Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Riding the rails with Bobby Boy

If you’re a regular visitor to the Old Curiosity Shop, you’ve probably noticed a LOT of railway related items: Books, model trains, recordings, timetables and more. One day I decided to list all the railways I’ve ridden on, whether short trips on museum railways or cross-country journeys. It added up to over 150 distinct entities.  I’m sure there are railfans out there who have covered many more, and, in the words of the immortal bluesman Robert Johnson, have a “great long story to tell.”  But I could probably write an illustrated book on my experiences, some of which I’ve already related in earlier issues of the OCS.

We’ll start with the electric railways, since my earlier memories are of the Pacific Electric, and ever since the Monrovia-Glendora Line was abandoned, I’ve searched the world for similar travel experiences.

Pacific Electric.  I’ve already covered the PE Red Car system, and even have an article about my life next door to the tracks published in the PE Historical Society website.

Boston MTA.  Now known as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, my first experience on what was then MTA was in 1951, when I rode one of the Elevated lines downtown, probably so my mother could confirm our trip back to California.  I have a vague recollection of riding at the front of one of the trains with nothing between my brother and me and the railway track but a chain.  This was my first experience with a classic rapid transit line; parts of the PE were close to rapid transit, but came up short if strict criteria were applied.

OETM/OERM *  By the time I finally realized that some of the Los Angeles area electric railway operations had lasted many years longer that my local Monrovia line, it was too late; the five remaining Yellow Car lines quit in March 1963, and I didn’t learn about Orange Empire Trolley Museum until a month or two later.

Disneyland Main St. (horse power).  Back in 1956, my Uncle John, a construction engineer solved a major problem at the then new Disneyland.  The “Rivers of America” attraction was losing water and rapidly turning into the mud puddles of Anaheim.  He found a solution, and received complimentary passes, and our family got to visit the Magic Kingdom with them.  I was intrigued by the horsecars, a means of transport that had disappeared in the US long before I was born.  The track looped at both ends, and had a passing siding in the middle, with spring switches so the driver didn’t have to stop and align the points.

Angels Flight (funicular).  After the last Yellow Cars quit in 1963, the only electric-powered rail transit in Los Angeles was the Angels Flight funicular on the east side of Bunker Hill.    

San Francisco Municipal Railway  *  After a brief visit with two friends in 1959, I did my first “serious” visit in 1967.  I rode all of the electric streetcar lines, and most, if not all of the cable car lines.  Earlier in this century I got to run one of the electric cars on the pull-in run back to the car barn.

BAERA.  First visit to Rio Vista Junction, operating facility of the Bay Area Electric Railway Association east of Fairfield CA was in 1967, as part of the  Muni exploration. Back in the 1970s, I got to run a former San Francisco streetcar built in 1896 that is now back in The City and runs on special occasions.

Pacific Cement (36”) In 1968, I visited the Pacific Cement and Aggregate plant in Davenport CA.  They had a 36” electric railway that brought limestone in from a mine in the hills, and I got to ride it as a guest of the company, passing fields of Brussels sprouts on the way.  I figured that this was about as close as I’d ever get to the long-vanished PE line to Mt. Lowe as far as riding a trolley line in the mountains was concerned.

Chicago South Shore and South Bend.  Considered to be the last of the Midwestern interurban railways that once linked cities throughout the upper Midwest, the South Shore line.  First rode it in Sept. 1971, and have ridden it as part of most visits to Chicago.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve been invited to go up to the front of the cars for a “cab ride,” including the time a pair of hogs got loose from a farm in rural Indiana and “raced” the train along the service road next to the track.  Last time, I was able to time the train with my watch and the mileposts— on one open stretch we did 75 MPH.

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).  The 1971 trip would be my first major experience with a real “big city” rapid transit system.  Friends had advised me to be sure and ride the Evanston Express, which was the “last stand” of the old cars from the 1920s.  They made all the right noises, and except for the whistles, sounded a lot like the PE interurbans of my younger days.

