Old trolleys may get rolling again Streetcars seen as tourist draw

September 03, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

A generation ago, the wooden and steel streetcars creaked and clanged and rumbled, their bells pealing as they crisscrossed the streets of Baltimore.

Now, those vintage electric streetcars long relegated to museums and memories of a bygone era could be on the verge of rolling once more on the streets of the city that invented them.

A proposal to restore old trolleys to shuttle tourists among city attractions has generated considerable support and interest among business leaders, civic groups and those in the tourist industry.

As envisioned, the trolleys would run around Harborplace between Federal Hill, Camden Yards and the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion, then, eventually, to Fells Point, Canton and Southwest Baltimore.

"There's just a charm to them that you don't feel when you get on the light rail with its plastic seats," said Parker D. Pennington, a Baltimore designer and a founding member of the nonprofit Inner Harbor Streetcar Preservation Trust Inc.

"We think that people do want to ride them because they're actual streetcars that rode on the streets of Baltimore 80, 90, 100 years ago," Mr. Pennington said. "An argument can be made very strongly that they never should have gone away."

Though the proposal still awaits city approval and needs funding, the foundation is moving forward with its plans.

The Baltimore Streetcar Museum has agreed to provide three old streetcars for the first phase, and Massachusetts transportation authorities are donating 10 old subway cars to be used for parts to restore the trolleys.

City planners have included the trolley in a long-term master plan for the Inner Harbor area, making available a lane that had been used for streetcar-look-alike tour buses until about five years ago.

And foundation leaders say they're confident a combination of private and public financing, possibly including low-cost loans and corporate backing, will cover the estimated $5 million cost of the first 1.5-mile leg of the 8-mile line.

Nationwide, more than 20 cities have turned back to the future, restoring trolley service as a virtually pollution-free, user-friendly alternative to buses, cabs and cars clogging cities. Many of the ++ systems have become major tourist draws, including those in New Orleans, Denver, Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco.

Baltimore should follow suit, the proposal's supporters argue. What better place, they say, to resume streetcar service than in the city that gave birth to streetcars? Baltimore, after all, gave the nation horse-drawn trolleys that ran on tracks in 1859 and their electric successors in 1885.

Beyond celebrating a rich transportation history, many see trolleys as a way to help fulfill long-standing transportation needs. They would link attractions out-side the harbor basin, as well as metro and light rail, which is to extend to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station within two years.

Mary Sue McCarthy, executive director of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment & Culture, said gaps in downtown public transportation have long frustrated businesses and tourist attractions, particularly east and west of the Inner Harbor.

"When you stand back and you look at Baltimore as whole, you see that the existing transportation systems serve really a small, yet important minority of our attractions," she said.

Demand is likely to intensify with the addition of numerous attractions. The $25 million Port Discovery children's museum, being designed by a subsidiary of Walt Disney Co. in the former Fishmarket complex on Market Place, is expected to draw 500,000 visitors a year.

Nearby, the City Life Museums are adding a nickelodeon museum on Museum Row, just east of downtown, showcasing the small neighborhood theaters of old. The museum will offer an orientation to the small City Life museums and a starting point for visitors touring the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, a four-story building featuring 30,000 square feet of exhibits about Baltimore history.

Across the harbor, on Key Highway, the $7 million American Visionary Arts Museum is being built as a national repository of sculpture, paintings and other works by "visionary" artists, those self-taught, independent of the influence of mainstream art. Farther along Key Highway, the Baltimore Museum of Industry is expanding.

Tourism officials, hoteliers and leaders of attractions agree that better transportation is critical to extending the tourist center beyond the Inner Harbor. Getting around can be particularly tricky for out-of-town visitors unfamiliar with local public transportation and seeking alternatives to driving clogged streets in a downtown where parking is at a premium.

Traveling to the B&O Railroad Museum or the City Life Museums, for example, entails crossing wide expanses of busy roads, Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west and President Street on the east.

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