Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy’s Old Curiosity Shop for June 2021

Adventure stories from 50 years ago— Go east, young man

After wrapping up the story of the Chicago part of the 1971 journey, I got to thinking about the trips I’ve made over the years, and how the term “Goal Oriented Travel” seems to fit them.  This is contrasted with resort vacations where people go to a nice place to pursue activities they enjoy or maybe just kick back with a drink with a “teeny little umbrella in it” (picked that up from Alan Boyd).  Travelers with my point of view may have the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in mind.  

Indeed another type of travel— requiring a time machine intrigues many, if not most railway enthusiasts.  We would like to do the “Time Warp” and go back to the days when the Pacific Electric routes covered hundreds of miles, and steam locomotives were part of everyday life, not special events or museum relics.  By the time I joined what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum in June 1963, the only electric passenger transport left in LA was the Angels Flight funicular, and it had less than six years to run at its original site.  I had made a number of trips to San Francisco to ride their eclectic assortment of public transit systems.  But seeing slides and movies from railway operations east of the Mississippi made me want to go further afield.  Chicago was fascinating, but by taking the train rather than driving eastward, I had time to visit Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and get some more San Francisco action on the return trip. 

After checking out of my no-frills lodging in Chicago,  I headed for the South Shore station on Randolph Street, where I would board one of the electric trains to South Bend.  Up until a year or two earlier, the South Shore trains had gone all the way to downtown South Bend, but service  had been cut back to Bendix Drive on the western edge of town.  There was an Amtrak train to Pittsburgh, but it arrived at 1:06 a.m.

The terminal street sounded familiar to someone who had worked on old cars and trucks over the years.  A Bendix Drive was a mechanism on the shaft of a starter motor that engaged the starter pinion gear with the ring gear on the flywheel.  They aren’t used in newer cars— large starter solenoids have a lever that pushes the pinion gear into position.  Anyway, when the train arrived at Bendix, there was a bus waiting, but it was going to the Notre Dame University campus; just great if one wanted to hang out with the Hostile Hibernians (and this was about ten years before my older daughter enrolled at USC).  For those wanting to go downtown, there was a taxicab waiting and a couple of other travelers joined me for a ride. For a bit of local color, the cab driver was a former Studebaker employee who gave us his take on the failure of the local auto manufacturer.   

I was plenty early at the Greyhound station, and had time for a leisurely supper at the Post House (food service at Greyhound stations, sometimes called the Pest House by passengers who were not impressed by the cuisine.)  After putting on the feed bag, I kicked back and read some of the material I had brought along.  Things got exciting when a worried looking man came running in and went into the men’s room, followed by a couple of South Bend police officers who flushed him out and took him away in handcuffs.  I was waiting for my bus to be called, when the local agent started to close the place down.  I asked, “Where’s the bus to Cleveland?” “It just left, but it has to go around the block, so you can probably catch it.”  I didn’t have time to say “Gee thanks!” but grabbed my baggage and raced down the street, catching the bus at a red stoplight.  I gave the driver a railroad “stop” hand signal with my bag, he opened the door and asked, “What’s going on??”  When I confirmed that this was the bus to Cleveland, I told him, “There are two guys from some other country back at the station who also want to go to Cleveland!”  So he circled around and we were finally on our way eastward.  Not good customer service!

I dozed off and woke up when we pulled into Cleveland; I don’t remember if I changed buses there or the bus continued to Pittsburgh.  I do remember seeing an electric railway train with pantographs going through the early morning, presumably heading for the airport, something I wouldn’t ride for another six years.  It’s just a few hours from Cleveland to Pittsburg, and the bus station was next to the former Pennsylvania Railroad station, now part of the ill-starred Penn Central operation.  I remember seeing US Mail sacks being loaded onto a PC train— one of the last examples of mail by rail.  I stowed my bags at the bus station and went off to explore the Iron City, one of the few places in the US where streetcars still ran, but a mere shadow of what had been running ten years earlier.  One of the reasons why I went here was because three of the lines were threatened with abandonment.

When I wandered around after stowing my baggage, a song from 20 years earlier cued up on my mental jukebox, a Guy Mitchell song that went “There’s a pawn shop on a corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania…”  I may have even seen one on Smithfield Street. More recently, one of my musical friends, Terry Okey has written and performed “Pawn Shop Blues” accompanying himself on a slide guitar.

The transit system of the Pittsburgh area was (and is) run by the Port Authority of Allegheny County which took over the Pittsburgh Railways system in 1964, and proceeded to buy new buses and abandon most of the streetcar lines.  As is true in other places where trolley cars have survived, the remaining lines went through a tunnel on the south side of the Monongahela River.

This car went into service in 1945, and by 1971 was showing its age and battle scars. At one time, Pittsburgh had over 600 of these streamlined PCC cars, but by the time I visited, they were down to about 100.   Both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia streetcars run on wide-gauge tracks: 5 ft. 2.5 in.; many years later I would visit New Orleans, the other city where streetcars run on wide-gauge track.