Illinois Railway Museum.  IRM is one of America’s greatest railway museums.  It shares with OERM the capability of running steam, diesel and electric trains, something few other museums can do.  But is also shares the access problem of many railway museums— to visit, one has to drive out into the boonies, or ride with someone else who’s going there, since there’s no public transit anywhere near the place.  When I made my first visit, I took the CTA elevated train as far as it would go, then rode a bus to the O’Hare Airport, where I rented a car.

Fox River Trolley Museum.  This museum line runs on the remnant of a interurban railway that followed the Fox River south of Elgin IL.  On one of my visits to this museum, they were running an open-bench streetcar from Brazil.  The conductor demonstrated the fare register, which in public service would keep account of the fares collected by the conductor.  He showed how it could be set from “Volto” to “Ido,” “But since none of us know Portuguese, we don’t know whether we’re coming or going.”  I could translate, since many Portuguese words are close to Spanish, but I didn’t was to spoil his schtick.

Illinois Central Electric (now Metra Electric)  During the 1920s, there was a lot of pressure on railroads running commuter service in big cities to electrify their operations and eliminate coal-burning steam locomotives from central areas.  IC not only electrified in the mid-1920s, they adopted high platform loading and rapid transit style couplers.  By 1971, their fleet of heavy DC powered cars was showing its age, and I got to Chicago just in time to ride a train of the original electrics.  I rode an off-peak train to Blue Island, and the motorman let me ride up front. When he found that I worked in electronics, he said “We could use you.  We’re getting these new cars with electronic control equipment and we’ll need people who understand it.  With these old clunkers, if something gets hung up in the switchgear, you just poke around with a [wooden] flag stick until everything drops out and you’re good to go.  If you tried that with the new equipment, you’d probably fry a $2000 module.”  When he found out that I was married, with two daughters, he told me about the nice suburb where he and his family lived, and how good the schools were.  I often wish I had gotten his address, so the next winter, when the snow was “this deep” in Chicagoland, I could have sent him a photo from sunny California, and a note saying, that much as I would like working on electric railway cars, I had not interest in freezing my keister off in wintertime.

Port Authority of Allegheny County  (Pittsburgh).  From Chicago, I rode the South Shore Line to South Bend, where I caught a Greyhound bus to Cleveland and transferred to a bus to Pittsburgh.  (By taking the overnight bus service I saved on lodging expenses.)  By the time I arrived in the Steel City, most of the streetcar lines had been abandoned, and three more were slated to get the ax in November 1971.

Arden (now Pennsylvania) Trolley Museum.  The Pittsburgh Railways streetcar system included some long lines into the suburbs until the 1950s.  One of them went to Washington PA, and when it was abandoned, a handful of historic Pittsburgh streetcars went to the end of the line to form the nucleus of the museum in 1954.  I rented a car to drive out to the museum, and tuned in KDKA, the first commercial broadcasting station, on the way out.

Monongahela Incline  By 1971, the Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles had been dismantled and the cars were stored away, but this hillside railway, plus the Duquesne Incline down the river a bit are still running to this day.

SEPTA.   An overnight bus ride took me further east, to Philadelphia, another city with broad-gauge streetcar service, rapid transit lines, two electric suburban operations and two main-line railroad electric services. 

Reading Company.  The traditional Monopoly™ game board has four railroads, and there’s a Chance card that reads, “Take a Ride on the Reading.  If you pass GO, collect $200.  I did ride the Reading electric service from Norristown to the old Reading terminal, but did not pass GO, so I had to keep my visit to Philly brief.

Penn Central.  This ill-starred merger between the two major railroads in the northeast and upper Midwest came undone with one of the largest bankruptcy proceedings in American business history.  I only got into a small piece of the PC system, the electric suburban service from downtown Philly to Paoli.  The local trains were still using the old cars with porthole windows in the ends.  When the conductor came by to collect my ticket, he noticed my cameras and asked, “How old do you think these cars are?”  When I guessed “Around 1925” he said, “Nope. 1912.”  This put them in the same age range as the Pacific Electric “Blimps” which had been retired over ten years earlier.

