Giving snow-covered streetcar tracks the brushoff

December 26, 2009|By Jacques Kelly

Ever since Baltimore Streetcar Museum members acquired a 1923 Philadelphia Rapid Transit snow sweeper, I have been dreaming of a real storm, one that dumps half a foot or more squarely in the Jones Falls Valley. This past Saturday, I had my day.

Streetcar sweepers are large, boxcar-like streetcars that never carry paying passengers. They are run by streetcar employees who set out at the first sign of snow. They are not plows. They sit high off the ground and carry enormous spinning brushes, which broom the snow off the rails and keep the rails open so transit patrons can get to work. For nearly 60 years, these vehicles were the way that Baltimore and other cities kept streets open during storms.

When operating, they emit a distinctive churning, winter noise. Motors grind away, and snow goes flying. Visually, they are amazing sights.

This past week gave me what I wanted. Last Saturday morning, with about 5 inches of snow on the ground, I hitchhiked down St. Paul Street, then walked to 1900 Falls Road, where this big green machine sits at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Nearly all of the year, it rests in the back of the storage barn. Its only function is to perform in the snow.

Conditions were perfect. Snow was coming down heavily. Museum stalwarts Ed Amrhein, Justin Thillman, C.J. Groskopf, Mark Hurley and Josh Lepman wore sweat shirts the same shade of green as the sweeper's wooden body. Their shirts had a photo of the car and said "Think Snow." They produced a big ladder so that I could board. I stood at the hand controller of this powerful, snow-belching electric sweeper. For about a half-hour, I played assistant winter storm streetcar motorman. I loved every minute.

I yanked the bell twice and sounded the horn. Photographers appeared; autos traveling along Falls Road stopped, and their occupants gazed as this unlikely retiree conquered the weather.

On that Saturday morning, I relived a December night, maybe in 1960, when I caught my first look at one of these streetcar dinosaurs in action. I have a vivid recollection of a wet, snowy city. I was standing on Greenmount Avenue in Waverly just as a monstrous Baltimore Transit Co. snow sweeper appeared from out of nowhere, snorting and growling as it made its way up the hill between St. Ann's and St. John's churches.

Dull gray in color, with huge bristle wheels, it cleaned the streets like a floor polisher. It emitted sparks as ice formed on the overhead wires and the trolley pole fought back with flashing arcs of light. It toiled away - and it was probably 40 years old in 1960.

Three museum members paid $4,500 for the old sweeper when Philadelphia's transit system, SEPTA, said it was time to move this obsolete veteran to a willing taker. It arrived in Baltimore in 2005, and volunteers spent months regauging its huge steel wheels to fit the width of track used here. It also got a fresh coat of green paint. It's now much loved and a thing of mechanical beauty. It will also be operating again at times today, sweeping the rails so that the museum will be ready for its Sunday afternoon riders.

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