History of Public Transportation
Trolley Cars

by Nancy Coleman, Feature Staff Writer for the Tribune-Democrat

Seeing a need for public transit in the city, local businessmen on April 18, 1882, organized a street railway to provide horse car service. The organizers received a charter on May 8 of that year, under the name of the Johnstown Passenger Railway Co.

The company had the blessing of the local government and quickly was granted franchises to use public streets connecting Franklin Borough, Woodvale, Cambria City and Morrellville. The residents of Kernville, across the Stonycreek from downtown Johnstown, also requested to be served by the horse cars. However, the Franklin Street Bridge was owned by the Johnstown and Benscreek Road Co., who had held a franchise to use Franklin Street for many years. The Town Council therefore had to purchase the bridge and the franchise held by the road company in order to grant a new franchise to the horse car company.

Track was laid during the fall and winter, and a stable and a barn were erected in Woodvale, at the upper end of Maple Avenue. By the spring of 1883, the company had completed 8 miles of track.

The main line ran along Maple Avenue in Woodvale, crossed the Conemaugh River on the Woodvale Bridge and then ran into the city on Railroad Street and through the city on Main and Walnut Streets.

lt recrossed the river on the Walnut Street Bridge and traveled along Iron Street, crossing the river again before turning onto Broad Street in Cambria City and terminating at the edge of Morrellville.

Two branches extended from the main line: one for about a mile into Hornerstown along Baumer and Bedford Streets; the other along Franklin Street to Valley Pike, through Kernville.

On April 10, 1883, the first cars went out onto the line. These cars were widely proclaimed by the riders. Initially, there were six two-horse cars servicing the system on a 20-minute head way. By the end of the first year, more than 500,000 passengers had been carried at a fare of five cents, and the company paid the stockholders a 3 percent dividend. These little horse cars filled the need for public transit in an era when residents were accustomed to a slower gait.

On May 31, 1889, the great Flood descended upon the Conemaugh Valley. After the flood, T. L. Johnson of the Johnstown Steel Works purchased what was left of the horse car company - little more than buried roadbed, twisted rail, and the franchises. The new management announced that they were to rebuild the lines and electrify them.

A power house was built on Baumer Street. The barns and offices of the company were erected on Central Avenue in Moxham. Orders were placed for 10 motor cars with Short System electrical equipment and 10 trailers.

The new tracks followed the route of the horse car lines, and an extension was added onto the main line, on Broad Street and A Street in Morrellville to the Coopersdale Bridge. An extension also was added onto the Franklin Street line in order to reach the new car barn. This addition left Franklin Street and followed Valley Pike to Central Avenue and then to the barn. The first regular trip was made on July 28, 1891

During the balance of 1891 and into 1892, the demand for service far exceeded the company's ability, and additional cars were ordered. On March 11, 1893, disaster struck again when the new car barn was destroyed by fire. Forty-one cars and 11 trailers were destroyed or damaged.

The Company decided that instead of rebuilding on the same site, it would purchase a lot further south on Central Avenue, at Bond Street, to allow for a larger barn and expansion. An order for 25 cars was placed with the Stephenson Car Co. (See Picture 1.)

Picture 1. Car 8 on "A" Street in Morrellville, Coopersdale Bridge is shown in background, 1895.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.


In 1896, the Franklin Street line was extended again through Roxbury to the new Luna Park on private right-of-way. Crews were also extending the main line into Franklin Borough. By 1897, the Hornerstown line extended out Bedford Street to Dale at Buck Avenue. Later, Coopersdale was reached when the main line was extended across the river to the city line. During 1899 and 1900, 28 more cars were delivered.

On Oct. 15, 1898, a new company was chartered to construct a line from Johnstown to Somerset. This new firm was titled the Johnstown & Somerset Traction Co. It proposed to build southeast from Johnstown, through Scalp Level to Windber and then southward through the coal fields to Somerset.

The Johnstown Passenger Railway Co. considered the Johnstown area their private property and immediately began to fight the new railway, resulting in the merger of the two firms on Nov. 4,1899. Plans soon were made to extend the Moxham line along the banks of the Stonycreek to Windber, then southward to Somerset.

The recently completed lines, having placed a strain on the old power plant, forced the railway to erect a new stone power plant next to the existing plant in 1900. A new line was constructed through Hornerstown to Moxham by way of Homer Street. Construction on the Moxham extension reaching Ferndale began before the end of the year, and Scalp Level was reached during 1901. The first car entered Windber on Jan. 1, 1902.

