Abandoned: Where Trolleys Go To Die?

Abandoned: Where trolleys go to die and live again.

Over 45 PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) streetcars sit quietly in the rural woods of Windber, PA, roughly 80 miles east of Pittsburgh. The Autopsy of Architecture photographs taken a day after Winter Storm Jonas rolled through the northeast, capture what appears to be a graveyard for trolleys. However, they are a place where streetcars wait in hopes of being put back into service. They also represent one man’s attempt to preserve an important element of America’s public transit history.

The PCC streetcar came as a result of a design committee, formed in 1929, with the goal of creating a modern streetcar that would meet the needs of street railways and their customers. The first PCC streetcars hit the market in 1936 and at the time, stood out as a model for their aesthetics and performance. Despite the ultimate replacement of most early 20th century streetcar systems by buses, the PCC proved to be a long-lasting worldwide icon of streetcar design. In addition to noise reduction, the PCC also provided a level of comfort for the transit user that was superior to other streetcar models.

A CTA PCC streetcar in Chicago in 1952. Courtesy of Chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com

Growing up during the 1940s in Chicago, Ed Metka feel in love with the PCC as a kid and decided to do something about them being scrapped and put out of service by transit companies in the 1980s. Metka, a retired civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, acquired his first 10 streetcars after learning that Philadelphia was selling off its surplus transit equipment. His business plan was to buy used PCCs at scrap prices and resell them later. Paying anywhere from $500 to $4,000 per car, his collection of mostly ’30s and ‘40-era streetcars once served transit users in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Johnstown.

Berwind Eureka mine railroad and company houses in Windber, PA. Courtesy of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

With his fleet of out-of-service streetcars increasing, Metka needed a place to store and refurbish the surplus transit equipment. Winder, PA’s forgotten industrial infrastructure and cheap land provided Metka with a location to store his growing streetcar collection. An early 20th century coal mining and lumber town, Winder was originally established by Charles and Edward Julius Berwind in 1897. At its height, their Berwind-White Coal Mining Company was considered to be the world’s largest individual owner of coal mining properties. In 1962, the corporation diversified into other industries and businesses, including the acquisition of Elmer’s Products, Inc. in 2003. Metka’s 21-acre site, the Vintage Electric Streetcar Company, was originally a plant and rail yard where the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company manufactured coal cars.

A Kenosha Streetcar in service. By Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California - DSC_1097 024xRP, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17931353

Despite some cars sitting at the property for decades with no takers, Metka’s dream appears to be turning into reality. Five cars acquired from Toronto during the 1990s were sold to Kenosha, WI for $24,000 apiece and put back into service. Kenosha uses their PCCs as a 2-mile tourist streetcar loop that connects downtown Kenosha to a commuter rail station linking the city with Chicago. Due to the PCC being identified as a low-cost option for providing fixed transit service in urban areas, in recent years several cities have included them in their transit plans. This list includes active PCC streetcar fleets in San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas.

Official Route Map Released for El Paso Streetcar Line. Courtesy of www.facebook.com/elpasostreetcar

In addition, El Paso revived streetcar service using restored PCCs in 2018. That project involved the construction of a 4.8-mile, 27 stop system, using the same vehicles that ran on the city’s streets until 1974. Then there’s the MBTA’s Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line in Boston. Due to the lines bridges unable to support the weight of light rail vehicles, it uses PCCs exclusively. It represents the only line where PCCs have been in service since their early 20th century heyday. In Europe, PCCs remain in use in Belgium, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

In closing, for years Metka’s Vintage Electric Streetcar Company’s property may have seemed like a graveyard for trolleys. However, Metka’s commitment to preserving an important piece of American history three decades ago, may ultimately pay off.

# Images: A Trolley Graveyard or Resting Place?

# Videos: PCCs Back In Action

Photographs courtesy of Bullet at Abandoned Florida.

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Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com