Streetcar buffs overjoyed as light rail starts running

April 07, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

You could call it "The Revenge of the Nerds," though "Back to the Future" might be more apt.

In any case, the opening of Baltimore's light-rail system is an affirmation of the faith that devotees of the city's streetcar legacy have held to through the years.

Their shrine is the city's Streetcar Museum, a brick visitors center and non-descript warehouse that sits on Falls Road, just across the Jones Falls from the light-rail system's shiny new headquarters.

Every weekend, the all-volunteer museum launches its visitors on a trip into nostalgia-land, offering rides on lovingly restored streetcars along hand-laid tracks next to Falls Road, the members dressing up to play with painstaking accuracy the parts of motorman and ticket-taker.

These are people who like to spend their free time working on a 1911 electrical system while carrying on a lighthearted discussion about gauge widths. When they talk of a tragic date in November 1963, it's not the 22nd -- John F. Kennedy's assassination -- that first comes to mind, but the 3rd, the last day streetcars ran in Baltimore.

But, scoff though many might at their odd love for this bygone way of getting around town, now it looks as if they were right all along.

When they turn on their spigots of information, out comes a description of a bygone streetcar system that sounds much like the Utopian dreams of urban planners struggling to rid cities of the choking pollution and dehumanizing aspects that resulted from decades of bowing at the altar of the automobile.

Paul Wirtz, the museum's executive vice president, talks of the city with the tone of a patient parent who has spent years dealing with a wayward adolescent who now appears to have finally gotten himself back on track.

"Sure, it's streetcars coming back," Mr. Wirtz said. "They have to call it light rail because streetcars sounds too old-fashioned. But that's what they are. They run down Howard Street, don't they? In Europe, they never went away, so they still call them streetcars."

Mr. Wirtz said he became intrigued with streetcars in 1926 when his father, a commercial artist, was drawing some of the streetcars for newspaper advertisements.

"I was 5 years old, wasn't in school yet, so he took me with him on what was for me a field trip," Mr. Wirtz said. "You could say I was bonded to them at an early age.

"Back then, people didn't need cars. Lots of people didn't have them," he said. "There were more than 400 miles of streetcar tracks all over the city. You never had to wait more than five or 10 minutes for one, and you could get anywhere you needed to go."

It's a description that's a Siren's song to those stuck on the JFX in a rush-hour traffic jam of cars carrying one passenger each, all aiming for limited parking at their destination, or to those waiting and waiting and waiting at a bus stop.

"What finally killed the streetcars in Baltimore was the one-way streets," Mr. Wirtz said. "The whole idea was to do everything for the automobile."

Paul O'Neill, the museum's president, also traces his fascination to childhood memories of riding streetcars.

"I guess I was impressed with the operator in his uniform with all those shiny buttons," said Mr. O'Neill, who rode streetcars to Loyola high school and drove one himself as a part-time job during college years in Boston.

"Our members are attracted to this for a lot of reasons," he said, noting that the museum has a core group of about 60 workers among its 500 or so members.

"Some like to work on the cars; some come just for the history. They might see the streetcar as something of past and not favor the new light rail. But I'd say most of our members are for it."

The history attracted Andrew Blumberg to the museum where he is now a trustee. "I was 7 years old when they stopped running in 1963, so I don't have that many memories of them," he said.

"But in the spring of 1985, I picked up a book about streetcars and was fascinated that this whole world existed, an entirely different way of life, a relatively short time ago, that had virtually disappeared."

Ed Orser, a professor in the American Studies department at University of Maryland Baltimore County, who has traced the development of the city's western suburbs along streetcar lines, had a personal experience with a streetcar system while on a fellowship in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, last year.

"We wouldn't have thought of driving a car into the city," he said. "It took about 20 minutes on a streetcar, sometimes they were crowded, sometimes smelly, but once you got to the center you could transfer to another line and get anywhere you needed to go." We saw a lot more of the city than we would have without them."

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