The transit company, having spent more than $1 million in construction costs, decided that extending the line south to Somerset would be too costly.

The Windber cars came into Johnstown through Benscreek and Ferndale to Moxham. They traveled the Homer Street line to Main Street, pulling into a siding in front of the Cambria Theater.

lt should be noted that the transit company was correct when it terminated the line at Windber. The line showed a profit every year of its operation, and a later attempt to build southward ended in failure.

Fire again entered the history of the company when the Penn Traffic Department Store caught fire in 1905. The fire companies were plagued by bursting hoselines and sent out a call for help to Windber. Windber volunteers loaded 500 feet of hose on a streetcar bound for Johnstown, resulting in a hair-raising run along the Stonycreek and through the city.

During the period from 1900 to 1907, as patronage flourished, the company ordered a variety of cars. Besides the nine double truck Stephenson cars purchased in 1901 for the Windber line, the company received 36 single truck closed city cars and 24 open single truckers for their city routes. (See picture 2.) By the end of 1907, the company operated slightly more than 31 miles of track and 110 cars.


Picture 2.
Builders view of car 130, delivered in 1905.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

For a number of years, the B&O Railroad crossing on Valley Pike was the site of near collisions between the cars and the trains. The inevitable happened on July 16, 1908, when Car 104, with an estimated 100 passengers on board, collided with an engine, resulting in one killed and 40 injured. (See picture 3.)

Picture 3. Wreck of car 104, July 16, 1908.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

The payments to the injured and survivors of the dead, on top of payments on construction and car order bonds, caused the company to find itself in a difficult financial position by 1909. The company could not obtain further financing to expand to meet ever-increasing demands for service and so, by the end of 1909, decided to reorganize.

The Johnstown Traction Co. came into being on Feb. 23, 1910, to operate, by lease, the Johnstown Passenger Railway Co. This lease included all franchises, 31.3 miles of track and 108 cars.

Under the new management of the new company, additional financing was arranged to extend the tracks and to purchase new cars. A branch off the Roxbury line was constructed to Southmont in 1911, and track was laid into Morrellville. For several years, passengers bound for Morrellville left the Coopersdale car at Fairfield Avenue and walked across the PRR tracks to the waiting Morrellville shuttle car.

Further improvements were impossible under the management arrangements. On Dec. 15, 1913, the two firms were merged, retaining the name of the Johnstown Traction Co.

In 1915, the Morrellville line was extended into Oakhurst and an underpass was built on Fairfield Avenue at the PRR tracks. Twenty additional cars were delivered in 1916 and 1917, replacing many of the older single truck cars. (See picture 4.)


Picture 4.
A 221-230 series car, delivered by St. Louis Car Company in 1917.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

By 1918, the traction company reported that they operated 108 cars over 35.7 miles of track. It should be noted that the number of cars seems high for the size of the city, but at that time the company kept summer cars, winter cars and trailers. Moving along with transportation improvements, the traction company formed a subsidiary, the Traction Bus Co., to operate motor bus lines that would connect with the streetcar routes. This new company received its charter on Nov; 15, 1922. The first bus began its run seven days later from the Dale trolley loop to Windber, via Geistown.

By 1920, the traction company wanted to retire its aging single truck cars. Over the next six years, it purchased 45 double truck cars. A number of these were second-hand, coming from Cleveland and Somerset. They also obtained three new cars for the Windber line in 1924 and 20 new cars for other routes in 1926 (See picture 5.)

Picture 5. 353, one of the twenty cars delivered in 1926.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

With the acquisition of the second-hand cars, the company began to paint the cars and buses Omaha Orange and Panama Sand, with medium gray roof, black undercarriage and striping. In 1929, the company expanded its bus routes with the acquisition of the Southern Cambria and the Beaverdale and South Fork bus lines after the Southern Cambria Railway folded.

During 1930, the bridge over the Stonycreek at Point Stadium was completed, and the city required the traction company to relocate its Coopersdale and Morrellville car lines from the north side of the river. The first car operated along Point Boulevard (Roosevelt Boulevard) on Oct. 19, 1930. In November, 1931 the company was placed in receivership for failure to pay interest on its bonds. The receivers ran the system for a year, while refinancing and reorganizing the company on Dec. 3,1932, retaining the same title.

The traction company was hardly out of one trouble when it was hit by another. Rain combined with melting snows caused flooding on March 17, 1936, closing all of the streetcar lines. The Stonycreek washed out much of the Windber line; the Coopersdale car house was under five feet of water; and 10 cars were trapped on the city streets.

