Pittsburgh's Trolley History

39-Brookline Heading To The Loop

Pittsburgh's trolley history dates to the late-19th century when the state Legislature passed a law allowing "motor power companies" to operate passenger railways by cable, electrical or other means. Since then, the city has been at the forefront of trolley transportation.

JUNE 1887: Pittsburgh Traction Co. constructs a cable beginning at the foot of Fifth Avenue and running east on Shady, Penn and Highland avenues. The distance is 5.5 miles and it opens for passengers on Sept. 12, 1889. Cable lines are operated until 1897.

THE LATE 1890's: The first electric line is constructed from South 13th and Carson streets to Knoxville Borough. That is followed by development of successful and consistent electric trolley service on the North Side and the South Side. In the ensuing years, competing lines are built by 190 trolley operators in the city. The wooden trolley cars have four wheels.

"It was really a hodgepodge," says Scott Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, near the Meadowlands.

JANUARY 1, 1902: Pittsburgh Railways Company is formed as a result of several companies consolidating their operations. There are 1100 trolleys in operation in the city and the turn-of-the-century car has eight wheels, high steps and narrow doors making travelling slow and cumbersome, particularly for women whose clothes don't allow them to negotiate the cars easily. Pittsburgh Railways has 400 miles of single track; carries 178.7 million passengers a year and has revenues of $6.7 million.

1912: Pittsburgh's trolley system is big and P.N. Jones, head of Pittsburgh Railways, heads the effort to produce a standard car. The city tries out double-decker cars - about a dozen were built between 1912 and 1924 - but they never really catch on here.

1915: Pittsburgh Railways decides that the new, low-floor trolley with its sloping floor is going to be its standard car. The company builds 1000 of them between 1915 and 1927. The steel cars run on 600 volts of direct current and feature rattan seats, beautiful woodwork, windows that open and shaded light bulbs.

The trolleys are painted orange but their color fades to yellow, prompting most people to call them yellow trolleys. They are used in Pittsburgh until the mid-1950s, when many trolleys are phased out in favor of buses.

In the ensuing years, Pittsburgh Railways experimented readily with a variety of cars, testing aluminum, fiddling with control systems and trying a number of options with wheels.

1926: Pittsburgh Railways operates 590 miles of single track; carries 396,679,675 passengers a year and has revenue of $21.7 million.

1928: Pittsburgh Railways begins producing high speed trolleys for its lines that run to Washington, Pa., and Charleroi. The company makes 15 cars that are painted red and feature bucket seats. Portions of the Charleroi line remained in service until September 4, 1999 as the Port Authority's Library Light Rail Transit line. A portion of the Washington line survived as the Drake line, service that ended in the late-80s and will pick up again in the year 2004.

THE 1930s: Pittsburgh, like the country, is in the depths of the Depression. Pittsburgh Railway is losing ridership, but the company does not lose its tradition of supporting innovation. The company is enthusiastic about the ideas for a new car being developed at the request of the American Electric Railway Association Advisory Council. The plan for the car's development is overseen by the Electric Railway Presidents Conference Committee, which turns to Westinghouse for help designing the car.

JULY 26, 1936: The first Presidential Conference Committee car - #100 - goes into service in the city. Pittsburgh Railways, trying to lure Depression-weary riders back to the trolleys, promotes the car in newspaper advertisements and on sandwich boards and with demonstration rides. It becomes the first PCC car to carry passengers for a fare on September 26, 1936, when it covered the 50 Carson Street Route.

Over the next 12 years, Pittsburgh Railways orders 666 of the cars - at $28,000 apiece - from the St. Louis Car Company to replace the oldest trolleys in the fleet, the high-floor trolleys and the yellow trolleys. The PCC's were painted red and cream.

SUMMER, 1953: Trolley service, which had boomed during the World War II and Korean War years, is scaled back to the border of Allegheny County.

MARCH, 1964: Allegheny County's Port Authority Transit is formed to unify public transit services. Despite the declining trolley use, the Port Authority inherits 283 PCC trolley cars and 219 buses.

1964 to 1967: Many rail routes are converted to bus routes, including the 39 Brookline Route, which made its final run on September 3, 1966.

1968: The Port Authority is operating just 58 miles of track.

1972: The 95 remaining PCC cars servicing the South Hills get new paint jobs, including one that gets a psychedelic look.

1981: The Port Authority decides to try to refurbish 45 PCC trolleys. The $763,000 cost is prohibitive and only 12 are done before the program is abandoned in 1987. One attractive feature of the trolleys was a new advertising scheme. Trolleys could be sponsored and then decorated at will. Some that stood out were the Terrible Steeler trolley, the Pirates Family trolley, Point Park College's trolley and the Gateway Clipper trolley.

JULY 3, 1985: Trolley street operations in the city cease when the Downtown subway, servicing the new Light Rail "T" cars, is opened. The only rail lines left in operation, part of the new Light Rail System, are the Beechview/South Hills Village line, the Warrington/Arlington line and the Library extension, the only route still using the old PCC trolley cars.

AUGUST 1, 1988: 36 PCC cars are removed from operation because of deteriorated electrical wires. Twenty-seven of those are retired and used to supply parts for the ones that remained in operation on the Library line.

SEPTEMBER 4, 1999: The final PCC car makes the 4.4 mile Library extension run before the route was retired forever, being replaced by a shuttle bus. The three remaining functional PCC cars, all having logged well over 2,000,000 miles, were donated to trolley museums.

2000 AND BEYOND: Pittsburgh no longer has hundreds of miles of trolley track lining our streets, but we still have a state-of-the-art Light Rail system servicing the downtown area, Warrington Avenue/Arlington Heights, Castle Shannon, Library and the South Hills. The Port Authority completed reconstructing the old Shannon Drake line and plans are underway to extend the downtown subway line to the North Side near PNC Park and Heinz Fields.

Pittsburghers love their trolleys. From the horse-drawn carriages of the 1800s to the new "T" Light Rail cars that carry us into the 21st Century, our proud city will always have a rail system to ferry passengers to and from the downtown area. For more information on the history of trolleys in Pittsburgh, visit the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum at the Meadowlands. The number to call for information is 877-PA-Trolley or 724-228-9256.

* Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 30, 1999 *
Edited slightly by Clint Burton, August 2004

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