Scranton’s Trolley History and the Electric City Trolley Museum
1. The Horse-Drawn Trolley:
Although development of the steam locomotive and the progressive laying of track enabled the distances between emerging cities to be covered in ever-decreasing time and augmented their growth by funneling families, workers, and materials during the mid-19th to early 20th century period, there was little intra-city transportation, except, of course, for the horse and various wagons and buggies it pulled. What was needed was some type of short-range, low-capacity vehicle, accommodating several dozen, with sprightly speed to cover distances of between a few blocks and a few miles. But, unlike the trains, coal proved sooty and unsuitable for such street negotiation.
Toward this end, albeit still employing horsepower, the Honorable A. B. Duning, David R. Randall, George Tracey, A. Bennett, and Samuel Raub were granted a charter on March 23, 1865 to establish the People’s Street Railway, which connected downtown Scranton with the surrounding Hyde Park area with hourly service in each direction.
The Scranton and Providence Passenger Railway Company, plying its own route as of March 27 of the following year, mimicked its operation, but was subsequently acquired by its former competitor and merged into a single company. Daily service, from Scranton to Providence, was provided every hour at a 10-cent fare, although Sunday operations were contingent upon demand created by those wishing to travel to church.
Despite the shortened travel times, schedules were hardly carved in stone. Indeed, the trolley cars were small, with two opposing benches, heat was nonexistent in winter, weather impacted operations, and designated stops were never established, leaving the “flag and board” method to determine the ride’s interruptions.
Reverse-direction travel required the unhitching of the mule, the human-powered push of the car after it had been secured on a turntable, and then the re-hitch, before a route-retracing to its origin.
Growth necessitated order. Drivers soon wore uniforms, heavily traveled lines required conductors for fare collecting and driver signaling, designated stops were established, and trolley fleets were expanded.
The method, however, was less than efficient, since horses tired and needed to be fed and polluted the streets after they were, and the ratio of mules to cars was something like seven or eight to one.
Adding to this conundrum was sickness. What could be considered the black plague for animals occurred in 1872 when the “Great Epizootic” spread from Canada to Louisiana, claiming the lives of some 2,300 horses in a three-week period in New York alone, severely impacting the Scranton streetcar system, which depended upon them.
2. The Electric Trolley:
Traveling to major US and European cities where electric-powered trolley operations had been experimentally, but unsuccessfully attempted, Edward B. Sturges, who believed that this source would replace the four-legged type, formed the Scranton Suburban Railway Company, contracting with the Van Depoele Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago to construct the Green Ridge Suburban Line and concluding an agreement with the Pullman Car Company for its trolleys.
Because electric cars had never been designed, they closely mirrored those suited to horses, with four wheels and opposing and open platforms, although their plush bench seats, polished mahogany interior walls, blind-covered glass windows, and reflector oil lamps provided a decided degree of comfort.
Construction was the first step. Conversion was the second-in the Van Depoele factory for electric installation, requiring the enclosure of the front platform with doors to house the motor and control equipment. Gears and chains connected the motor shaft to the front axle and six incandescent light bulbs ran throughout the interior.
Electric power was drawn from an overhead contact wire.
System implementation required center street grading, power line connection, and power station construction, all of which began on July 6, 1886.
Like the nucleus of an atom, the innovative trolley company chose the intersection of Franklin and Lackawanna avenues as the origin of its route, since it served as Scranton’s transportation hub, with all horse-drawn lines converging there, and its proximity to long-range railroads, including the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western, the Central Railroads of New York and New Jersey, and the Ontario and Western. Additionally, it was the heart of the city’s business and theater districts.
The two-and-a-half mile line terminated on Delaware Avenue, where a turntable facilitated the reverse-direction run.
After construction, which was completed on November 29, 1886, the trolley cars were delivered by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, which transported them on flat cars, and then, in an homage to the power they were replacing, were pulled the final distance by horses on the rails that had been laid for their purpose, before being transferred to Franklin Avenue track.
Initiated by a hand control lever movement by Charles van Depoele, trolley car number four, the country’s first electrically-powered one, inched away at 14:30, local time, traveling in the direction of Franklin and Spruce streets and earning Scranton the title of “first electric city.”
In comparison to its horse-drawn counterparts, it smoothly accelerated, without animal-induced lurch, and its interior, for the first time, was lit by the same power source which propelled it.
Car number two soon partook of the inaugural operation after a nail, attracted by magnetic current, attached itself to the armature, rendering it unusable until repairs were made.
The full, 2.5-mile route was successfully covered the following day by car number four.
“After running through snow, ice, and slush, up steep grades and around 45-degree turns both left and right,” according to David W. Biles in his book, “From Horse Cars to Buses: A Look Back at Scranton’s City Transit History” (Electric City Trolley Museum Association, p. 21), “car number four reached the turntable in Green Ridge. After turning the car, a return trip was made to Franklin Avenue at Lackawanna Avenue. The operation over the entire line was considered a complete success.”
That success, needless to say, served as the catalyst to numerous other lines, including the Valley Passenger Railway Company, the Scranton Passenger Railway Company, the Nay-Aug Cross Town Railway Company, the Scranton and Carbondale Traction Company, the Scranton and Pittston Traction Company, and the Lackawanna Valley Traction Company.
Amalgamated and operated under the single Scranton Railway Company banner by 1900, they left no inch of track unelectrified, converting any used by its horse-drawn predecessors to this technology.
Because the proliferation of such track connected every area of the city, including many small coal patch towns, demand necessitated larger cars, resulting in the 1897-to-1904 order for 35 40-foot-long, dual-end control trolleys that could operate in either direction without requiring turntable re-orientation. They were crewed by both motormen and conductors.