By the end of March, the company had four of its lines operating. However, after surveying the damaged Windber line, it was declared that the damage was too extensive to repair, and the cars were terminated on the Benscreek side of the Stonycreek. Buses were substituted over Route 56.

With more and more bus routes being added, the traction company, in 1936, saw the need for closer control. On Jan. 1, 1937, the bus companies were merged into the parent firm. In 1938, Westmont residents requested improved service. The Inclined Plane, which carried vehicles for many years, was rebuilt to handle heavier loads, and bus service was initiated via the Inclined Plane to Westmont on an hourly basis.

Loss in patronage in the late 1930's caused the company to look toward buses to reduce costs on lightly traveled car lines. Dale was motorized on Aug. 2,1940, but wartime shortages and increased patronage postponed further conversions.

World War II caused a transit boom. During 1941 and 1942, the company was able to purchase 14 used streetcars and 11 new diesel buses. It rebuilt much of the Southmont line, using rail from the old Somerset line, and replaced rail on the Franklin line.

The Office of Defense Transportation ordered bus service cut 20 percent and bus and streetcar lines combined to save gasoline and tires. In August 1942, women began training to operate the buses.

The American Federation of Labor organized the operators and shop and maintenance employees in 1941. They struck twice in 1943, for one day each, against the War Labor Board's reduction in wages.

For three successive years, 1942-44, the company paid a dividend, the first since several years before the company's 1932 reorganization. The year 1943 marked the all-time high for riders, with 17,047,406.

The citizens of Johnstown had wondered about the advisability of purchasing additional used cars in 1941 and 1942, but soon they were glad to find space aboard them, as wartime shortages caused all-time high riding records. Beginning in 1945, the company bought all its power from the Pennsylvania Electric Co. The old power plant was changed into a substation and two new rectifiers were installed.

[Here is an example of the tokens used by the Johnstown Traction Company, circa 1940-1960.]

After several profitable years, the company decided that the streetcars should remain, and it did not resume conversions. Instead, the company surprised the transportation industry when it ignored the second-hand market in March 1945 and placed an order for 17 new trolleys known as PCCs. (See picture 6.)

Picture 6. PCC 416 in regular service on Walnut Street heading south to Ferndale.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

Financing was arranged for the new cars, as well as 14 buses, loops at Ferndale and Roxbury and two miles of new track for the Franklin line.

On Jan. 25, 1947, the first of the new cars arrived. They represented the latest work in public conveyances. These new cars were the first "all electric" St. Louis cars, and Johnstown was the smallest city in the country to operate them.

In September 1951, the company began to convert Homer Street to trackless trolley operations. The first trackless coaches ran on Nov. 20. Service on the line was provided by six 48-seat St. Louis Car Co. coaches.

The mid 1950's brought an industrial slowdown, which reduced service to five PCCs on 30-40 minute headways. The Franklin line was temporarily cut back, in 1956, to the west end of the Franklin Borough Bridge while a new bridge was being erected. A cross-over was installed to allow cars to be cut back, and again the old double-end cars saw service on the line. Surprisingly, at this late date, new rail was installed on the new bridge, and the PCC's resumed service.

Buses were substituted on the Benscreek line during 1957, and overhead work was begun on the Roxbury-Morrellville trackage in preparation for conversion to trackless trolley service. In June of the same year, the company purchased 10 second-hand trolley coaches from Wilmington, DE, and 11 from Covington, KY. These were reconditioned and painted in the company shops. Ferndale and Coopersdale were converted to bus operation on Nov. 25, 1959.

During 1959, the last full year of trolley service, the company had 38 cars (16 PCCs, 18 Lightweights, 4 work), 27 trolley coaches and 45 buses. It operated 27.04 miles of streetcar lines and 7.7 miles of trackless trolley route.

All rail operations were halted on June 11, 1960, and buses were substituted. (See Picture 7.) This conversion, prompted by the city's institution of a one-way street system, occurred before the Roxbury-Morrellville line could be completely converted to use by the trackless trolley coaches. This service began on Sept. 26,1960, after the city paved the center of Roxbury Avenue. Trackless trolley operations were terminated and converted to bus service in November 1967.

Picture 7. Car 352 near Point Stadium on its last day of operation, June 11, 1960.
From Johnstown Traction Company by B. W. Rohrbeck.

 

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