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YOU HAD TO ASK
I’ve heard that it was once possible to get on a street car in Pittsburgh and, by connecting with other street car lines, make your way to Chicago. Is that true?
- John Richard, McCandless
writer: CHRIS POTTER
don’t blame you for being skeptical. Today, Pittsburghers have greatly diminished expectations of mass transit. We’ve got a “subway” that consists of three underground stops and a “T” system that is little more than a bus on rails serving the South Hills -- twice. The notion of a Boston- or Washington, D.C.-style system -- where rail transit extends in all directions beyond city limits -- appears to be beyond our imagination.
But during the first quarter of the 20th century, Pittsburgh trolley lines connected such far-flung towns as New Castle, Beaver, Washington, Greensburg and Uniontown. Unlike the plans for a similar regional system being discussed today, they somehow managed to do so without requiring magnetic levitation. And they sometimes even did so without forcing you to go through Downtown. And all this with “[n]o dirt, cinders or motor trouble to worry you,” as a 1925 advertisement for the Pittsburgh Railways Company put it. As those living along the East Busway can attest, it would be nice if our own mass-transit system could say the same.
Established in the late 19th century, these routes were called “interurban” lines because they ran not within but between urban areas. Freight trolleys -- I know, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, like “regional transit system” -- carried newspapers and mail, steel and coal, and even milk. For the most part, though, interurbans were conventional trolley cars, running on electricity provided by overhead cables.
And you could cover long distances by trolley, if you didn’t mind making a lot of transfers. Other cities had their own interurban lines connecting them to their outskirts, and outskirts like Wheeling, W. Va., and Kittanning had lines connecting them to outskirts of their own. At some places, two interurban systems connected, making unlikely towns into veritable crossroads.
For example, the “Harmony Line” extended from Pittsburgh to Evans City, and from there onto New Castle. New Castle had a line to Youngstown, Ohio, whose interurban network linked up with those of Cleveland and Toledo. From Ohio, then, you could travel by streetcar to Detroit, Indiana, Chicago, and even to parts of Wisconsin … if you were into that sort of thing.
At least one person, Pittsburgh Press reporter William Lytle, did make the journey from Pittsburgh to Chicago in the early 1920s, starting with the Harmony route from Pittsburgh to New Castle. A contemporary account in the Gazette-Times reported that such a trip cost $14 in fares and required a “leisurely” two weeks of hopping on and off cars. (A conventional train, obviously, would get you to Chicago much faster -- only a reporter or other parasite with nothing more pressing to do could go by streetcar.)
Gilbert Love, a Press reporter who wrote about Lytle’s journey in a brief 1970 story, stated that “Other long trips by trolley car were theoretically possible. … Splicing local lines together, a person could have gone north to Erie, then east to Buffalo and on to Hudson, New York. … With other connections a determined trolley rider could have gone as far southwest as Louisville, Kentucky.”
In 1925, the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which operated much of the interurban trackage, could boast, “[T]his mode of travel has practically superseded the railroad passenger train for all interurban traffic and is becoming a considerable factor in the longer distance traffic.” But the network didn’t last long. As roads improved and automobiles became more affordable, interurban traffic was usurped by buses and cars. Its gasoline-powered rivals were more flexible on short trips, and the railroads were faster over the long haul.
The northern routes Lytle had used were among the first to close. The Harmony line, for example closed Aug. 15, 1931 -- just 23 years after it opened. According to the Pittsburgh Ledger, the last car of the Pittsburgh, Harmony, Butler, and New Castle line -- aptly called “The Bummer” -- “died of an overdose of gasoline.” The last interurban lines to be cut, those serving Washington, Pa. and Charleroi, were drastically curtailed in the mid-1950s. Some stops on today’s T system, like Mine #3 and Library, were originally stops on the old Charleroi line.
Just think: These non-descript stations aren’t just stops along a redundant trolley line. They were once part of a system that brought us closer to places like Greensburg and Uniontown, and brought those places closer to us!
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