Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Old Curiosity Shop for July 2017: Dog Tired Tour part 2

I just checked my OCS story index and found that the first section on the Dog Tired Tour was published five years ago, observing the 35th anniversary of this adventure.  Now it’s been 40 years since I boarded a Greyhound bus and headed east, and I’m finally getting around to part 2 of the Dog Tired Tour.

Goal-Oriented Vacations: some years ago, I encountered the term “Goal Oriented Vacations”, which implies purposeful travel, often connected with checking off items on one’s life list.  I suppose the alternative would be resort vacations or kicking back on the beach or in the mountains.  For a golfer, the goal might be to play a round at St. Andrews, for an art lover the Louvre, and for an opera buff, seeing a performance at La Scala.  Most of my vacations have been railway oriented-- even when trains didn’t get me where I was going, riding the local railway systems was an integral part of the journey.

1977, was just about rock bottom for electric railway fans.  There were a few positive news items, BART was up and running in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington DC Metro had started, and in 1959 Boston rebuilt an old railroad line into a new branch of its streetcar system making what we would now call a light rail service.  But other than that, things were rather bleak.  After years of on-and-off operation, the international streetcar line running between “the West Texas town of El Paso” and Ciudad Juarez finally threw in the towel in 1974.  Looking at some of the places I visited on this journey, we could start with Salt Lake City, which saw its last streetcar operation in 1945, and lost the Bamberger RR interurban line to Ogden in 1952.

Chicago had an extensive streetcar network in addition to the “L” trains, but it closed in 1958.  Parts of the newer trolley cars were incorporated into new “L” cars, including the ones we saw at the intro to the Bob Newhart TV show and in the fleabag hotel scenes in the Blues Brothers movie.

Cleveland  1954.  Cleveland abandoned its streetcar lines in 1954, but started a rapid transit line that eventually served the main airport (something LA still hasn’t got around to.  They also maintained the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit lines going to an affluent suburb on the east side of the city.

Buffalo 1950.  The last streetcars in Buffalo ran in 1950, but there was the Niagara Junction Railway which ran electric locomotives in freight service in an industrial area.  It was just about finished with electric operation when I went through Buffalo, and I didn’t have time to see what was left. 

Toronto, where we’ll pick up our saga shortly, never lost faith with electric transport; most of the areas where streetcar lines were abandoned are now served by subways.  Strangely enough, the one electric mode that has disappeared from Toronto is the trolley bus (a.k.a. trackless trolley).  There were a few lines running when I was there, but service ended in 1993.

Boston.  Anyone who has driven in the older part of Boston can understand why that city was the first in the US to build a subway line.  Boston now has an assortment of electric railway operations with varying car dimensions and current pickups, so the present MBTA has some real maintenance challenges.

New Haven 1948.  When New Haven CT closed its last streetcar lines in 1948, the company sold the outer end of one of the lines to a railway museum group, making this city one of the first to have a trolley museum.  This was one of the places I visited during the tour.

New York  Brooklyn 1956.  New York City has one of the world’s largest electric rapid transit systems, but the last streetcars were in Brooklyn, and they disappeared even before the Dodgers did.

Philadelphia has seen many streetcar lines abandoned, but because some of them reach downtown through a subway, they have survived.

Pittsburgh is another city where the streetcar system has shrunken over the years.  The 1960s were particularly devastating, but in recent years the downtown portion has been relocated into a subway.

Columbus.  The capital of Ohio lost streetcars in 1949 and now doesn’t even have Amtrak service.

This is probably one of the longer gaps between sections of my adventure tales-- I suppose this is a good thing, indicating that life has been interesting in the last five years.  And there haven’t been too many experiences that brought to mind a line from Adam Marsland’s Kickass Life song: “May you live in interesting times, that’s a Chinese curse.”

After arriving at the Buffalo Greyhound station, I made my way to the historic (and rather decrepit) Central Station.  A two car train of Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo RDCs (self-propelled passenger cars) waited for Amtrak train 63 to arrive from New York City.  Eventually the Amtrak train arrived, and, along with connecting passengers we were ready to “take off, to the Great White North, eh” (that’s an anachronism, Bob and Doug McKenzie were still five years in the future.) 

  RDCs look like streamliner passenger cars, with a structure on top where a dome car would have its Vista-Dome.  This holds the radiators for the diesel engines underneath the car.  The short train went rumbling off as night fell.  When we came to the international border, I was OK; back in those days a California driver’s license was enough to establish my citizenship.  Not OK was the family from Scotland, who presumed correctly that they would be welcome in a land where portraits of Queen Elizabeth II still adorn public offices.  They found that getting back into the good old USA would be another matter, because they had left their passports with relatives they had been visiting in New Jersey.  The immigration officer advised them quite firmly to have their passports sent by registered mail from NJ to their lodgings in Canada.  (I think this was before FedEx was invented).  Around 10 p.m. we arrived in downtown Toronto, where I found the local YMCA hotel and bunked down.  This one was different from the Evanston Y in that it was coed, and there were signs in the hallway warning “No Streaking” (Ray Stevens’ recording of The Streak had made #1 on the Billboard charts about three years earlier).

I had one very busy day, taking movies and slides in the home of the Toronto Transportation Commission’s network of streetcars, subways and buses (at the time, both diesel and electric).  I even met a friendly cat at one of the carbarns.  A bonus was seeing a steam-powered excursion going out of town on the track also used by the GO Transit suburban trains, which used cars similar to what would come to Southern California 15 years later for Metrolink operations.

