroyed by people who couldn’t respect someone else’s property.
This video shows the depressing state of the property:
Thankfully, that’s not the case for all of the streetcars. Eight units in better condition are stored in the shop on-site. I’m also happy to note that the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company hasn’t been a total failure. I live near Kenosha, which runs five PCCs acquired from the site. Metka got these PCCs from Toronto in the 1990s and today, they’re restored and enjoy running on the city’s tourist streetcar loop.
Sadly, as Railfan & Railroad Magazine reports, it seems Metka’s experiment has reached its final stop. At the end of the year, most of the equipment on site is to be cleared out and scrapped. PCC cars from Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston, and Kansas City are all represented on the site. There is still time for museums and enthusiasts to save both cars and parts. Those seriously wanting a piece of transit history should give Bill Pollman a call at 617-828-7308.
If you’re interested in riding in a PCC, there are a few places where you can still ride them. As I said before Kenosha has a fleet of PCCs. You’ll find most of the operational PCCs in San Francisco, where there are 32 of them. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority also has 18 PCC units. Otherwise, when the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company is cleared out, another piece of transit history will be lost.
Note: Please keep in mind that this is still private property. Exploring the area without permission is trespassing.
(Top Photo: Screenshot: Chris Luckhardt – YouTube)
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