November 17, 2009
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum, located on the former Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad’s (the Ma & Pa) right-of-way, has a unique collection chronicling the history of streetcar development in the United States. The BSM was an early effort of streetcar preservation and its collection boasts an example of almost every major type of streetcar that ran in Balitmore up till the 1960’s.
A Brief History of Baltimore Streetcars
Baltimore’s streetcar system dates back to the horsecar lines opened in the mid-19th century. Horsecars were an early form of public transportation and developed from horse-drawn omnibusses. The steel rails embedded in the street allowed horses to pull more load with less effort due to lower resistance. When the City Council granted the first horsecar franchises in 1859, they prescribed a broad gauge of 5′ 4 1/2″ so that iron tired wagons and omnibusses could avoid the street cobblestones by riding the rails (Philadelphia’s streetcar system had the same gauge).
In 1883, Baltimore had one the first electric street railways when Leo Daft experimented with an electric third rail in the Hampden neighborhood. While the experiments were successful, Daft quickly switched to overhead wire due to safety concerns. During the next couple of decades, streetcars became an important component in urban growth, since they made commuting feasible and enabled the development of suburbs outside the urban center.
By 1899, Baltimore’s street railways had been consolidated into the United Railways & Electric Company. While United Railways was able to purchase the latest equipment and expand the system during the the World War I era, by the late 1920’s competition from cars and busses began to threaten the company’s finances. The Great Depression tipped the balance books over the edge and in 1933, United Railways declared bankruptcy and it re-emerged from receivership in 1936 as the Baltimore Transit Company.
The BTCO had a brief resurgence during World War II, when gas rationing and war time factory production caused a significant spike in ridership. In order to meet the sudden demand, BTCO purchased new equipment and scrambled to rebuild its ageing fleet. However, the end of the war saw the return of the automobile’s dominance and ridership once again dropped.
In 1949, the National City Lines holding company gained control of BTCO. The NCL has long been accused of being a major player in the so-called “Great American streetcar scandal,” in which front organizations for bus manufactures, tire companies and oil suppliers acquired and dismantled streetcar systems in order to replace them with buses. Soon after the NCL takeover, BTCO began to replace streetcar and trolleybus lines with conventional busses. The 1950’s saw decline of the once extensive system, as NCL cut back on service and car maintance. The last Baltimore streetcar run was a railfan charter with PCC #7407 on November 3, 1963.
In 1992, the Maryland Transit Administration opened a north-south Light Rail line along former Northern Central Railway, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad, and Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway right-of-way. The MTA is considering expanding service with the controversial “Red Line” that would connect the Social Security Administration on the west side with the Canton neighborhood on the east side.
In 1928, United Railways hosted the “Fair of the Electric Pony” in Carroll Park, similar to the Baltimore & Ohio’s 1927 “Fair of the Iron Horse,” celebrating their 100th anniversary. As part of the celebrations, United restored examples of every major Baltimore streetcar type. After the exposition, these cars were stored at the Irvington Carbarn with the intention of starting a museum. However, due to bankruptcy, this museum never materialized and the cars remained in storage until 1954 when the Maryland Historical Society obtained the titles from the NCL. For the next several years, collection transfered between sites, including an failed 1962 attempt to start a museum at Robert E. Lee Park at Roland Lake.
With the support of the Mayor Theodore McKeldin, the newly-incorporated BSM finally obtained a site on the former Ma & Pa right-of-way. The museum formally opened to the public on July 3, 1970. The BSM today is a unique museum that comprehensively tells the story of public transit for a single city. The visitor’s center features a dispatcher’s office, archives, gift shop and interpretive displays.
The cost of admission includes unlimited streetcar rides along Falls Road for a 1 1/4 mile roundtrip. Streetcars pass under the former B&O (now CSX) arch bridge, as well as a former Ma & Pa freight house and roundhouse. It is also possible to see current MTA light rail operations on the other side of the Jones Falls.
Highlights of the Collection
Baltimore City Passenger Railway Closed Horsecar #25
The BSM’s oldest piece of equipment is a rare example of a horsecar used in the early days of public transit prior to electrification. Car #25 was probably built around 1860 by Poole & Hunt and retired around 1893 due to electrification. The car was used as a farm storage shed until acquired by the BSM in 1970. The car has not been restored and may be unrestorable.
