A Sentimental Streetcar Journey

A Sentimental Streetcar Journey

Babe B. was the streetcar conductor who lived next door to us in Beechview in 1950; a loud, good natured, gregarious guy in a dark blue uniform whose very presence was an adventure.

Babe worked for the Pittsburgh Railways Company (PRCo), the third largest railway company in North America after Toronto and Chicago.  At its peak the great Pittsburgh Railway Company had 666 streetcars and operated 68 streetcar routes in Pittsburgh.

Beechview was one of the first suburbs south of Pittsburgh to be developed, and the Pittsburgh Railways Co. was instrumental in its growth. Real estate developers successfully used the availability of the streetcar lines to attract new property owners. The result was an historic rush to buy property in the suburbs.

Streetcars had their heyday in Pittsburgh in the 1920s, after which ridership began to decline due to high fares and, finally, the Depression. During the Second World War however, tires and oil had to be used for the war effort, so electricity driven streetcars once again became the transportation of choice until automobiles became readily available in 1949.

In 1950, my dad was one of the first in our Beechview neighborhood to buy a car–a shiny black Studebaker that spent a lot of time parked in our driveway, reserved for family swim outings to Piney Fork in Finleyville, or the Allegheny County Airport for us kids to watch the planes come in. We didn’t really have to drive much because everything we needed–groceries, the pharmacy, our doctor–was just a 5-minute walk away. And even though my dad worked downtown, and owned a car, he continued to ride the streetcar to work in 1950. It would take a few more years before my dad’s car, and everyone else’s, would seriously contribute to the demise of the streetcar.

Streetcars in the fifties were typically the dark red- and cream-colored PCC cars manufactured by the St. Louis Car Company–the largest streetcar manufacturer in the world. In 1950, people dressed up to ride the streetcar. For a five-year-old girl, that meant a dress (no shorts or pants), white socks and Buster Browns; mom wore a cotton dress, heels, and a hat. Destination? More than likely Kaufmann’s Department store, conveniently serviced by a stop on the line at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield, next to Kaufmann’s clock. I don’t remember streetcar passes available in the 50s, but I do remember PRCo tokens about the size of nickels; fare to town was 25 cents.

Pittsburgh Railways Company token

The ride took us from Broadway Avenue across an awe-inspiring but rickety trestle bridge; through a scenic area of trees that hugged the hills high above West Liberty Avenue; to the dusty, worn-out looking South Hills Streetcar Junction; through the dark, cavernous Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel, until it burst into daylight again heading across the Smithfield Street Bridge to our destination. Whether our final destination was Kaufmann’s, the Carnegie Library, or Forbes Field, the streetcar transported us to a different world. We traveled with rich people, middle class people, poor people–people who looked like us and people who didn’t. Taking the streetcar was its own wide-eyed, wonderful event.

While the St. Louis PCC cars were typical, they were not the only type of streetcar still in use in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The Jones Car, made by the Pressed Steel Co. in McKees Rocks in 1925, was painted a dark orange to increase its visibility in the Smokey City. I remember the one and only time my mother and I boarded a Jones Car for town. A double ended vehicle, it had an operator’s cabin on each end, so it could be driven in either direction. The seats were rattan instead of the brown leather of the St. Louis cars and the windows opened to let in fresh air.

The Jones Car made in McKees Rocks

The Jones Car was in service until 1954. In 1956, the Port Authority of Allegheny County came into existence, consolidating the, by then, nearly bankrupt Pittsburgh Railway Co along with 32 other smaller companies into what would become the Pittsburgh Light Rail System.

The last St. Louis PCC streetcar rolled into Pittsburgh on July 6, 1985, with fireworks on the Smithfield Street bridge to commemorate the occasion.

The 42 Dormont however lives on, reincarnated as the 38-42 Mt. Lebanon line of Pittsburgh’s Light Rail System, commonly known as “the T.”  Babe never lived to see that day. He died the ever-jocular, warm-hearted streetcar conductor in the dark blue uniform who greeted passengers with a big smile on the 42 Dormont adventure.

Pam Gianni

Pamela Gianni, MD is a native Pittsburgher and second generation Italo-American, who loves all things Pittsburgh. She joined DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh as a volunteer tour curator, and now virtual storyteller, in 2019. In her day job, she’s a Medical Consultant to the Social Security Administration.

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