Friday, October 8, 2010

Philadelphia Suburban Trolley Cars of the 1930s

People joke about Brooklyn. And New Jersey (pronounced "joy-zee" when joking or actually from Hoboken).

Then there is Philadelphia, "city of brotherly love" and the subject of a few knife-twisters. For example (if I remember this right), W.C. Fields on the matter of death mused "on the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." Then there is the apocryphal contest where first prize is one week in Philadelphia and the second prize is two weeks there.

Me? I lived there the better part of three years as a Penn grad student.

Actually, I'm not telling the complete truth. For about six months of that time I lived in Lansdowne, a suburb just west of the city. Across the street in front of our apartment house and parallel to it ran the Red Arrow trolley line (Some links about the Red Arrow are here and here). The coaches were pretty old-fashioned looking even in 1967, but I found that kinda neat.

Inbound trains rolled past our place down the hill to the station at 69th Street where the line terminated and a Philly-bound passenger would have to transfer to a bus or subway line to continue his journey.

The 69th Street Terminal is also anchor to one end of the Philadelphia-Norristown interurban line (some links are here and here). In those days, the interurban ran fascinating coaches whose ends were shaped in a early Buck Rogers sci-fi fashion. I never had a reason to travel that route, but once upon a time decided that I had to do so, and did before some fool decided to get rid of those fabulously archaic-futuristic coaches.

Here's what I'm raving about:

Red Arrow car

Red Arrow car as seen in the 1960s

Philadelphia and Western (Philadelphia-Norristown) interurban Brill "Bullet" car

Lineup of Bullet cars in the 1970s

The Norristown Bullet cars were built around 1930 by Philadelphia's Brill company (Wikipedia link here). Since they ran as fast as 70 miles per hour (a bit more than 100 kph), end designs were tested in a wind tunnel -- a progressive and unusual practice at the time.

The bottom photo gives the better sense of the Bullets, but to fully appreciate their look, they had to be seen in motion -- particularly at speed.


Anonymous said...

Hey! Apocryphal, nothing! I remember that contest! It ran in the SF Chronicle, when I was a kid - late 50s or early 60s, and the schlubs at the Philadelphia Tourist Bureau sent a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letter to the Chron shortly after, listing all the swell things to see in Philadelphia. The Chron happily ran the letter. Dave Schutz

Whistling Pig said...

Donald, the cars in the two upper pictures actually date from 1949 rather than the 1930s. They were built by the St. Louis Car Co. using PCC shells very similar to those supplied to SF Muni; however Red Arrow equipped them with non-PCC trucks so they were sometimes referred to as "PCC-like" cars.

I have very fond memories of the Bullets, riding them for many years as both a student and commuter. The new(er) N5 cars are a lot more comfortable but can't come anywhere near the classic traction experience on a Bullet gliding through the countryside with its windows open. If anyone's to blame for their demise, it's the ideologues in the state and federal government that starved public transit of desperately-needed funding for decades. It's a tribute to Brill engineering that the Bullets and Strafford cars lasted as long as they did; SEPTA couldn't afford replacements and ran them for years beyond any reasonable service life. I fault SEPTA for not doing a better job of saving more of the Bullets for museums, but after 60 years most of them were just plain worn out and tough to rescue.