Streetcar Museum a triumph of volunteers

Jacques Kelly

May 30, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The Baltimore Streetcar Museum sits in the sleepy hollow of the Jones Falls Valley, just off Lafayette Avenue underneath the North Avenue Bridge.

Weekend afternoons, resplendent and varnished electric trolley cars roll alongside Falls Road to a loop of track under the 28th Street Bridge.

Some of the older streetcars are a deep, rich red, decorated with flashes of gold and fancy lettering. Their seats are wicker and they flop over, depending on the direction the car moves.

The trolley cars' air conditioning is provided by a simple device -- an open window. The ads inside are for the Hub department store, 5-cent Hershey bars and 2-cent Sunpapers.

The streetcars' electric motors emit a whirring, pulsating sound. And the trolley bell's ring is a strong, clear sound produced when a steel clapper hits a circle of tempered bronze.

Museum members are now wrapping up the restoration of a sleek, art moderne vehicle known as the Presidents' Conference Commission car, or PCC for short. The state Mass Transit Administration's Bush Street shops donated a fine paint job for the car. I don't know that a Baltimore streetcar ever looked this perfect. It's a dazzler and should be ready for the museum's birthday bash June 22 and 23.

The museum is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. In that time, all the work has been done by volunteers. The fact the museum is operating at all is a testament to a bunch of people who would rather have streetcars than paychecks.

In 1966, the museum -- if it was proper to call it that back then -- was stranded at Lake Roland, with nearby residents complaining that a gang of train nuts was making unseemly putt-putt noises outside their windows. The streetcars sat outdoors, open to the weather and frequent vandalism.

Three years earlier, the city fathers (but not transit riders) were overjoyed after they had junked Baltimore's two remaining streetcar lines. The surviving antique vehicles were evicted from the old car barns where they'd been safely stashed by people with an appreciation for street railway history and traditions.

The Lake Roland location did not work. In 1968, the museum was moved to 1901 Falls Road, where the city provided a secured, large metal storage shed for the streetcars. Within two years, there was a small section of track and overhead power. The streetcars were running again.

Each year, the all-volunteer track crew laid more rail, often excavated from layers of street asphalt. The museum experienced setbacks -- Tropical Storms Agnes (1972) and David (1979) washed through the valley and damaged some equipment.

Part of the success of the museum is due to its location. Train enthusiasts know the Falls Road address, long the Baltimore terminal of the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, a classic steam line that lasted in these parts until 1958. Its old metal freight shed and stone roundhouse survive here.

From this stretch of Falls Road, it's possible to safely watch mainline Amtrak (Pennsylvania Station is about five blocks away), Conrail and Chessie System trains. They all pass through this constricted urban valley, along with the vintage streetcar museum cars. In a matter of months, the MTA's Central Light Rail Line will be in evidence as well -- just across the Jones Falls stream bed, where the Northern Central Railroad once traveled.

There are many reasons to visit the streetcar museum. My own preference is the sound of the electric fare box whirling away on the old No. 8 and 15 lines. It was a calming, rhythmic, clicking sound I'll never forget. Sometimes I drop by because it's good to know how people moved about the city before cars took over.

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