It has been thirty years since my last visit to the Arden Trolley Museum. An old friend, Kevin Abt, here for a visit, suggested we remedy that omission. It was particularly appropriate for me; my recent column on trolleys in this area has peaked my interest in them.
Kevin was one of my first students when I began teaching at Pitt in the mid-1990s, and has become one of my best friends in the ensuing years. He currently lives in Virginia Beach where he is functioning as Project Manager for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission, managing the construction of a new tunnel under Chesapeake Bay.
Our visit to the Arden Museum was quite enjoyable. We arrived a few minutes before the next scheduled tour, giving me enough time to investigate their bookstore and resolve to return for several purchases. When our tour was announced, I was pleased to see we would be riding one of the old “yellow” cars.
We boarded car number 4398, whose sign announced it was a “65 Munhall, Lincoln Place” route car. It is one of two surviving cars of this design; Pittsburgh Railways at one time owned 1,056 of them. A few were still running when I was a child. This car was well preserved (or rehabilitated?). Its interior consisted of a row of double seats on one side of the aisle and a long bench facing sidewise on the other. The bench and seats were rattan, exactly as I remembered.
I was also pleased to see the advertising placards above the windows on both sides. “Old Shay Beer”, “Meadowbrook Ice Cream”, and “Red Rock Cola” were all nostalgic echoes of an earlier time. The only thing missing was a political ad for Prothonotary David B. Roberts, a fixture in every streetcar in the 1940s.
Some of the cars of this design, including 4398, were double-ended. If the line did not have a wye or loop at its end, the operator could pick up his controls and cash box and carry them to the other end of the car and drive it in the other direction.
When the conductor punched our tickets, I checked to make certain he had a unique punch. His was hard to describe; perhaps a stylistic letter “H”. He confirmed my memory that each conductor had his own individual punch.
Our first ride was north on the old Pittsburgh Railways right-of-way a little over half a mile, through a wye, and to the entrance to the Museum’s Car Barn. Here we disembarked and were guided through the barn, with expert commentary by our conductor. This tour was chronological, illustrating the evolution of streetcars from their earliest days.
The first streetcars were pulled by horses (or mules); the cars had steel wheels that ran on streel rails embedded in the street. Pleasant Valley 101 is a famous remnant of this era. When she was retired from active service in 1915 at age 45, she was preserved as an example of a past era, eventually on display at South Park. The Museum was fortunate in acquiring her for its collection.
The first attempt in Pittsburgh to replace animal propulsion with alternative power was the application of San Francisco’s cable car technology. Three cable car lines were constructed in the late 1880s, connecting the Golden Triangle with East Liberty via Penn, Fifth, and Wylie Avenues. They were all converted to overhead electric trolleys by 1897.
Design of self-propelled trolleys evolved into a variety of models. Cars became bigger and heavier. Special, much smaller, electric motors were developed in an effort to lower the floor to a more practical level. The car we rode in, number 4398, was a perfect example of this era.
The Great Depression and the public’s love affair with the automobile combined to make many streetcar operations unprofitable. In response, executives from major transit firms formed the Presidents’ Commission Committee and compromised on a new, cost-effective standardized design, eponymously called the PCC car.
Introduced in 1936, the streamlined PCC cars quickly became the archetype for modern public transportation. Pittsburgh Railways had the distinction of putting the first PCC car into operation. Our guide showed us Philadelphia Suburban Car number 24 as an example of the PCC car; their color scheme wasn’t nearly as attractive as the Pittsburgh classic red and cream style.
Another characteristic of the PCC cars was the fact that the operator relied on foot pedals to control them, in contrast with the hand levers of the earlier cars. Among other things this freed him up to take fares, eliminating the need for a conductor.
The guide showed us a number of other unique cars – a “snow sweeper” with a massive brush in its front, Johnstown 350 (a standard gauge car), and Pittsburgh Railways 4004 (re-manufactured in their South Hills Shops). His final stop was the famous “Streetcar Named Desire”, New Orleans number 832. Immortalized by Tennessee Williams play of the same name, it is a prize possession of the Museum.
After leaving the car barn, the guide ushered us into the Wexford Station, originally part of the Pittsburgh, Butler, Harmony, and New Castle Railway. It was relocated at the Museum complex as an example of passenger amenities in the old days. It has waiting room benches from the P & L E station in Pittsburgh, and a classic pot-bellied stove.
We then boarded 4938 for the return trip to the Visitor Center, where we transferred to a modern PCC car for a four-mile round trip to the loop at the southern end of the Museum tracks. This was through open country, replicating perfectly the interurban lines, like the one through Arden Mines connecting Canonsburg and Washington.
The museum complex is quite impressive and is a tribute to the numerous volunteers who have it possible. Our visit was a combination of nostalgic adventures.
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