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Ride the Cars: 1938

Ride the Cars: 1938

November 1938. "Streetcar motorman in Omaha, Nebraska." 35mm negative by John Vachon for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.


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See the Streetcar Museum!

And apropos of streetcars and Baltimore, I recommend their streetcar museum for anyone interested in the subject. I first learned about from my father-in-law, who did a good deal of volunteer work for them, and a couple of years ago we finally got there. (Warning: it's not easy to find or get to; for best results, phone and ask for directions.)

The museum occupies part of a Ma & Pa (Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad) maintenance yard, and runs their excursions on a section of Ma & Pa line. Right next to the museum, railfans will note the roundhouse converted by the state of Maryland to a road maintenance yard; the engine stalls now shelter piles of sand, gravel, and salt.

Streetcar seats

I heard a Fibber McGee & Molly radio show from the 1930s with the joke, "What do motormen do at the end of the shift?"
"Turn their seats around and go home."

The motorman's woes

For an account (albeit fictional) of a motorman's miserable day, find the episode in "Sister Carrie" where Hurstwood tries to be a scab motorman while the union is on strike in late 1800s Chicago.

"Ride the Cars"

Omaha was the site of a violent streetcar strike in 1935. I wonder if the sign is an attempt to dispel any lingering anger over the strike.

Back and forth

My grandfather drove a streetcar in Binghamton NY at about the same time as this picture. My mother rode with him to the end of the line and flipped the seats around to face the other direction before walking on home. We still have the stool he used, with the footrest very worn.

Still Running in Tucson

If you want to try the real thing there are still some running on the Old Pueblo Trolley line in Tucson!

An outstanding job

Until the 1910s or 1920s most motormen were required to stand, and this was when they had 10 or 12 hour shifts. Early streetcars (and the horsecars and cable cars that preceded them) usually had open front vestibules, so if it was rainy and cold, the poor motorman just had to take it while standing the whole time!


This was a big improvement over the older cars, where the operators had to stand on a outside platform.

As Uncomfortable as It Might Appear

This arrangement was far superior to the Motorman's accomodations on earlier streetcars and horsecars. I recall reading a book about Baltimore's system whereby the company refused to provide any protection beyond a waist high dash until an operator died from exposure during a winter storm.

A pain in the a...

I cannot imagine how uncomfortable it would be to ride all day one what looks and probably felt like a piano stool, with your legs dangling at an uncomfortable angle.

How simple, how sweet ...

... life must have looked from those windows.

Some things change very little over time...

I was recently down on Ybor City (Tampa) Florida and took a ride in one of their new retro streetcars. The operators station has changed very little. In fact, some of the hardware used in the new cars was salvaged from old streetcars. There's an identical station at the opposite end of the car so the driver can just walk to the other end of the car (flipping the wooden seats as he goes) and drive the opposite route.

Fare Box

The motorman is resting his hand on top of the fare box. I have often seen bus drivers do this, as well. The explanation I got was that it keeps the damn thing from rattling too much and making a racket.


I love the sign. It's like they're threatening you.

Crash that puppy

... and you cold lose the family jewels on the coin changer!

Strangely familiar

It looks a lot like the streetcars I've ridden on Main Street in Memphis.

Next stop the 1930s

The inclusion of the car makes this photo for me. One way ticket to the 1930s please!

Vibration Damper

I had a long bus trip in Detroit during the early 1960's to get to high school. Even will all the Motor City engineering know-how, they had not solved the problem of dampening the heavy rattling fare boxes which were built like safes. One hand on the wheel and the other quieting the fare box.


At the time where streetcars were popular, here in Belgium and France the conductor was called a "Wattman". The name was based of course on the control they had on the power of that thing ...

Must fight the urge

to do a Tennessee Williams pun.

Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it.

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