Laura Wells is qualifying for certification to operate the lines at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa.
By Scott Beveridge
WASHINGTON, Pa. – Laura Wells is at ease at the controls of an old trolley car, even though she’s just 20 and attending college.
The California University of Pennsylvania student has been hanging around the streetcars at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum before she knew how to walk.
Her parents met there, and her grandfather is among the founders of the Chartiers Township attraction where adults go to play with big toys.
“I’m a third-generation nerd,” said Wells, who must still complete trolley training to become a certified operator, even though she could easily teach new recruits how to maneuver the vehicles.
“The hardest thing is remembering which one you are in because they are all different,” said Wells, of Pittsburgh.
The air brakes in some cars have to be applied slowly while others have self-adjusting braking systems. The brakes also work differently depending on the weather and condition of the rails. When it’s warm and foggy, oil can form on the lines and make them especially slippery.
“You can lock up the brakes and just skid,” said Wells’ grandfather, Art Ellis, who works the ticket booth at the museum entrance.
Wells is among a handful of trolley enthusiasts who signed up for the class in mid-April.
George Hrabchack of Wilmerding, a retired Ringgold High School teacher, is among the students.
“This is the closest I can get to the streetcars that went past my house as a kid,” Hrabchack said.
“There is nothing to be nervous about,” said Walt Pilof, operations manager at the museum.
The museum hosted some 6,000 riders last year, most of whom came aboard during the Washington County Agricultural Fair. Nearly 24,000 visitors stopped by last year from around the globe.
The average age of the volunteer operators is 60. There are two 18-years-olds on the roster, and the oldest operator is Frank Reese, 91, of Erie.
New operators spend three days in training and then must complete 15 full days under the supervision of a senior operator before they can work on their own.
“The cool thing is anybody can do it,” said Lisa Stout-Bassioum, visitor services coordinator. “I’m actually waiting my turn.”
Meanwhile, a new exhibit at the museum begins near a black and white photo of Pittsburgh’s first horsecar that made its debut in 1859.
If visitors stay a while, they can actually board a different vintage trolley for a short ride to the carbarn and touch a similar horse-drawn rail vehicle known as Pittsburgh 101.
“It’s an amazing immersion experience. You don’t get that very often,” said Nancy Cain McCombe, educator at the Chartiers Township museum and another student operator.
“Other museums try to re-create the experience, but it’s not the same,” she said.
The restored Car 101 is the oldest in the museum’s collection of nearly 50 vehicles used in public transportation and in various conditions, ranging from the pristine to an old, rotting wooden car that survived a flood.
The horsecar was part of the old Federal Street & Pleasant Valley Street Railway that ran on the South Side and later ended up on display at South Park and Station Square. It’s similar to those that were used between 1859 and 1923 in Pittsburgh.
“This is a rare bird,” museum executive director Scott R. Becker said.
One of only a half-dozen remaining vehicles of its kind, the car traveled just 4 mph from downtown Pittsburgh to Allegheny Cemetery. Its driver sat in an exposed cab in all types of weather for long shifts with barely a small canopy above his head.
The museum was conceived in the 1940s when streetcars were being replaced by buses and automobiles. By 1946, three cars had been acquired while the group looked for a suitable location to store them.
The museum opened in June 1963 as Arden Trolley Museum, and since has continued to expand.
The museum has received a $271,000 state grant to install solar energy panels on a roof to help power streetcars, signals and lighting before the end of the summer.
“So we’re breaking some new ground by having these old vehicles using modern technology and the sun to power them,” Becker said.
On a recent visit, an older gentleman was in a garage restoring a government surplus front loader that will be used to put down new trolley tracks.
It’s a nice companion piece to a streetcar that was designed to sweep snow off tracks with a roller brush made from rattan. It was painted bright yellow to make it more visible during snowstorms.
Jim Herron of nearby Canonsburg has been putting a new finish on wood trim native to South America that was used to adorn the 1911 Rio De Janeiro No. 1758, an open-air trolley the museum acquired.
“It’ll be a big hit,” Becker said.
Also known as a breezer, the car is similar to the one used as a backdrop in the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland.
The singer and actress popularized “The Trolley Song” in the movie while riding in one of the cars that traditionally was used during the summer months to take people to amusement parks. That’s why it looks as if it belongs in a circus, Becker said.
This one started out as a kit sold by the J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia that included parts cast by the Cambria Iron Works of Johnstown.
Then it was shipped and assembled in Rio and eventually mothballed before being purchased in 1965 by a group of museums in the United States.
The car returned via a coffee freighter to North America, was rebuilt and put in service on a trolley line at the Magee Museum of Transportation in Bloomsburg. Car 1758 was put out of service again after that museum was inundated by floodwater during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. From there, it sat in a Florida warehouse until being purchased by the trolley museum in Chartiers.
When restored, it will be the oldest car in operation at the museum.
(This story originally appeared in Living in Washington County, a publication of the Observer-Reporter. It was reprinted with permission.)