The expansion of this transportation phenomenon can be gleaned by its statistics: operating over more than 100 miles of track with a 183-strong fleet, the Scranton Trolley Company carried 33 million passengers in 1917. A 1923-established subsidiary, the Scranton Bus Company, provided service on an extension to the Washburn Street trolley line.
Representing the pinnacle of trolley design, the ten cars ordered from the Osgood-Bradley Car Company of Wooster, Massachusetts, in 1929 featured leather seats and were dubbed “Electromobiles.”
Reorganized as the Scranton Transit Company in 1934 after the Insull empire of electric railways and power companies, which had taken it over nine years earlier, declared bankruptcy, the originally named Scranton Railway Company continued to operate, but the sun was already inching toward the western horizon for it.
Ridership had begun to decline and trackless buses, not requiring external power sources, increased in popularity. The progressive conversion of lines to bus routes left little more than 50 miles of track and a fleet of 100 cars by 1936. Twelve years later these figures had respectively diminished to 20 and 48.
History, as often occurs, comes full cycle. The way the electric trolley had replaced the horse-drawn one, so, too, had it been replaced by the gasoline engine. The Greenbridge Suburban Line, the first to see the then new-fangled service, became the last to relinquish it on December 18, 1954.
3. The Electric City Trolley Museum:
Located in downtown Scranton and sharing both the massive parking lot and, in some cases, track as Steamtown National Historic Site, the Electric City Trolley Museum offers the visitor an opportunity to interpret the city’s rich streetcar history and personally inspect many of its cars.
“A 50-seat theater,” according to the museum, “and other fascinating displays bring to life the history of the extensive network that allowed residents of Northeast Pennsylvania to travel 75 miles on trolleys.”
A good introduction to it is the ten-minute film, “Trolley: The Cars that Changed our Cities,” continually shown in the Transit Theater, which serves as a threshold to the museum’s exhibits. These include a sub-station model that demonstrates how electric power is supplied to trolley motors in order to run them and a boardable car, whose floor cut-away permits inspection of its 600-volt direct current traction motor.
Several cars have either been restored or are in the process of it.
Car number 46, for example, is a closed, double-end, double-truck type and was one of 22 built in 1907 by the St. Louis Car Company for the Philadelphia and Western Railway, which operated them between the 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby and Strattford.
Run by four General Electric 73C motors and traveling on 34-inch-diameter rolled steel wheels, it had a 51.4-foot length, a 9.3-foot width, and weighed 82,000 pounds. Constructed primarily of wood, but employing a steel underbody frame, it is an example of the classic, 54-passenger interurban trolleys that were popular in the early-20th century.
Car 8534, another museum exhibit, was the last of the 535 steel, single-ended, single-direction types built by the J. G. Brill Company for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. It can be considered an updated version of the 1,500 “Near-Side” cars constructed between 1911 and 1913. Both provided the majority of trolley service in Philadelphia after World War II.
The last such car, of which only three remain today, was withdrawn from service in 1957.
Another museum example is car number 801. One of five ordered by the LVT Company in February of 1912 for the opening of its new branch line from Whales Junction to Norristown in Pennsylvania, it was built by the Jewett Car Company of Newark, Ohio.
Its three-section interior, emulating the elegance of steam Pullman passenger cars of the era, consisted of a compartment for the motorman, baggage, and a brass spittoon-supplied, men-only smoking area; the main passenger seating section; and a toilet with an outside drinking fountain, complete with a cup dispenser, on the far right side.
The visitor’s trolley experience can be improved with a ten-mile round-trip ride on one, departing from the wood platform Steamtown Station, where his return-to-era is enhanced with views of the railroad yard’s numerous steam locomotives, passenger coaches, and freight cars of yore. The puff of smoke, the smell of soot, the ring of bells, the shrill of whistles, and the clack of tracks are all likely to occur.
Of the two operating trolley cars, both of which are painted maroon to reflect the color that Scranton’s first car wore when it inaugurated service back in 1886, number 76, which had operated in Philadelphia, was constructed in 1926 and remained in service for half a century.
Pole-connected to the power line above it, it ran on a 650-volt direct current motor. It was crewed by both a motorman and a conductor. A nickel fare permitted all-day travel. Entry was and is through a mid-car door.
Its pristinely restored interior features wicker seats, strap hangers, a brass, fare-registering box, and vintage advertisements, such as for Nabisco’s Uneeda biscuits. Air conditioning consisted of opening the windows in summer.
Departing Steamtown and reaching 30-mph speeds on some sections, the Electric City trolley follows the once 19-mile-long Laurel Line track, passing the Radisson Hotel, which had been the magnificent Lackawanna Railroad Station until 1970, the Dumore shaft coal mine entrance, and the Roaring Brook gorge area, sporting a small waterfall.
It next enters the Laurel Line Tunnel, constructed between 1904 and 1905, for the Lackawanna and Wyoming Railroad, a high-speed, third-rail electric line that had operated between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Stretching 4,747 feet in length, it offers a progressive incline, from 180 feet below ground at its entrance to 90 feet at its exit.
Boring through a two-mile wooded area and passing siding track, the trolley terminates its journey at the trolley restoration shop, where riders can view some of the 23 cars in its collection being serviced and repaired.
Periodic trips are also scheduled to PNC Field on Montage Mountain throughout the season.
Re-boarding the trolley, passengers retrace the route, returning to Steamtown Station, during which they may have experienced a return in time to a century-earlier transportation mode that was integral to Scranton’s development as a city.
Biles, David. W. “From Horse Cars to Buses: A Look Back at Scranton’s City Transit History”. Scranton: Electric City Trolley Museum Association.