There used to be a woman who did stand-up comedy and would comment on her old home town of East McKeesport PA, making jokes about how small it was, such as “East McKeesport is so small that when they opened the new city dump, they had to borrow some rubbish from Wilmerding to start it off. " One of my morning activities was to take Baltimore & Ohio train 564 from downtown to McKeesport (didn’t get to East McKeesport) and 565 back to Pittsburgh.  This was my first chance to ride an RDC, a passenger car powered by a pair of specially-designed GM diesel engines under the floor.  Santa Fe had a pair of them, but after the deadly derailment at Redondo Junction (a few miles southeast of downtown LA), they were overhauled and banished to branch-line runs east of Albuquerque.  It was also a chance to ride a railroad that I only knew about from its space on the Monopoly™ game board. 

B&O Train 565 ready to depart for downtown Pittsburgh.  I didn’t bother to check for any long-distance trains; they disappeared from this line with the coming of Amtrak.

I found lodging at the YMCA hotel (long before the Village People were formed) in downtown; when I told the housekeeper why I was in town, she commented that she rode one of the soon to be abandoned streetcar lines and was quite unhappy about the bus conversion.  One of the lines that still operates was and is the Overbrook route which goes over some impressive bridges and some wooded areas.  Riding this line, at one point a pheasant came flying out of the bushes in front of the streetcar; I remember this because one of my co-workers raised pheasants in his back yard, and I hadn’t expected to see one in the wild.

Here’s one of the newer cars— note the “Belgian block” pavement, rough riding unless you’re in a streetcar.

In the afternoon, I went over to the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie station to ride their commuter train.  P&LE didn’t do much passenger business anyway, and this was their sole remnant.  The first stop was McKees Rocks (that McKee fellow got around!) where I could catch a Carson Street bus back to the station.  The train was powered by a GP-7 diesel, usually used in freight service, but this one was modified for passenger service with a steam generator that would be most useful in a few months.  There was one older car and three newer types.  Of course I picked the older car, but it turned out to be the smoking car, but it was tolerable for the few miles I would ride.  The station building is still there, but was converted to non-railroad uses many years ago.

The unglamorous side of railroading.  P&LE was probably quite happy to see this plug run discontinued.  One bit of local color I noticed on the way back were a number of hotels— old two story buildings with a tavern on the ground floor and probably fleabag accommodations above.  These appeared to be designed for minimum compliance with alcoholic beverage regulations.

Among the more unusual transport services in Pittsburgh are two incline railways ascending the hills on the south side.  I rode the Monongahela Incline, which overlooks the P&LE station.  This was my first funicular ride since the last night of Angels Flight in LA back in May 1969.

On Saturday morning, I rented a car for a drive out to what was then the Arden Trolley Museum (now called the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum).  On my way to the museum, I tuned in KDKA on the radio, because KDKA was the first broadcasting station in the US.  At that time it was a mostly music station, but in later years it became a new and talk outlet.  The Trolley Museum was at the outer end of a Pittsburgh Railways line that had been cut back to the Allegheny County line, but had been kept in place long enough for some of the first cars to come on their own wheels in the early 1950s.  When New Orleans Public Service was disposing of surplus streetcars after cutbacks in 1964, NOPSI 832 came to Arden, where its 5’ 2.5” gauge trucks required no modification to run on the museum railway.

The head sign reads “Tchoupitoulas”, a word that is sometimes used for identifying out of town visitors in New Orleans.  The sign on the other end reads “Desire. "  Many years ago I told my wife about turning on a TV set to watch the first few minutes of the 1951 movie, “Streetcar Named Desire.” “Just the first few minutes?  That’s one of the great dramas in the history of American theater!” I replied, “But that’s the only part with a streetcar in it,”  and she commented, “We all have our priorities.”

Pittsburgh was an early convert to the PCC streetcar, this one was bought in 1937, and by 1940 they had 300 in their fleet.  This one has been repainted and is now stored indoors.

The next day, I rode more in-service streetcars.  This photo was taken on the hillside bypass line that provides an alternate route when the tunnel is not usable.  I was the only passenger, when the motorman found that I was visiting from California he stopped about half way up the hill and said, “Here’s a good photo spot, I’ll wait for you.”

Note the “Hunt Stokes” political sign.  I think they were in favor of cutting back on public transit (Boo!  Hiss!).  Also note that the air was rather murky— this was back when Pittsburgh was still a center of heavy industry.

I suppose this is a sad commentary— the trolley hiding behind a gas station.  The 53 Carrick was one of the doomed lines that would be “bustituted” not long after my visit.

But my adventures were not over— I still had time to spend a couple of days in (Godfrey Daniel!) Philadelphia.  After it got too dark to take streetcar photos, I went to the Greyhound station to catch an overnight bus to Philly.  When the bus was called, a large group of people gathered  at the door to the loading area.  The door was opened, and some of them crowded ahead of me and other passengers.  When the bus was full, there were maybe ten of us “leftovers”; the station manager saw us and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll call another bus and it should be here in 20 minutes.”  The second section showed up, and we boarded, having plenty of room to stretch out, while the pushy people had to ride a full bus.  It’s not often that Karma works that quickly.

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