Baltimore Traction Co. Open Bench Car #554
Car #554 is an example of an “open bench” car. Prior to the invention of air conditioning, “open” cars provided adequate ventilation for passengers during the summer. However, these cars were unsuitable during winter, so transit companies used enclosed cars to provide protection from the cold and snow.
Car #554 was one of 75 cars built by Brownwell in 1896. All were removed from passenger service by 1919 and #554 ended service as a snow scraper in 1936, when it was restored for United Traction’s historical collection.
N Scale Modeling Notes: Bachmann’s N Scale Jackson and Sharp open coach could converted into a convincing open streetcar. It may be difficult, however, to find a mechanism small enough to power the car, since there is no place to hide a motor.
United Railways & Electric Co. Convertible #264
One of the problems facing many transit companies was the expense of maintaining two fleets of streetcars. “Convertible” cars featured removable windows that provided traction companies with the flexibility to switch between “open” and “closed” cars, thereby eliminating the need for a summer and a winter fleet. However, the limits of this flexibility was apparent by the inability to convert the car to sudden weather changes once it left the car barn.
Convertible #264 was built by Brownell in 1900 for United Railways as part of an order of 55 cars. They were joined by an additional 50 cars from manufacturer J.G. Brill and Company in 1901. These 105 cars represented the first double truck cars on the Baltimore system, but were all withdrawn by 1919 and scrapped by 1926. United Railways preserved #264 as part of its historical collection.
Newport News & Hampton Railway, Gas & Electric Co. Semi-Convertible #390
The BSM collection contains one example of every significant class of Baltimore streetcar, except for the Brill semi-convertibles that formed the backbone of the streetcar fleet. Built between 1905 and 1919, a total of 885 “semis” made up the largest type of Baltimore streetcar and many found new life in the 1920’s and ’30’s as rebuilt articulated trains and “one-man” cars by the cash-strapped United Railways. One of the chief innovations of the semis solved the inflexibility of the convertibles — the cars featured hinged windows that allowed the upper sash to fold into a pocket in the roof as the lower sash was raised. Therefore, a “closed” car could quickly convert to an “open” one.
During WWII, BTCO refurbished the semi-convertible fleet to meet the rising ridership and these cars played an essential role on the Baltimore’s home front effort. However, by the end of the War, the semis began to disappear and last cars were removed from revenue service in June 1955. The sole known survivor is unrestored #5748 at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.
In 1977, a BSM member discovered a semi-convertible being used as a house near Yorktown, VA. #390 was of fourteen cars delivered to the NN&HRE&G in 1918 and 1919, build from the same plans by Brill as the Baltimore cars. The BSM rechristened #390 as United Railways #5885 and brought the car to the museum in November 1977. The car is still in the process of being restored and hopefully one day, a semi-convertible will run again in Baltimore.
N Scale Modeling Notes: Bachmann’s Brill Trolley has long been a staple for N Scale traction modeling. Bachmann’s model is close to a Baltimore semi-convertible and could be a starting point for a conversion. The Baltimore Brills had significant variations between orders, so consult photographs and the plans in Charles Buschman’s The Streetcars of Baltimore for specifics about a particular prototype. The design for Newport News #390 was based on an order built for United Railways in 1918 — Baltimore’s first thirteen windowed streetcars. A conversion would include stretching the Bachmann model from eleven to thirteen windows, using shorter trucks and significant modifications to the vestibules and end windows.
Perhaps the most straightforward conversion would be the United Railways 1907 “High-Speed” suburban multiple units that had the same 6′ 6″ wheelbase at the Bachmann Brill. All other Baltimore Brills had a 4′ 6″ wheelbase.
United Railways & Electric Co. One-Man Car #4533
During the 1920’s and’30’s, United Railways converted some of its streetcars to “one-man” operation as a cost-cutting measure on some its low volume feeder lines. The company had deemed its fleet of Birney Safety Cars unsuitable for Baltimore conditions due the traffic congestion caused by inefficient loading and unloading passengers at stops. In 1922, the company began rebuilding its 1904 Brill single truck streetcars as a low-cost replacement for the Birneys.
