A Desire to Keep The Streetcars Rolling

Mr. McFeely mixes with visitors at trolley museum

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

There are hundreds of places throughout the region with ongoing connections to the past. Chances are you have not gotten around to visiting them. Maybe you just need a scouting report. Here’s one to check out:

A streetcar named Washington regularly rolled 25 miles through the woods south of Pittsburgh. Then, one day it stopped.

Weeds rose above the steel tracks and leaned with the winds of change. Suburban buildings, parking lots and other things of the Automobile Age ripped up the tracks.

Scott Becker hops aboard a 1911 double-end trolley used in Rio DeJaneiro, Brazil.

Surprisingly, that last trolley to run between Pittsburgh and Little Washington, PA, is not history. It still operates near the southern end of its former route. So do many of its relatives.

More than 50 such conveyances are available to ride, get married in, celebrate birthdays in, get photographed in, or just nostalgically reflect in — all at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

There you’ll find the final vintage streetcar to roll over a Pittsburgh street (1999). Its folding doors still clap shut. Steel on steel, its wheels still squeak around curves. Up from New Orleans, is a famous cousin. The one named Desire.

These boys seem to be checking why their miniature trolley isn’t going anywhere.

You can even operate one. Or, you can rebuild one — if you join the scores of volunteers at the sprawling complex less than an hour from Pittsburgh.

“We’re a good family experience,” says Scott Becker, the guy in charge for the past 22 years.

Don’t  expect the look of a junkyard.

“We have lots of flowers here,” Becker adds, waving an arm to encompass a well-landscaped campus. Children rush around and parents angle for the right photos. Grandparents are there, too. They are either remembering as couples, or sharing memories with grandchildren.

Voices from the 1940s sing over loudspeakers. A volunteer who has been doing this for 30-some years announces the next entry in a parade of trolleys. As it rolls down the rails, gaining in size, a young boy steps back. He seems impressed.

“So, you rode this instead of a car?” he asks, turning to a man in his late 60s.

Wonder creeps into the man’s voice as the streetcar stops. “Yep, this is what we took.”

“Why?” the boys asks.

“Well, we didn’t have a car . . . and you don’t have to park one of these.

Inside older trolley

The trolley looks ageless. That has much to do with 170 volunteers who help keep it that way.

Adding to the effect, on this day, is the ageless Mr. McFeely, who is signing autographs nearby. The famous speedy deliveryman from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood chats warmly with a woman from Staten Island. She acts as though she is meeting a rock star.

Mr. McFeely, of course, smiles humbly.

Most people today never rode or even saw a vintage trolley lumber through the Pittsburgh area. However, they have followed a trolley in and out of the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

“He’s just so giving,” Becker says of Mr. McFeely. Otherwise known as actor David Newell, he is usually at the museum for its annual parade of trolleys.

Cavernous car barns, which can be toured, house the museum’s collection. It also is where many retired craftsmen work with their hands to turn wooden and steel wrecks into operating showpieces. Such problem-solving volunteers come from a hundred or more miles just for the challenge and the pride of doing good work.

“We wanted this in the worst way,” Becker says of the only horse-drawn trolley in the collection. The joke is that it came that way.

But, that is to be expected from something that spent much of its life since about 1875 in the elements. Today’s grandparents may remember it. For many years, it sat at the Allegheny County Fairgrounds. As children, they clambered in and out of it. Then, the wood rotted away under loose paint.

It is now restored and sits safely sheltered from storm and sun.

So does the wooden 1905 trolley that served as a longtime hunting lodge in north central Pennsylvania. It was found clinging to a railroad bridge over Pine Creek after Hurricane Agnes washed it there in 1976. Becker says the rescuer never got around to restoration. The museum was glad to take the proud ruin from the rescuer’s garage. It still awaits restoration, along with several other trolleys that people turned into diners and campers.

The inclination to repurpose trolleys kept many from junkyards and bonfires that would have claimed them long ago.

Inside one of the car barns, sits the enemy —  a Model T Ford.

Loser and winner rest side by side. The streetcar lost the battle for commuter hearts to the automobile, popularized by the Model T Ford.

“I call these the trolley killers,” Becker says. It sits black, next to the massive red and cream body of a streamlined streetcar.

Its Art Deco style was designed in the 1930s to take trolleys into the future. This one’s destination has not changed in 60 years. It’s sign says: “Stadium — Forbes Field.”

