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Archive for Saturday, January 10, 2009

St. Louis streetcar to get new life

January 10, 2009

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— A streamlined streetcar that once rocked along the streets of St. Louis is getting a top-to-bottom spiffing by volunteers at the Museum of Transportation, where they plan to run it as a reminder of the old days.

The restoration is thorough enough to require removing all the seats for reupholstering — with proper materials and drab, sensible colors. Workers have tagged each one of the seat benches, lest any of them be returned to place in the wrong order.

The new paint job will have a white roof, cream along the window level and bright red below the windows, the way it looked 42 years ago.

“We want it just like the people who rode it will remember it,” said Al Weber, an electrical engineer and one of the volunteers.

The museum runs three operating streetcars on tourist rides along a 1,200-foot stretch of track. Weber said it will add Number 1743 to the roster when they finish the work, which could take two or more years. The local pedigree makes the car a special object of affection.

“To most people, a streetcar is a streetcar,” said Weber, of St. Peters. “Not to the purists. For us, this is unique because it ran on our streets.”

St. Louis Car Co. built it in 1946 for St. Louis Public Service Co., predecessor to the region’s Bi-State Transit Agency (now called Metro). Bi-State was created in 1963 and ran Number 1743 until 1966, when it ended streetcar service.

San Francisco’s transit agency bought the car and ran it, then gave it to a museum in Wisconsin. The Museum of Transportation, on Barrett Station Road in St. Louis County, brought it back home by truck three decades ago.

Time moves slowly at the museum, where a small group of volunteers is always repairing or restoring pieces of its collection of locomotives, streetcars, automobiles and other contraptions. The museum briefly ran Number 1743 with its San Francisco green, then stored it for future improvement. Restoration finally began last spring on a two-day work week — excepting summers, when the volunteers are busy giving rides.

On a recent workday, George Nolte of Arnold and Carl Horn of Mehlville removed the seats and vertical grip poles, revealing the spaciousness of the interior.

The exterior, cleaned of rust and rebuilt with patches of welded new steel and auto-body filler, had been sanded. The sanding cut oddly through the layers of green, red and primer, giving the car a psychedelic, paint-by-numbers appearance. It won’t stay that way.

“Considering its age, it’s in very good shape,” said Horn, a retired machinist from Boeing Corp.

The museum’s three operating streetcars are a Chicago Transit Authority “El” car, a 1914-vintage streetcar used by the St. Louis Water Department and a former Philadelphia car that looks much like Number 1743 with green paint. The museum has another two dozen streetcars, most of them in storage.

St. Louis commuters first used street horse-drawn railways in 1859. By the 1920s, more than 1,600 electric streetcars crisscrossed the city and St. Louis County along 485 miles of track. St. Louis Car, at 8000 Hall Street, built streetcars for many big urban systems, including the New York subways and Chicago’s El. During World War II, the sprawling plant turned out amphibious tank-like personnel carriers known as “amtracs.”

Number 1743 is a PCC model, so named because the Presidents’ Conference Committee — a gathering of streetcar executives — designed it in a hopeless effort to save ridership. But automobiles and buses doomed their lines.

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