Car #4533 began as #2324 and was one of 52 single truck Brills converted to one-man operation. The car ended service in 1963 as maintenance vehicle #3550 and was restored by the BSM. It is the oldest existing example of a Baltimore single operator car.
United Railways & Electric Co. Peter Witt #6119
By the late 1920’s, the semi-convertibles were 25 years old and United Railway’s customers demanded new cars. So in 1929, the company placed an order of 150 Peter Witt cars with Brill and the Cincinnati Car Company. The “Peter Witts” featured an innovative fair collection system to alleviate traffic congestion caused by streetcars waiting for passengers to pay their fares. Rather than placing the condutor in front, as in conventional cars, the Peter Witts placed the conductor at the center doors, where passengers paid as they exited the streetcar. However, due to the Great Depression, United sought to cut operating costs and eliminated the conductor position. The motorman was now called the “operator” and they collected fairs at the front of the car with a fare collection box.
N Scale Modeling Notes: While Bachmann released an HO model in 2007 and Williams by Bachmann will release an O scale version in late 2009, no N scale version currently exists.
Baltimore Transit Co. PCC #7407
When the new re-organized Baltimore Transit Company emerged from bankruptcy in 1936, they placed an order for the newly designed PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) car. The PCC was an attempt by the transit companies to design a state-of-the-art, attractive, standardized streetcar that could compete with growing competition of automobiles and busses. Ulitimately, the PCC car represents the pinnacle of classic American streetcar design and it helped postpone the demise of many public transit systems. The influence of the PCC car was worldwide, due to lisencing by La Brugeoise et Nivelles in Belgium, Fiat in Italy and CKD Tatra in Czechoslvakia (One of the most successful streetcars of the Communist East Bloc — the Tatra T3 – is a PCC derived design).
BTCO purchased a total of 275 PCC streetcars from the St. Louis Car Company and Pullman-Standard and these cars formed the backbone of the post-war fleet as NCL phased out the semi-convertibles. #7407 was among the last PCC cars built by Pullman-Standard for Baltimore in 1944. On November 3, 1963, this streetcar was the last to run in Baltimore.
N Scale Modeling Notes: ConCor is releasing a Baltimore PCC car in HO in 2010, but currently, no pre-war PCC car in N scale is commercially available. Bachmann’s long produced “Streamlined Trolley” follows a post-war PCC prototype, which had significant differences from the pre-war version.
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority PCC #2168
While the majority of BSM’s collection focuses on Baltimore cars, the museum also has Philadelphia PCC car #2168 painted in the SEPTA “Gulf Oil” scheme of the 1970’s. The car was built in 1948 by the St. Louis Car Company for the Philadelphia Transportation Company. While SEPTA retired #2168 from regular service in 1992, it continued to operate weekends as the “Chesnut Hill Trolley” until 1996. The car was sold to the BSM in 2005 and the Friends of Philadelphia Trolleys funded its restoration, completed in September 2009.
N scale modeling notes: Bachmann’s “Streamlined Trolley” could be the basis for a conversion to a more accurate model of a post-war PCC car. Compared to prototype drawings in PCC Cars of the United States: A Book of Plans-Variations of an American Classic by Joseph S. Zen-Ruffinen, the Bachmann model is a few scale feet too short from the prototype and rides too high on the mechanism.
- Baltimore Streetcar Museum. A Guide To The Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Available through the BSM.
- Buschman, Charles. Streetcars of Baltimore. Baltimore: R.H. Hutzler, 1994. Scale drawings of Baltimore streetcar equipment. Available through the BSM.
- Harwood, Herbert. Baltimore Streetcars: The Postwar Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. ISBN: 0801871905.
- Helton, Gary. Baltimore’s Streetcars and Buses. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. ISBN: 0738553697.
- Sachs, Bernard, George F. Nixon and Harold Cox. Baltimore Streetcars – 1905 – 1963: The Semi-Convertible Era. Baltimore: The Baltimore Streetcar Museum 1984. Available through the BSM.
- Baltimore Streetcar Museum
- Baltimore Transit Archives
- Baltimore photos at Dave’s Electric Railroads.