Thanks to the generosity of George Trapp, here is a Christmas Eve helping of classic Chicago Surface Lines streetcar photos from his wonderful collection. (To see additional photos he has already shared with us, just type “George Trapp” into the search window at the top of this page. Several other posts will come up.)
Today we feature the 100 “Sedans” (aka Peter Witts) that ran in Chicago from 1929 to 1952.
As always, if you can help identify locations, or have interesting facts or reminiscences to add, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. You can leave comments on this post, or write us directly at:
FYI there will be additional posts in this series coming up in the near future, so watch this space.
The Peter Witts in Chicago
A Peter Witt streetcar (also known here as a “Sedan”), a very popular car type, was introduced in many North American cities around 1915 to 1930. Peter Witt himself (1869-1948) was a commissioner of the Cleveland Railway Company, and developed the design of these cars there.
The advantage of the Witts was to reduce dwell time at stops. Passengers boarded at the front of these two-man cars and exited at the center door after paying on their way out. Peter Witt received U. S. Patent 1,180,900 for this improvement in streetcar design.
Witt cars were popular in large cities like Cleveland and Toronto. They are still in use in Milan, Italy.
As Railroad Model Craftsman magazine noted:
The Chicago Surface Lines Peter Witt cars were known locally as “Sedans” and were 49′ long. These 100 cars were numbered 3322-3381 and 6280-6319. They had three folding doors at the front and three sliding doors, separated by a window for the conductor’s station, at the center. The front-end dash was rounded.
The Chicago order was split between Cummings, Brill, and CSL as follows:
3322-3341, 6280-6293 – CSL (34 cars)
3342-3361, 6294-6306 – Brill (33 cars)
3362-3381, 6307-6319 – Cummings Car (33 cars)
I’m not sure whether all three batches had the same trucks and motors. A list of Brill work orders indicates theirs had Brill 76E2 trucks.
It wasn’t that unusual back then for transit operators to build some of their own cars. Starting in 1929, CSL was a very active participant in the Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee, whose work developed the standardized PCC car, which soon dominated the industry.
The PCC patents were assigned to the Transit Research Corporation, whose stock was owned by the various transit operators who took part in the program. CSL apparently owned the largest amount of stock, which in turn was owned by the Chicago Transit Authority starting in 1947. Eventually Walter J. McCarter, first general manager of CTA, became the head of TRC, which I think has since been disbanded.
The Witts were speedy and attractive cars with leather seats, certainly the most modern things CSL had prior to the two experimental units and the PCCs. When considered with these, Chicago had a total of 785 modern cars.
The Sedans were mainly used on the busy Clark-Wentworth line. After the 83 prewar PCCs came on the scene in 1936-37, they also helped fill out schedules on Madison. After World War II, they eventually made their way to Cottage Grove before being retired in 1952.
They certainly could have been used longer than 23 years. Toronto had 350 Witts, built between 1921 and 1923, and the last of these was retired in 1965– more than 40 years of service.
To this day, Toronto still has one Peter Witt (#2766) on the property in operable condition, and it is brought out for special occasions.
Once the Chicago Transit Authority took over the surface and rapid transit lines in 1947, the mantra became, “get rid of all the old red streetcars.” And since the Witts were not PCCs, they got lumped into that category as well. Some were slated for conversion to one-man around 1951, but I am not certain whether any were operated in this way prior to retirement. I have seen photos showing how the door configuration on at least one car was so changed.
All 100 Sedans were scrapped in 1952. None were saved for museums, which is a real shame. Unfortunately, the Sedans were scrapped just before a museum movement started here. The Illinois Electric Railway Museum was founded in 1953, and their first purchase was Indiana Railroad car 65. The first Chicago streetcar acquired by the museum was red Pullman 144.
Likewise, the preservation efforts of the Electric Railway Historical Society did not begin until a few years later. Ultimately, ERHS saved several Chicago trolleys, all of which made their way to IRM in 1973. Additional cars were saved by CTA and made their way to IRM and the Fox River Trolley Museum in the mid-1980s.
J. G. Brill was the preeminent American streetcar manufacturer before the PCC era. While they were involved in the development of the PCC, and built experimental car 7001 for Chicago in 1934, they made a fateful decision not to pay royalties on the PCC patents, and their attempts to compete with the PCC were largely a failure. Fewer than 50 “Brilliners” (their competing model) were built, the last in 1941.
Around 1930, Brill promoted another type of standardized car called a Master Unit. However, as built, I don’t believe any two orders of Master Units were exactly the same.
There is some dispute as to whether Baltimore’s Peter Witts also qualify as Master Units. However, what defines a Witt is the manner of fare collection, and not the overall style of the car or its mechanical equipment.
