Home » A Man Tried To Save America’s Forgotten Streetcars, Now They’re Headed To The Scrapper

A Man Tried To Save America’s Forgotten Streetcars, Now They’re Headed To The Scrapper

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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.

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Image: Google Maps

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.

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Forsaken Fotos

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

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Mercedes Streeter

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.

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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.

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Chicago Transit Authority

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?

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Mercedes Streeter

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.

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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.

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Science Newspaper

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

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Mercedes Streeter

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.

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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

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Visit Johnstown, Pennsylvania

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.

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Screenshot: Chris Luckhardt – YouTube

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!

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Visit Johnstown, Pennsylvania

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.

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Mercedes Streeter

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.

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Visit Johnstown, Pennsylvania

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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Six
Six
6 months ago

All hail Traintopian

RustFreeDreams
RustFreeDreams
6 months ago

If you’re a fan of the PCC streetcar, visit Toronto. The TTC has a couple that can be chartered for special events (click through and look at the form).

Paging M. Streeter – you can also charter GM New Look Buses, the current bus fleet, current streetcars, and the more recently retired streetcars (CLRV).

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
6 months ago
Reply to  RustFreeDreams

And in Ontario, there is also this rail museum:
https://hcry.org/portfolio_category/streetcar/

JC Miller
JC Miller
6 months ago

Can someone contact the whoever kid wrote this in American dictionary and update?
They are called trams, they are not street cars ☺
there is nothing car like about them, and they use rails … so they can do very well without streets
Even your caption photo shows no streets whatsoever

Bork Bork
Bork Bork
6 months ago
Reply to  JC Miller

streetcarnounstreet·​car ˈstrēt-ˌkär 

a vehicle on rails used primarily for transporting passengers and typically operating on city streets

Bucko
Bucko
6 months ago

I skim through most of automotive car sites on a regular basis (slideshow sites excepted). I click on a few articles and read even fewer. Of the ones that I end up reading, I am struck by how many of them are written by Mercedes. Thanks for covering this; I didn’t even realize I had an interest in street cars until now.

Anoos
Anoos
6 months ago

I saw those Green Line trolleys in Boston before they were hoarded in PA.

I can tell you that they were thoroughly vandalized while they were in operation.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
6 months ago

Thank you for more train articles! This is interesting…hope some of them get saved

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
6 months ago

I wonder if some of the less rusty ones could be saved by converting them into buses or RVs, as blasphemous as that may be given that buses are responsible for killing them in the first place?

Defiant
Defiant
6 months ago

Still free and operational (only 2.7 miles) in Tampa (is this the same thing?)

http://www.tecolinestreetcar.org/

John Hower
John Hower
6 months ago

My son has photographed the trolley graveyard several times, including one night shoot. He specializes in graffiti shots, so it’s been a perfect destination. And, it’s just a few hours from home. From his photos it looks like a fascinating place, but it’s unfortunate that so many have been vandalized. A large format version of one of his nighttime shots hangs on our living room gallery wall.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
6 months ago

Dubois Pa has one of these trolleys converted to a bus by a hotel. Cool looking. These would make great resto RVs.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
6 months ago

I’m not buying it. GM is behind the scrapping plan.
Open your eyes, people.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
6 months ago

As rusty as they are, a lot of the rust seems to be flat panels, which wouldn’t be too difficult to replace. The question is how much structural rust there is… but I agree, I’d love to see a few converted into RVs, buses, or even tiny homes. There’s a lot you can do with what’s essentially an interestingly-shaped box.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
6 months ago

In Richmond, VA, the abandoned hydroelectric power station that ran the street car fleet still exists on an island in the James River. It’s an interesting visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
6 months ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

Wasn’t the island also a Civil War prison Camp? Great place to spend an afternoon pretending to be Tom Sawyer & friends. I recommend ankle-supporting boots, as those river rocks seemed to actively try to turn your ankle

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
6 months ago

If you want to get all fancy you can drive one as a ‘Guest Motorman’ at the Connecticut Trolley Museum – they only have about a mile of track, but if you’re in the area I strongly recommend it!

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
6 months ago

San Francisco has their own boneyard of PCC streetcars and does an excellent job keeping them running on Market Street. I’m a little surpised that SF or another city didn’t want to take at least some of these.

Fun fact, PCC streetcars have an accelerator pedal and are actually pretty comfy to ride on!

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
6 months ago

It’s apparently still possible to ride trolleys and trains at the Southern California Railway Museum in Perris, California (near Riverside). Weekend Train & Trolley Rides – Southern California Railway Museum (socalrailway.org)

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
6 months ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

Beat me to it! Once a year they have a life size Thomas the Tank Engine you can ride around on!
(No George Carlin narration, though.)

https://socalrailway.org/scrm-events/thomas/

JDE
JDE
6 months ago

Considering they are coming back in a lot of larger cities as of late it really is too bad as many of these as possible are not upcycled with maybe modern motors and amenities of course.

OldDrunkenSailor
OldDrunkenSailor
6 months ago
Reply to  JDE

I’ve always thought it was incredibly cool that San Francisco does exactly this! It’s awesome to be walking around in the city and see such variety of old cars still in use. Check out the fleet here! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Municipal_Railway_fleet#Fleet_overview

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
6 months ago

I’m glad you mentioned the ones in San Francisco. When I visited the city a while back, I was delighted to see the unique cars from across the country and around the world — all in operational public transit use. And my dad loved it as the cars brought back memories for him of riding such cars when he was a kid.

