Just outside a forgotten mining town in a remote forest in rural Pennsylvania, a fleet of vintage streetcars lie decaying in the undergrowth. Abandoned on a dead-end stretch of rusty railroad, these forlorn urban relics evoke nostalgia for another time and place. But how did they end up here? Who brought them? And why?
The town’s name is Windber. It was founded in Somerset County in the late 19th century by two brothers – the coal magnates Charles and Edward Julius Berwind. At its peak in the ’40s, Windber was home to around 9,000 inhabitants, and they worked in a number of industrial operations, including lumbering and brick manufacturing.
However, from the 1950s onwards, the coal mines began to close and the town’s population started to dwindle; indeed, by 2015 it was less than 4,000. Today, Windber is no longer a hub of industry, and the old railroad tracks that once connected it to the outside world have fallen into disuse and dilapidation.
Moreover, the decline of Windber merely echoes another kind of decline: that of the streetcar. From the 1930s onwards, it was a mode of transport that American cities came to rely upon less and less. Instead, people increasingly opted to use bus services and automobiles. And of the thousands of streetcars decommissioned, 45 of them ended up on the outskirts of Windber.
Today, Windber’s streetcar graveyard is a lonely and unnerving place – a last-stop destination. Once thronging with passengers, the cars are now silent and still, their interiors beset by encroaching vegetation. As if to emphasize the inevitable triumph of time over civilization, nature is reclaiming these once pristine machines.
These are in fact Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars – icons of U.S. design. Indeed, they were renowned for their excellent aesthetics and performance. Initially manufactured by the St. Louis Car Company and Pullman Standard, they were eventually exported around the world. And with fleets everywhere from Moscow to Buenos Aires, PCC streetcars subsequently grew to be a global phenomenon.
The cars themselves closely resembled interurban buses and, despite their unglamorous interiors, became renowned for their comfort. For one thing, PCC designers paid particular attention to noise reduction. Rubber insulation around the sills of the body and the electric gear systems kept screeching and clattering to a minimum.
PCC streetcars came in many shapes and sizes, but mechanically speaking, there were just two types of design. Early models incorporated compressed air systems to operate the brakes and doors. After World War II, however, standard PCC streetcars used electrical mechanisms only. They also had bigger windows.
Remarkably, PCC streetcars flourished during an era of industrial decline. Indeed, they first appeared in 1929 – the year the Great Depression began. However, the cars in the Winder graveyard date from 1936 to 1952. They were once deployed in Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago.
Still, contrary to urban myth, these particular streetcars did not arrive on the coal mine railroads. In fact, they were brought here from Boston on flatbed trucks in the ’90s and placed on storage tracks. Furthermore, it had been necessary to carefully plan the route into the town in order to avoid low overpasses.
But the dreamer who brought them to Windber, Ed Metka, had not intended to let them fall into ruin. Partnering with a maintenance supervisor for Boston’s Green Line, Richard Dunbrack, he had planned to revive the cars. He then hoped to resell them for tourism projects. However, Dunbrack then passed away unexpectedly, and as a result, Metka put his plans on hold.
Naturally, Metka’s interest in streetcars was not purely commercial. Indeed, with Metka growing up in Chicago in the ’40s, the vehicles fascinated him from a young age. And, as an adult, his interest in streetcars led him to study civil engineering; then, after college, he pursued a career with the Army Corp of Engineers.
Fearing that they might be stripped for scrap or destroyed, Metka acquired many of his beloved streetcars at auction. Indeed, city authorities sometimes burned out the old cars and then recycled the remaining metal. However, private companies took over this function in the ’70s.
“Either get them then or forget them forever,” Metka told the website Boston.com. And it appears that his urgency was well-founded. According to Brad Clarke, the president of the Boston Street Railway Association, streetcars and streetcar graveyards are becoming increasingly rare.
“At one time, there were a lot of trolley graveyards around the country because there were a lot of trolley cars,” Clarke told Boston.com. “They began to be phased out in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. So once they phased out, the number of trolley graveyards declined.”
But why, exactly, did American cities stop using streetcars? One explanation is that they became inefficient and economically unviable. However, many believe that they were, in fact, the victim of an industrial-scale conspiracy. For example, according to a 1981 article by Harper’s magazine, “Mass transit didn’t just die, it was murdered.”
Indeed, between 1937 and 1949, General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil bought streetcar systems in 44 U.S. cities. These companies subsequently replaced the vehicles with gasoline-powered buses. Furthermore, federal authorities later convicted those firms of conspiracy to monopolize the sale of buses and related products. Yet they only subjected the companies to insubstantial fines.
Still, despite the efforts of the oil and automotive industries, PCC streetcars do survive – and generate revenue – in some neighborhoods. Most notably, in San Francisco, where the F Market Line and the E Embarcadero operate heritage PCC street cars. Might we then see a general revival of street cars in the not too distant future? Metka hopes so.
“Streetcars nowadays are looked upon as a catalyst for economic development,” he said. “That represents a long-term commitment that you’re going to have a streetcar line running there. If you’re servicing that with a bus, they could change that in a week.”
Meanwhile, Metka is allowing visitors the unique opportunity to visit and photograph his streetcars. “The millennial generation, most of them have never had the opportunity to ride a streetcar,” he commented. “In addition to an enjoyable experience, it’s kind of educational.” And with any luck, cities across the U.S. will be putting brand new streetcar projects on the rails before long.