Chance to take a ride in cars of yesteryear

Streetcars: A Baltimore museum offers spins in vintage vehicles that are tied to the city's boom times.

September 19, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Sequestered along a road in the shadow of the city's central freeway, an array of industrial-age vehicles is bidding would-be riders: All aboard.

Inside the Baltimore Streetcar Museum at 1901 Falls Road is a collection of 14 Baltimore streetcars, which will take the public out for short spins on weekends through next month - unlimited rides for a fare of $6 for adults and $3 for children.

"One thing about streetcars, there aren't a lot of people who remember them anymore," said Edward M. Amrhein, the museum's administrative vice president, who also is a plumber and one of the volunteers who run the museum. "We have to reintroduce them to a generation."

On Oct. 7, the museum will unveil to the public a freshly restored and sparkling orange 1922 "safety car" that, unlike previous designs, was made to run with a motorman but had no conductor to collect tickets.

It will join cars that take riders on mile-long trolley trips to times past.

Passengers will be able to take the beautifully crafted streetcar that rolled through Roland Park from 1902 to 1927, full of gleaming wood and glimmers of history. It looks ready to go again, as does another of the same period, which ran from Druid Hill Park to Fort McHenry. The seats, some with heaters underneath, had a specially made rattan cover filled with horsehair that even now keeps the seat's stitches from unraveling.

The 1929 Mount Washington car - called the Baltimore car - will be rolling, too. The last streetcars in Baltimore were taken out of service in 1963. The system, which museum officials say grew into a 700-mile network that encompassed the city and county, began with horse-drawn trolleys just before the Civil War. The earliest museum piece dates to 1859, so the collection spans about a century. Only a few buffs know how crucial the streetcar was to the city's fortunes, including the fact that a dedicated trolley car tax helped finance the city's park system.

Streetcars hit their heyday here when Baltimore was teeming with European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The city was second only to New York as a destination once immigrants arrived in the United States, according to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

The streetcars offered immigrants color-coded glass to identify their lines and routes. Many of the passengers could not read English. The color of the glass on top of the streetcar let travelers know which car went where, Am- rhein explained.

Screenwriter and director Barry Levinson borrowed two streetcars from the museum for scenes in his 1990 film Avalon and his 1999 release Liberty Heights, movies set in Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s.

Among those in the first wave of immigration was Amrhein's German great-grandfather, who first lived in Canton and worked as a barrel-maker for Standard Oil. Every move his great-grandfather made, he said, he lived near a streetcar line, eventually as far from the city as Middle River.

"The museum is a little gem that is not known by enough people," said Sandra Sparks, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District and a founder of the Jones Falls Valley Celebration, which was postponed last weekend in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It is now planned for Oct. 14.

Showcasing the streetcar museum will be a key part of the festival, Sparks said. Among other activities designed to bring the public closer to the city's historic 10-mile waterway and transportation artery are an 8-kilometer race, art exhibits, nature walks and music performances.

The festival should draw attention to the out-of-the-way streetcar museum, which was shrouded by the Jones Falls Expressway, built directly over the falls in 1961.

The museum "tells a great history of Baltimore transportation," Sparks said, adding that the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (colloquially known as the Ma and Pa) roundhouse for repairs - now a salt barn - is a short walk up the road.

Perhaps the most head-turning car in the collection is an open-air summer car made of wood, the benches with spindles and complete with 1910 light bulbs. The two-person seats are smaller than those on modern public transportation and are somehow more sociable, since the directions they face are designed to flip easily.

"Believe me, a lot of museums would [love] to have this car," Amrhein said. "It's the oldest operating open car in the country."

The museum can offer such rare treasures, he said, because the Baltimore trolley company, the United Railway and Electric Co., preserved some of its cars.

Also left intact were scores of advertisements - Lexington Market, Wrigley's, Lux (which promised not to turn silks yellow), Arrow shirts with starched cuffs ("proper and distinctly refined"), Burnett's Vanilla and even the Yellow Pages reveal a restless city and nation with a growing work force.

"Sad, these things stopped running," Beth Strommen, the city's greenways coordinator, said as she sat in a streetcar during an interview. Talking about her trolley rides to school while growing up in Philadelphia, she wondered aloud if progress had really been made in public transportation: "Buses lurch, they don't glide," she said.

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