DRPA (Lindenwold Line).  This electric railway runs from downtown Philly to suburbs in southern New Jersey. It has the distinction of being one of the first all-new rapid transit lines built in the latter part of the 20th Century. It opened about three years before the more widely known BART system in the San Francisco Bay area, and had fewer problems because it kept closer to time-proven design standards.  I rode it to the end of the line; this would be as far east as I would go on this trip.

BARTD (5’ 6”)  The Bay Area Rapid Transit District was touted as the “Space Age rapid transit system”.  It was supposed to be automated, with train operators mostly there to open and close the doors and take over if something went bad.  Since it was the first large scale rail-based transit system in many years, the designers apparently wanted to start “with a clean sheet of paper”  While most of the transit systems in the US use the railroad standard gauge of 4’ 8.5” (which does not have anything to do with the north end of a southbound horse), the BART designers chose 5’ 6”.  Supposedly this would provide a steadier ride, and since the system was isolated from other rail operations it wasn’t that much of a handicap, except that things like railroad ties and work equipment had to be custom-ordered.  It also ignores the fact that Japanese Shinkansen “bullet trains” and French TGV high-speed railways are all built to standard gauge and work just fine.  When I first rode BART in 1973 or 74, I made the mistake of commenting to an employee “This reminds me of the Monorail at Disneyland”.  He took umbrage at this remark, telling me that his system was a lot bigger and better than that Mickey Mouse monorail.

Yakima Valley Transportation Co. (cab ride in 297).  This electric railway ran the streetcar service in Yakima, Washington until about 1948, and ran electric powered freight service into the apple-growing country west and northwest of downtown Yakima.  In 1973, we went on a camping trip to the Pacific Northwest, with the eventual destination of Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. But part of the deal was that I got to visit Yakima, where I was lucky enough to see the daily switching job in action, and with the crew using YVT 297, an electric locomotive that had once worked in Glendale.  We chased it to the Union Pacific yard, where the motorman gave be a cab ride.  In 1985, the freight service was abandoned and 297 came to Orange Empire, where I’ve run it on special occasions.  A segment of the railway was kept intact, and is now used for seasonal tourist operations; Pat and I rode this line in a single truck tramcar from Portugal in 1991.

Cleveland RTA and Columbia Park & Southwestern.   The next big adventure was the “Dog Tired Tour” of July 1977.  Here’s the report I published back about six years ago:

(Song: Adam Marsland’s Hello Cleveland)  It was bright and early when I arrived here.  During my previous eastern trip, I had seen electric cars with pantographs in the early morning light, but didn’t have time to stop and look.  Now I had time, and rode all the electric lines.  The “heavy” or “Red” line goes from Windermere on the east side of town to Hopkins Airport on the west side.   Yes, the airport!  Cleveland has had rail transit service to the main aerodrome for about 50 years now, and LA hasn’t done it yet.  The light-rail lines, designated “Blue” and “Green” originate downtown and use the same tracks as the “Red” line, running in a railroad right of way for several miles eastward, then branch off toward the well-to-do community of Shaker Heights.  One of the lines runs in the median of a residential-area street, much like the Pacific Electric tracks ran down the middle of Huntington Drive in San Marino.  In recent years the light-rail line has been extended to the waterfront area where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is now located— I used this segment in 2007 during the first cross country motor home trip.  On Sunday I took the “heavy” line out to the airport and caught a cab to the Columbia Park and Southwestern, an historic trolley line that ran in a mobile home park.  I even met Gerald Brookins, the man behind the trolley operation.  Among other rare old trolleys, they had an open-air car from Vera Cruz, Mexico, where some of PE’s smaller Red Cars went in the 1950s.   Unfortunately, this fine electric railway is no more; Mr. Brookins passed away, and while his family kept it going for quite a few years, the line has been closed and the cars were sold off in an epic process that has become the stuff of legend in electric railway preservation circles.  After my visit, one of the volunteer motormen gave me a ride back to the airport; he was rather amazed when I told him I drove 60 miles to get from home to Orange Empire.