While I admire Metka’s ambition to save as many streetcars as he could, it seems he bit off more than he could chew. I’d rather enjoy a single well-restored example at an indoor museum where it could be kept secure than look at 60 junkyard heaps rotting away out in the elements.

I wonder if there’s a way to make the most of those cars in the process of scrapping them. I’ve seen advertisements recently for keychains made of pieces of steel from the Golden Gate Bridge (wow, I’m on a San Fran kick today) and even the skin of retired aircraft. Maybe the cars that are beyond repair could be cut up and turned into mementos for trolley fans instead of just melted down to become soda cans.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
6 months ago

A couple hours southwest of Windber, the PA Trolley Museum is a going concern that runs PCC and other cars on a 4 mile loop, plus has a barn full of ~50 restored trolleys, including horse-drawn. I didn’t know they did this, but in August they act as a park n ride to the County Fair, which sounds about as old timey as you can get.

Tbird
Tbird
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

Likely the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington PA. They have a 4 mile? private loop. They offer parking and rides to the Washington County Fair.

Last edited 6 months ago by Tbird
Otter
Otter
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

Why not go all out and visit Scranton’s Electric City Trolley Museum (https://trolleymuseumnepa.com/), which still runs trolleys from the city out to a minor league ballpark?
And then across the parking lot is a parked Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive to make sure you don’t fail to notice Steamtown National Historic Site (https://www.nps.gov/stea/index.htm) which runs steam trains and a working roundhouse.
And back home in Philly, PCC cars still run a couple blocks away from me on the 15 line across Girard Avenue.

Dale E
Dale E
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

The PA trolley museum is legit. Ive been going there since i was a kid

Cam.man67
Cam.man67
6 months ago

Interesting you wrote about this. I actually just saw two of these streetcars being hauled down US-340 in MD last weekend. Judging from their condition (not terrible) I’m assuming they’re on their way to restoration. I was wondering where they came from.

CSRoad
CSRoad
6 months ago

These are the one’s I remember as a child, they were post WW2:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dt82dt2X-no
Added bonus English cars in the wild.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
6 months ago

I’m not fond of being a senior citizen, but still thankful I lived through a period when I could ride street cars all day in Washington, DC and Boston. PCCs are a favorite memory and the way they lurched and screeched through turns in Boston’s underground was better than any carnival ride. That was something busses could never duplicate.

Tbird
Tbird
6 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I vaguely recall the streetcars still running in Pittsburgh when I was a small child before the subway was operational.

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
6 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I personally won’t miss the screeching of trolley wheels on the T. As someone who used to commute daily on the Green Line, and lived alongside it for a while, I can confirm that noise cancelling headphones are worth their weight in gold.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
6 months ago

Lechemere, next stop Lechmere …

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
6 months ago

Kenosha dontcha knowa

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
6 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

I follow their tiktok page. They take good care of all that old rolling stock.

Torque
Torque
6 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

“dontcha knowa” is a MN saying, though knowing many MN & WI people with noticeable accents they’re not that far apart!

Tbird
Tbird
6 months ago

Please stop in and support the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington Pa, just a short drive from Pittsburgh. They have a large collection of running streetcars that they regularly demonstrate on their own track. They have what is possibly the true New Orleans “Desire St.” car which I got the chance to ride a few years ago. I suspect they are already looking at this collection for restoration candidates.

Last edited 6 months ago by Tbird
Tbird
Tbird
6 months ago
Reply to  Tbird

They operate several operational PCC cars from various lines in the southwest PA and eastern Ohio region.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
6 months ago
Reply to  Tbird

Oh whoops, you beat me by 14 minutes!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
6 months ago

I’m not sure how many of SEPTA’s fleet is actually still in service right now, they were completely rebuilt about 20 years ago, basically everything except the exterior sheet metal was replaced (and even a lot of that was), but, after 17-20 years of use, they started wearing out again and are being pulled for another round of rebuilding, but I don’t know if it’s on schedule. They maybe should think about grabbing a couple spare parts trolleys while they still can

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
6 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Someone still needs to point out SEPTA is in Philadelphia, and surrounding suburbs

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
6 months ago

Streetcars were killed by the advent of personal luxury and the individual automobile. Ironically, as we seek to phase them out again and push towards public transit, streetcars may be the answer again.

Arthur Flax
Arthur Flax
6 months ago

Washington, DC has less than a mile of operating streetcars and they are free to ride! On the other hand, they cost the taxpayers $200 million. Streetcars may have been fine back in the day, but they are an answer to a question no one asked today.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
6 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Flax

Yeah, modern streetcar projects seem to be boondoggles, at least in the States. OTOH, transit-forward places all over the world use trams, which AFAICT are fundamentally the same.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

Crime wouldn’t pay if government ran it. Nothing the government runs ever works out because they are using free money. Pittsburgh used to have Forbes Field then 3 Rivers Stadium, both baseball and Football fields run by comittee. They now have Heinz field (acusure) After decades of hosting games and events they keep rolling over the loan into new stadiums and they still owe every dime it cost to build the 2 old stadiums and seperate baseball and football stadiums. Decades of paying interest only on the loans. For the Pirates leader of the most 100 losses seasons and the Steelers home of our coach hasnt had a losing season but the most .500 seasons. Both are looking at new stadiuns in a few years. I think i would rather spent on streetcars.

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