The Cleveland Experiment

On a frigid day in January, 1954, a trolley left Public Square for a trip down Bridge and Madison Avenues in Cleveland for the last time, marking the end of an era in Ohio. Lucky for those of us who didn’t get to live in the streetcar era, history tends to repeat itself.

Cleveland recently gave transit riders the first opportunity to ride streetcars in decades. In addition to the rare experience of riding century-old trolley cars, officials and aficionados there are toying with the idea of moving a streetcar museum downtown and making the attraction permanent.

Trolleyville, U.S.A., a nearly 50-year old antique streetcar museum formerly located outside of Cleveland in Olmsted Township, has to move, and it wants to relocate in downtown Cleveland. A new complex would include an interpretative center where the public can view the more than 40 antique streetcars, car display storage facilities, a state-of-the art restoration facility, and a new right-of-way in Cleveland.

A downtown location couldn’t make more sense. The Market Street Railway in San Francisco, along with the Cable Car Museum and lines, provides residents and tourists with an ongoing urban transit history exhibit. Likewise, the numbers of other cities looking to reintegrate streetcars into their transit systems continue to grow.

Many have opted for modern light-rail vehicles, but others like Memphis have geared the streetcars specifically to tourists and used modern replicas of historic cars. Still others like San Francisco scour the earth to find enough authentic historic streetcars to feed the growing demand.

There is a stock of historic streetcars right under the noses of many other cities that fail to harness their potential. Baltimore, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and other cities all have sizable streetcar museums with stock ready as it ever was to move passengers in the cities they once served.

East Troy Electric RailwayI recently visited the East Troy Electric Railway outside of Milwaukee. In a city severely lacking in fixed transit, the museum houses a number of restored and operational streetcars and heavy rail vehicles that could be shuttling residents to employment and entertainment destinations downtown instead of shuttling tourists through a field outside of town.

In Cleveland, officials say the recent redevelopment of the Superior Viaduct with working trolley tracks has shown the possibility of a trolley operation that could connect the Viaduct and the West Side Market with the East Bank of the Flats, Ohio Canal Corridor Canal Basin Park, and the RTA Waterfront Line.

The interurban cars used for the test run–number 36 (a 1902 Stephenson) and 303 (a 1906 Niles)–were formerly operated by the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin (CA&E) railroad. Interurbans have not been used in Cleveland since 1938.

Click Here to see hundreds of photos of historic PCC streetcars, as well as some contemporary streetcar systems.

It’s about time they return, and what should have been obvious–locating streetcar museums downtown (which essentially amounts to putting them back in service, since higher-capacity light rail vehicles can use the same tracks)–has taken far too long to realize. Hats off to Cleveland for this brilliant move that will help the city boost tourism while making it more sustainable and friendly for pedestrian-oriented residents. Other cities should take note, and make plans to relocate historic streetcar museums downtown.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me