Toronto Transportation Commission.  By the time I had a chance to “Take off, to the Great White North” for a visit to Toronto, this city had the largest fleet of PCC streetcars in North America.  I only had one day in what I called “The city that other cities would like to be”, but I rode both the streetcars and the subway, and even visited a car barn with a friendly black cat.

Mass. Bay Transportation Authority.  Back in 1959, the Kingston Trio made the Top 20 hit records list with their modern folk song about the Boston MTA transit system.  In 1964, the agency was reorganized to cover a wider area and became the MBTA.  By the time I got there in 1977, the “T” was a fascinating hodgepodge of electric railway (and bus) technology.  One of the rapid transit lines still had a train of cars that was built in 1924, so I waited until the old cars came around in the day’s rotation.  Mindful of the fate of “poor Charlie”, I made sure I had plenty of pocket change before boarding any “T” train.  Last time I visited there, MBTA had adopted a “stored value” fare medium that they called the “Charlie Card.”

Seashore Trolley Museum.  Founded in 1939, this is the museum I refer to as “The Mother Church of Electric Railway Preservation.”  Although it started out with a collection of cars from New England, Seashore now has electric cars from all over the world. 

Branford Trolley Museum (now the Shoreline Trolley Museum).  One of the earliest electric railway museums, Branford runs on a preserved section of the Connecticut Co. New Haven streetcar system.  When I mentioned that I was a member of Orange Empire, the member showing me around said, “We don’t have any PE Red Cars; would a North Shore interurban be OK?”  It certainly would, so they got out CNS&M 709 and we went for a ride.  Later in the day I got to run a Montreal Tramways car.

New York City Transit Authority.   NYCTA operates by far the largest rapid transit system in the US, and one of the world’s largest.  They also have the Subway Museum, with preserved transit cars in an out-of-service subway station.  In my relatively brief visit, I was able to ride only a small portion of the network, but I did ride the section that was once connected to the New York, Westchester & Boston interurban line, where the remnants of the overhead structures for the electric cars were still visible.

Port Authority-Trans Hudson.  The PATH lines go under the Hudson River to Manhattan, which allowed me to visit New York City while staying in a cheap hotel in Hoboken.  Going towards NY it’s underground, but it runs on the surface leaving the Hoboken-Jersey City area to reach Newark Penn Station.

New Jersey Transit - Newark Subway.  The Newark Subway line is a remnant of the once great Public Service of New Jersey streetcar network.  I referred to it as the “electric trains in the basement,” because it starts in the lower level of Newark Penn Station and runs in an abandoned canal and on out into a suburban area.  When I rode it in 1977, the cars were all PCC “streamliners” bought second hand from Twin Cities Transit in the Minneapolis area. They served faithfully for over 50 years before being replaced by modern light-rail units.  Some of them are now running on the San Francisco Muni “F” line from the Castro district to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Erie-Lackawanna Electric. The Lackawanna RR electric suburban service out of Hoboken NJ had the distinction of being ceremonially opened for service by Thomas Edison in one of his last public appearances in 1930. Appropriately enough, the trains were powered by 3000 volts direct current, the type of electricity Mr. Edison favored.  I rode the Gladstone Branch, because it was more like an old interurban line than part of a major railroad, with wooden poles and single-track operation.  As I recall, the conductor had to get off and throw a switch so we could pass an inbound train.

Ohio Railway Museum.  After short visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, my next new experience was the Ohio Railway Museum, north of Columbus.  After spending the night at the Columbus YMCA hotel, I took a local bus northward to the end of the line and a member of the museum took me the rest of the way.  When I got there, they were running a Columbus streetcar, a pair of Chicago elevated cars and a steam train.  Sad to say, I was there as just about the peak of museum activity.  ORM nearly failed, and today they have just one car in running condition.  Let’s hope that better times are coming!

