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Pittsburgh's trolley history

Monday, August 30, 1999

Compiled by Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh's trolley history dates to the late 19th century when the state Legislature passed a law allowing "motor power companies" to operate passenger railways by cable, electrical or other means. Since then, the city has been at the forefront of trolley transportation.

JUNE 1887. Pittsburgh Traction Co. constructs a cable beginning at the foot of Fifth Avenue and running east on Shady, Penn and Highland avenues. The distance is 5.5 miles and it opens for passengers on Sept. 12, 1889. Cable lines are operated until 1897.

THE LATE 1890s. The first electric line is constructed from South 13th and Carson streets to Knoxville Borough. That is followed by development of successful and consistent electric trolley service on the North Side and the South Side. In the ensuing years, competing lines are built by 190 trolley operators in the city. The wooden trolley cars have four wheels.

"It was really a hodgepodge," says Scott Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, near the Meadowlands.

JAN. 1, 1902. Pittsburgh Railways Co. is formed as a result of several companies consolidating their operations. There are 1,100 trolleys in operation in the city and the turn-of-the-century car has eight-wheels, high steps and narrow doors making traveling slow and cumbersome, particularly for women whose clothes don't allow them to negotiate the cars easily. Pittsburgh Railways has 400 miles of single track; carries 178.7 million passengers a year and has revenues of $6.7 million.

1912. Pittsburgh's trolley system is big and P.N. Jones, head of Pittsburgh Railways, heads the effort to produce a standard car. The city tries out double-decker cars -- about a dozen were built between 1912 and 1924 -- but they never really catch on here.

1915. Pittsburgh Railways decides that the new, low-floor trolley with its sloping floor is going to be its standard car. The company builds 1,000 of them between 1915 and 1927. The steel cars run on 600 volts of direct current and feature rattan seats, beautiful woodwork, windows that open and shaded light bulbs.

The trolleys are painted orange but their color fades to yellow, prompting most people to call them yellow trolleys. They are used in Pittsburgh until the mid-1950s, when many trolleys are phased out in favor of buses.

In the ensuing years, Pittsburgh Railways experimented readily with a variety of cars, testing aluminum, fiddling with control systems and trying a variety of options with wheels.

1926. Pittsburgh Railways operates 590 miles of single track; carries 396,679,675 passengers a year and has revenue of $21.7 million.

1928. Pittsburgh Railways begins producing high speed trolleys for its lines that run to Washington, Pa., and Charleroi. The company makes 15 cars that are painted red and feature bucket seats. Portions of the Charleroi line remain in service today as the Port Authority's Library Light Rail Transit line. A portion of the Washington line survived as the Drake line, service that will end Saturday.

THE 1930s. Pittsburgh, like the country, is in the depths of the Depression. Pittsburgh Railway is losing ridership, but the company does not lose its tradition of supporting innovation. The company is enthusiastic about the ideas for a new car being developed at the request of the American Electric Railway Association Advisory Council. The plan for the car's development is overseen by the Electric Railway Presidents Conference Committee, which turns to Westinghouse for help designing the car.

JULY 26, 1936. The first Presidential Conference Committee car -- #100 -- goes into service in the city. Pittsburgh Railways, trying to lure Depression-weary riders back to the trolleys, promotes the car in newspaper advertisements and on sandwich boards and with demonstration rides. It becomes the first PCC car to carry passengers for a fare on Sept. 26, 1936, when it covered the 50 Carson Street Route.

Over the next 12 years, Pittsburgh Railways orders 666 of the cars -- at $28,000 a piece -- from the St. Louis Car Co. to replace the oldest trolleys in the fleet, the high-floor trolleys and the yellow trolleys. The PCCs were painted red and cream.

SUMMER, 1953. Trolley service, which had boomed during the World War II and Korean War years, is scaled back to the border of Allegheny County.

MARCH 1964. Allegheny County's Port Authority Transit is formed to unify public transit services. Despite the declining trolley use, the Port Authority inherits 283 PCC trolley cars and 219 buses.

1964 to 1967. Many rail routes are converted to bus routes.

1968. The Port Authority is operating just 58 miles of track.

1972. The 95 remaining PCC cars servicing the South Hills get new paint jobs, including one that gets a psychedelic look.

1981. The Port Authority decides to try to refurbish 45 PCC trolleys. The $763,000 cost is prohibitive and only 12 are done before the program is abandoned in 1987.

July 3, 1985. Trolley street operations in the city cease when the Downtown subway is opened.

AUG. 1, 1988. 36 PCC cars are removed from operation because of deteriorated electrical wires. Twenty seven of those are retired and used to supply parts for the ones that remained in operation. Only three remain today. They are numbers 4004, 4408 and 4009. Each has traveled about 2 million miles.

For a complete history of the trolleys and their service to Pittsburgh, visit the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum at the Meadowlands. The number to call for information is-877-PA-Trolley or 724-228-9256.

Sources: Scott Becker, executive director, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum; Port Authority; "Pittsburgh of Today, Its Resources and People," by Frank C. Harper, copyright 1931.

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