  One of the TTC’s streetcars had been sold off for non-rail service; it was now the Red Rocket Record Shop.   Tourists looking for a leisurely tour of downtown could ride in horsedrawn carriages; when I took movies of one of these antique conveyances, the driver put a hand in front of his face and I stopped filming.  Although the war in Vietnam had come to an end a few year earlier, one suspected that the driver was from “south of the border” and didn’t want to be recognized by either family or draft board.

My favorite TTC station.

Although wide-cab locomotives are standard in the US now, back in 1977 they were a bit exotic.  I was waiting for the steam-powered excursion, but unless you want a duplicate of my 8mm movie to DVD disc, this is all we have.

I didn’t get that many photos of Toronto-- some of the slides have gone missing, and I was also shooting movies.  One scene in the film shows a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists in downtown.  When the driver saw me, he put his hand in front of his face (not that he would be that recognizable in an 8mm image, but he may have gone to the Great White North to escape the military draft in the US.).  Back in the 1960s, Toronto had the largest fleet of PCC streetcars in North America.  They had hundreds of cars bought new, plus cast-offs from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Birmingham AL, and Kansas City.  Completion of subway lines cut into the streetcar fleet, and one surplus car wound up on a short length of track off the street as the Red Rocket Record Shop.  (Locals sometimes referred to the PCC cars as “Red Rockets”)

Toronto street scene.  The cross street, Yonge, has one of the subway lines running underneath.

As I wandered around Toronto, I noticed that even the low-income area didn’t look too depressing.  None of that “abandon hope all ye who enter here” gloom you find in some slum areas.  I even came up with a motto: “Toronto-- the city that other cities would like to be.”  When it became too dark for more photos and movies, I headed for the bus station (TH&B did not have a convenient train) and crossed back into the US and changed coaches in Buffalo.  I could point out that unlike some of the “dog kennels,” Buffalo had a shiny new bus station; I wondered how long it would take for it to have that down-at-the-heels ambiance that seems to be common in bus stations.  From Buffalo, I went to Albany and then across Massachusetts to Boston.

I had last seen Boston in 1951, during the family excursion to visit relatives in New England.  I recall one ride on an MTA rapid transit car, but that was about it for traction action.  In 1977, Boston was one of the few US cities that still had streetcar lines in operation (it wouldn’t take all of your fingers to count them up-- Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New Orleans.  Cleveland and Newark NJ had lines that used streetcars, but ran in private rights of way.).  Many of the trolley lines that survived ran through tunnels that wouldn’t accommodate diesel buses, and this was the case with Boston. By the time I arrived, the streetcar subway was nearly 80 years old, and it had been joined by three rapid transit lines.  The Greyhound arrived in Beantown around noon, and I looked up Paul Ward, a friend from California who worked in radio broadcasting.  He had offered to give me a place to bunk down for the next few days, while I explored the area.  There was (and still is) lots to see.

  Here’s a home-built line car that I think MBTA (successor to the MTA made famous by the Kingston Trio back in 1959) borrowed from a railway museum.  I’ve always been fascinated by what the British call “works cars”-- they don’t carry passengers, but are vital for keeping the system running.

I remembered South Station from the 1951 trip, and it was still an interesting place:

This demonstrator railcar built by FIAT of Italy was in town for some test runs.  I don’t think MBTA bought any.  Little did I know that 3000 miles away, in the Los Angeles area, the woman who would one day be my wife, had a FIAT wagon, and was finding out that the name was an acronym for Fix It Again Tony.

One of the advantages of staying with Paul and his wife Jan was that Paul received "comp” tickets good for meals at places I wouldn’t have dreamed of dining at on my meager travel budget.  One night we went to dinner at a seafood restaurant in an old warehouse (early gentrification?) and he recommended the Boston scrod, which is a small codfish or haddock.  It is not the past participle of “screw.”  For Sunday brunch, we went to an upscale eatery which had décor which for 1977, was the latest thing, with lots of chrome and glass.  After brunch, I rode with Paul up to Seashore Trolley Museum, the Mother Church of Electric Railway Preservation.


Seashore Trolley Museum was founded in 1939, and has a large collection of streetcars from New England and even foreign countries.  They even have a subway car from Budapest, a predecessor to the ones I rode in 2015.  The orange car in this photo is from Boston Elevated Railway, and the car on the left is from Sydney, Australia, and the one on the right is from Dallas, Texas.

The big maroon car is from the Philadelphia Suburban system and is special because during a visit to Seashore in the 1990s, I got to run it.  To the right is a Boston Elevated Ry. 10-ton crane.

Back in Boston, I found that the oldest cars in regular service were the Blue Line rapid transit cars built in the 1920s.  Most of the cars on this line were built around 1951, but there was one train that only worked on weekdays, so my first goal on Monday morning was to ride the vintage cars.  In those days, one of the major traffic sources for this line was the Wonderland greyhound racing track at the outer terminal, so I dubbed the Blue Line “The Train That Goes to the Dogs”.  At least four of these cars are preserved at Seashore, and trucks from two of them were used for the Pacific Electric replica cars on the San Pedro Red Car Line.

No-frills transit in the 1920s era cars.  The Blue Line is unique among US rapid transit lines in that it uses third-rail pickup in the tunnel and trolley wire on the surface.  A number of other US operations used this combination in days gone by, and some London and Amsterdam lines also switch from wire to third rail.

Next month I’ll pick up the rest of the trip, and cover some more adventures in search of funky transport.

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