San Diego Trolley.  Back home in Southern California, the bad old days of the 1970s (wonderful for music fans, sad times for railway fans) came to an end with some good news.  The San Diego transit system was starting construction of the first new electric railway in a city that lost streetcar service in 1949.  By avoiding Federal funding, they were able to buy time-tested light rail cars from Germany, rather than the troublesome Boeing cars that were giving Boston and San Francisco fits.  The line was scheduled to open on July 26, 1981, but I got a preview a few weeks earlier when the crew on a test train invited me to take a ride.  I returned to San Diego for opening day, and heard then-mayor Pete Wilson’s speech in which he proclaimed that “The Red Cars are back” but about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Sacramento RT Metro.  The next California city to join the rail revival was the state capital, Sacramento. Construction of the first two segments coincided with my younger daughter attending law school at UC Davis, giving me two reasons to visit the area.  Then there was the State Railroad Museum, which opened in 1981, but which I had not visited yet.  I rode the northern section, which went out of downtown Sacramento, passed through a rather grungy neighborhood, crossed the American River on a lane taken from a highway bridge, did some boulevard median running, then used an abandoned Sacramento Northern right of way to reach the carbarn, parallel the SP main line to Roseville and wind up on a stretch of  never-completed freeway.  This section opened in March 1987, and I was there for opening day.  I went back in later in the year for the eastern segment, which follows the old SP line to Folsom, home of the prison made famous by Johnny Cash. In those days, the line only went to Rancho Cordova; it would be many years later that it finally extended to old town Folsom.

Portland MAX.  Tri-Met, the transit system for Portland, Oregon, opened its first light rail line in 1986, after a predecessor company abandoned the last rail service in 1958.  I didn’t get that far north until the next year, when I took Amtrak first to San Francisco, where I rode the experimental diesel-generator powered single truck streetcars on the San Francisco Belt Ry. along the Embarcadero.  Many years later, this would become the route of the “F” line Fisherman’s Wharf extension.  From the City, I took the Coast Starlight to Portland, where I rode the first light-rail line to Gresham, a suburb that still had a lumber mill with a mill pond.  The outer section of the line follows the old Portland Traction interurban route.

Santa Clara VTA.  The San Jose area, which was well along in the progression from fruit orchards to high-tech industries, wasn’t about to be left out of the light-rail picture.  Their first segment was along First Street, starting north of downtown.  In June 1988, the downtown loop opened, and I not only rode it, I help pass out literature and answer questions from the passengers.

New Orleans RTA.  In October 1989, Pat and I joined a group of square dancers for a package rail tour that would visit New Orleans, Chicago and Albuquerque.  I had always wanted to visit New Orleans, since it was the only city in the US with street railway service that still ran traditional streetcars rather than the PCC streamliners. Not only did I ride the last remaining line, I got a guided tour of the car barn and repair shops.

Lowell National Historic Park.  Next year was my first cross-country trip since 1981.  Pat had a college reunion in the Boston area, and I was invited to come along (even though I’m a Cow Poly dropout).   One day when she was busy with alumni activities, I took the MBTA suburban train from North Station to Lowell, Mass, where the National Park Service runs historic streetcars around re-purposed textile mills and other historic buildings.  The cars have replica bodies on trucks from Melbourne trams, with air brake and electrical control systems also from Down Under (where I would ride trams in their native habitat about ten years later.)

SCRTD (Blue Line).  While I was back East, the construction crews in Los Angeles were putting the finishing touches on the first electric railway line in LA County since the last streetcars were retired in 1963.  The former Pacific Electric Long Beach Line was being reborn as the SCRTD “Blue Line.”  After taking “demonstration rides” with friends on July 14, I was on the first scheduled train out of Long Beach early in the morning of July 16  (RTD 134 and 140) along with other railfans, some of whom had been on the last Red Cars in 1961.  I even got my name in the paper after being briefly interviewed by an LA Times reporter.  As a side note, the previous month I had ridden the MBTA Blue Line in Boston, and the SEPTA Blue Line in Philadelphia.

We’ll leave our railway adventures at this station, and continue next month.  Until then, Happy Rails!

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