Saturday, August 18, 2001

Exhibit commemorates the streetcar era

50 years later, memories live on

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You could see the world — at least Cincinnati's many splendid corners of it — for pennies. Fifteen cents in the electric streetcar's final days.

        Then it all dissolved into concrete and asphalt, Metro buses and SUV car pools on the interstate.

[photo] The famed Mount Adams incline carried the Route 49-Zoo streetcar up the steep hill in 1947.
(Photos submitted)
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        But from 1889 to 1951, the longest run of any form of mass transit in Cincinnati's history, the possibilities on the city's streetcars were as expansive as the system itself. It went virtually everywhere.

        It's an era revisited today with the opening of a streetcar exhibit at the Cincinnati History Museum at Museum Center.

        The display, Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Last Cincinnati Streetcar, borrows heavily from private citizens' collections: Models, photos dating to the turn of the last century, Sunday passes, uniform badges and a refurbished curb-side trolley that debuted in 1923.

        Friday was the 112th anniversary of the first electric car's debut, Aug. 17, 1889. The last ran April 29, 1951 — a half-century ago this year.

        “Lots of people went to work on them. Many a courtship happened with the streetcar as the background,” said Bill Myers of Anderson Township, a longtime Cincinnati TV personality.

        “I was a dyed-in-the-wool fan of these things,” he recalled. “I visited the car barns, knew the motormen.”

        Growing up on Kirbert Avenue in Price Hill in the 1940s, he rode the 32-Elberon streetcar to the old St. Xavier High School on Sycamore Street downtown. The fare was a dime.

[photo] Eighth Street Car House.
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[photo] Moving along Erie Avenue.
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[photo] At Fountain Square.
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        Before the post-World War II boom of car ownership, the trolleys were, for many city residents, the best way downtown — and the only way to see other neighborhoods.

        And they were cool, literally.

        “We rode those cars in the summertime to cool off,” said Larry Fobiano, 65, a lifelong Hyde Park resident. “That was the days before air conditioning.”

        He recalls with fondness the 70-Oakley line. And the 69-Madisonville. And the 68—Madison/Delta. And the 71-Milford. And the 72-Mariemont.

        For years, from Memorial Day to Labor Day you could board a streetcar after 7 p.m. and get a free transfer.

        “You could ride until 2 a.m.,” said Mr. Fobiano, who has a collection of model streetcars and original trolley signs. “And people with apartments without air conditioning often did that.”

        The current Metro bus system had 25 million riders last year. By comparison, in 1946, with families reunited after World War II, the streetcar system had a record 132 million riders. The system was consistently over 100 million passengers for decades.

        Then the proliferation of family cars and suburban migration hastened the streetcars' demise.

        Today, debates on mass transit involve high-speed light rail, suburban service and, invariably, where the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to build it are going to come from. An ambitious 30-year plan to expand Metro bus service also likely would require public funding. Preliminary estimate for the expansion: $108 million to $192 million.

        But this weekend, forget about all that.

        “One fact is, this was the mode of transportation that lasted the longest,” said Steve Herman, spokesman for Metro, which is sponsoring the exhibit.

        Cincinnati's first “mass” transit was horse-drawn lines that opened in 1859, and quickly gained favor. Private companies poured in. Then came a cable-car system, like the still-active San Francisco system in which the car is connected to a cable running continuously under the street. The onboard “grip man” used a lever to connect with and release from the cable.

        Electricity was still relatively new in 1889, but its introduction to mass transit changed everything, providing low-cost and time-efficient transportation.

        We haven't been the same since.

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