Several weeks ago, I was sitting around with a friend “shooting the breeze.” Much of our discussion focused on things we did as teenagers and young adults. You know how it is when you become involved in such discussions. Things surface that you had given little thought to in recent years.
Such was the case when a bus passed and stopped at the corner. My friend asked if I remembered the PTC. Of course I remembered it well. For many years, my father worked for the Philadelphia Transportation Co. This transportation system is known today as SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. We looked at each other and smiled as we recalled this common way of traveling around the city when we were growing up. This brings me to today’s column about some of my fond memories of riding the trolley from one end of the city to another back in the day.
No matter where you lived back in the day, you probably rode the trolley. The routes through your neighborhood undoubtedly still stand out in your mind. If you lived in North Philadelphia, the Number 23 served most of your needs. This trolley ran from South Philadelphia through Center City on 11th and 12th streets and continued north on Germantown Avenue and on to Chestnut Hill. This line was so long that friends tell me they spent most of the day on Saturday or Sunday riding the Number 23. It provided a leisurely ride for countless hours and enabled you to see the heart of the city and its outer edges while spending little more than pocket change. If you were to ask friends which trolley lines they traveled most frequently, I suspect you will get the same answer I received: the Route 23. Those who grew up in West Philadelphia’s Haddington section must remember the Callowhill Depot where the Route 15 trolleys operated. This line ran from the Haddington neighborhood to Girard Avenue into North Philadelphia to Port Richmond. I suspect many of you found your way to the Philadelphia Zoo by way of the Route 15 that stopped at 34th and Girard.
In my old West Philadelphia neighborhood, I remember watching the Number 10 trolley running up and down Lancaster Avenue. This was our busy “avenue” where everyone went to shop for food and clothing, to have their shoes repaired, and to attend the movies. The green and yellow trolley was part of the landscape. It ran from the Overbrook section to University City and then down into the subway-surface tunnels, looping around at Juniper Street under City Hall. Even though I grew up where the Number 10 trolley was a main line, I seldom rode it. I was disappointed when my mother took me to Center City by way of the Number 10. I just did not like this ride. Perhaps it was because of the need to walk seven or more blocks to reach it from my home. I also believe that the sleek look of this trolley was not in keeping with my view of how a trolley should look. It was a newer model; and did not have the boxy look of the older trolleys that to me signaled character.
No story about trolleys can omit the Route 30. It was a West Philadelphia route that initially ran from the vicinity of Lansdowne and Haverford avenues down Haverford Avenue to 40th and Market streets. It was my choice for travel to Center City as opposed to riding the Number 10. At 40th and Market, we would go down into the subway to take a train we referred to as the “El,” short for elevated train, into Center City. While I traveled this line, most of the time, it was an event involving one of my cousins and the Number 30 trolley that stands out in my mind today, though it occurred some 50-plus years ago. While standing on the porch of our home, my teenage cousin saw the Number 30 trolley stop at the corner; a trolley he had planned to take to go to 59th Street where he lived. Not wanting to wait for a later trolley, he took off running down the street. Arriving at curbside, with the trolley at the corner, he jumped from the pavement, flying through the air for approximately ten feet. Apparently the operator did not see him and proceeded to close the doors. Now, picture these mid-1950 trolleys with the folding doors and fold-up steps closing while my cousin was in the air. He hit the doors as they folded, but thankfully he was uninjured. This was truly a scene suited for a Laurel and Hardy or a Three Stooges comedy script. It was not funny back then, but it makes me laugh every time I think of it now.
Do you recall the open-air trolley that traveled through Fairmount Park? It went approximately nine miles from the park at 33rd and Dauphin streets in North Philadelphia, across the Schuylkill River Bridge with a stop at Woodside Park. This was a major amusement park in the vicinity of Monument and Conshohocken roads, the area known as Five Points. Those in my age bracket probably took many rides to this park for a day of fun. Or, you may have ridden the Route 6 trolley than ran between the Olney terminal and the Cheltenham Shopping Center and ultimately into Glenside and Abington Township to Willow Grove Park.
Many of the trolley routes you remember from back in the day have been replaced with buses that carry the same route designations. While you may not remember the routes, some things are hard to forget — the conductor who pulled the cord or counter to record the number of passengers boarding; the booth in the center where a second conductor sat to collect fares as a passenger departed; the hanging leather grips that passengers held on to as opposed to the metal bars on buses today?
A trolley ride was quiet; the trolley made a great deal of noise, but the passengers were usually quiet and respectful. Men were quick to give up their seats to a female when the trolley was crowded. What was the cost to ride a trolley back then? No more than ten cents, as I recall! There was no air conditioning on the trolleys. If you were getting off, you would pull the cord above the window to alert the operator to stop. If the trolley on which you were riding was blocked because of some emergency, you had two options: to sit and wait until the obstruction was removed or to get off and walk. The same options confronted you when the trolley wires became disconnected from the overhead wires. Trolleys were powered by electricity back in the day.
No reflection of trolley experiences of the past can ignore the experience of a truck driver from the South who arrived in Philadelphia trying to get to Center City to deliver a load of watermelons. Near 55th and Baltimore Avenue, he asked someone for directions and was told to follow the trolley tracks. Unfortunately he did. This route involves, to this day, going into a tunnel at 38th and Baltimore that eventually runs parallel to the subway tracks. Yes, the driver, with his truckload of watermelons, went directly into the tunnel, with watermelons ending up all over the tunnel. He said, after being stopped by the police, “I thought something was funny when a train passed by me.”
We still have some trolleys today, but those we remember so well have been replaced by buses. We no longer have conductors in a booth in the middle of the car, nor are we sweating in non-air-conditioned vehicles. Long delays due to obstructions on trolley tracks are not much of an issue today. While some of us may have nostalgic feelings, as I do, about trolleys and trolley rides of the past, we should be thankful they are simply memories that are with us today; unforgettable memories because of our experiences from back in the day.