The stadium was Pitt Stadium in Oakland, site of the current Peterson Events Center. Forbes Field, of course, is where the Pirates played from 1909 to 1970.

While the city tried to keep streetcar companies from overloading trolleys, it made one exception. All who could cram aboard were permitted to do so before and after games.

Trolleys didn’t just carry passengers, Becker points out. Some hauled freight much like UPS trucks do today. Many delivered both freight and people. Empty dairy cans line the carcass of a trolley that awaits restoration at the museum. It once connected farm and market.

So, trolleys died slowly.

More than 200 separate streetcar lines operated in and around Pittsburgh before 1900. But, they were never very profitable. At the turn of the century, they were consolidated under the Pittsburgh Railways Company.

After World War I, it was a matter of simple math. Every automobile purchased for the first time knocked three or four passengers off the trolleys. And, the more automobiles on the streets, the less patience people had for track-bound electric streetcars. Buses gained preference.

Scott Becker shows off the namesake of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Trolleys hung in there, though.

In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway and subsequently became a movie.

The streetcar is named after a street and neighborhood in New Orleans, which earlier belonged to France. The name Desire likely comes from a fiance’ of Napoleon. She actually was named Desiree, meaning “desired.” She may have been, but Napoleon didn’t marry her. However, she is remembered — kind of.

The famously named streetcar would certainly be a draw for a trolley museum. As early as 1957, Becker says, the museum asked for a  worn out streetcar that traveled the Desire route. Seven years later, the city sold one to the museum for all of $1.

Not many places are set up for its widely spaced wheels. It just so happens Pittsburgh and New Orleans had the same rail-spacing requirements.  Both cities wanted to make sure trains could not use their streetcar tracks, Becker says.

Pittsburgh, it seems, was at the forefront of a long-forgotten battle that is obscurely commemorated in signs posted next to the streetcar operators. They say  “Spitting Prohibited”

Who would want to?

Well, Charles Dickens dubbed the U.S. a “nation of spitters,” according to Elmer B. Borland, a Pittsburgh doctor who wrote a piece for the Journal of the American Medical Assn. in October, 1900.

Trolly operators include those who did it for a living in Pittsburgh decades ago. The spitting prohibition was part of a national health effort spearheaded by a Pittsburgh doctor.

Trolly operators include those who did it for a living in Pittsburgh decades ago. The spitting prohibition was part of a national health effort spearheaded by a Pittsburgh doctor.

After five years of tireless campaigning, Dr. Borland pointed happily to spitting ordinances in Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco. The concern was more about the spread of tuberculosis than the disgusting fate of women’s long hemlines.

One dragnet by Pittsburgh police resulted in the arrests of 100 tobacco chewers caught spitting on sidewalks and in streetcars, according to newspapers of the time. The reporters noted they came from the poor and rich.

Later, the crackdown strengthened and  disapproval of spitters increased as the 1918-20 flu pandemic killed tens of millions.

“They were very concerned that spitting spread the disease,” Becker says.

The signs not withstanding, there is no need to worry about museum streetcars retaining anything of that unsanitary era. The floors gave way to road salt long ago, and they have been replaced.

If you have not been to the museum in a while, you will find many changes.

Becker says steady, deliberate alteration and expansion has been its hallmark for 62 years.

More than 30,000 visited last year. He can see that number doubling as volunteers help expansion plans unfold over the next several years. He welcomes anyone who wants to join the fun, or to see what it is all about.

Plenty of signs make the museum easy to find. Get off Route 79 at Exit 42 and you will have no trouble from there. Make sure you don’t arrive with an empty tank. Gasoline stations are not as easy to find.

The museum store is well stocked with unusual trolley-related gifts. The thrust of the shop and visitor center is educational fun. Edibles are limited to what you can find in vending machines, so you may want to bring your own.

Visit here to check museum hours and the slate of special events. They typically include holiday themes, arts & crafts festivals, classic car shows (ironically) and always the trolleys.

Santa will be riding the trolleys beginning the weekend of November 27-29.  Toy trains also will be featured.

“What we do here at the museum is becoming more and more relevant,” Becker says.

He is thinking of the “T” running between Pittsburgh’s South Hills and Downtown. It is a modern electric trolley holdout.

It seems many other cities are beginning to travel that route, too, because there are more electric trolley cars rolling along tracks in the United States today than there were 40 years ago, he observes.

So, a trolley ride at the museum may well be a ride into the future, as well as the past.

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