As the same magazine referenced above explains:
Peter Witt was the very efficient city clerk in the administration of Cleveland, OH mayor Tom Johnson in the 1900s. In 1912, subsequent mayor Newton Baker appointed him as Street Railway Commissioner. Witt became concerned with the inefficiencies of fare collection in streetcars. Many systems still relied on the old horse car era scheme of having the conductor squeeze through the crowded car to collect fares from newly boarded passengers. After 1905, many systems adopted the “pay-as-you-enter” (PAYE) car design, with the conductor stationed at a fixed location on the rear platform to collect fares as passengers boarded and moved forward to find seats in the car interior. On busy lines, this resulted in delays while enough new passengers paid their fares to allow the last waiting passenger to find room on the rear platform so the doors could be closed and the conductor could give a two-bell signal for the motorman to proceed.
Peter Witt’s innovation was the “pay-as-you-pass” fare collection system, using a front entrance and center exit streetcar configuration. The section of the car forward of the center doors had longitudinal “bowling alley” seats to allow abundant space for newly boarded standees. The conductor was stationed just ahead of the center exit doors, and collected fares while the car was in motion either as patrons prepared to exit the car, or as they moved aft to find more comfortable seating in the rear section of the car. This greatly expedited the loading process at busy stops, and improved efficiency. The first Cleveland cars modified to Witt’s design entered service in December 1914, and were an immediate success, resulting in orders for new cars built to this design in Cleveland and in many other cities. The Peter Witt type of car remained very popular until the advent of the PCC streetcar in the 1930’s. The standard PCC used the same proven front entrance-center exit configuration, and many two-man PCCs used the Peter Witt fare collection scheme.
Before the PCC, most streetcar systems ordered unique cars specified to meet local needs and traditions. While many cities used Peter Witt type streetcars, the cars were not of the same design from city to city…
In doing the research for this review, one question remains unanswered: were the Baltimore Peter Witts Master Units? The Seashore Trolley Museum website describes the Baltimore #6144 in their collection as a “Brill Master Unit Peter Witt”. In “PCC – The Car That Fought Back”, Carlson and Schneider describe the 90 Indianapolis cars as Master Units. The Brill Master Unit was intended to be a flexible design based on standardized components, including single or double-ended single or double truck cars. The Master Unit product line also included a double truck front entrance-center exit design shown in an artist’s illustration in a Brill advertisement in the February 9, 1929 Electric Railway Journal. On the other hand Debra Brill in her History of the J.G. Brill Company states that only 78 Master Units were constructed (20 for Lima Peru, 20 for Brazil, 20 for Lynchburg, 13 for Youngstown, 3 for Yakima, 1 for Louisville, and 1 single trucker for TARS in New York). Ms. Brill does not count the 32 similar cars for Wilmington ordered before the official introduction of the Master Unit, or the single car built for a cancelled Lynchburg order and used by Brill for testing. She recognizes that the TARS and Louisville cars were the only ones that fully conformed to Brill’s Master Unit design.
Likewise, the definition of what constitutes a PCC streetcar is also a bit fluid, as detailed by noted transit historian Dr. Harold E. Cox in this article.
Several models of the Chicago Peter Witts have been produced by various firms, including the excellent St. Petersburg Tram Collection.
Each year, the holiday season creates a warm and generous feeling towards other people, and this year is no exception. Now that we are truly at our “Witt’s End,” we hope that you will enjoy these photographic gifts in the spirit in which they are intended.
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Our E-book Chicago’s PCC Streetcars: The Rest of the Story, available through our Online Store, has been updated with the addition of about 12 minutes of public domain color video showing Chicago PCCs in action. These films were mainly taken on route 36 – Broadway, with a date of October 9, 1956. However, some portions of the film may have been shot earlier, since there are a couple of prewar cars seen. These were last used on route 49 – Western on June 17, 1956.
This video portion can be viewed on any computer using media player software.
PS- Several additional photos have been added to our previous post Chicago Surface Lines Photos, Part Five (December 11th).
Fred J. Borchert
Fred J. Borchert (1889-1951), some of whose work appears on this blog, was an early railfan photographer in Chicago. His work predated other early fans such as Edward Frank, Jr. (1911-1992). There are Ed Frank pictures here from as early as 1934, but Borchert’s work goes back even further than that.
I haven’t been able to find much information on Borchert, but I do know that during WWI, he drove a taxicab, and later, worked for the US Post Office. Ed Frank must have acquired at least some of Borchert’s negatives after his death, since he made prints. If anyone can provide further information on either of these gentlemen, I would appreciate it. I did at least meet Ed Frank since he used to sell his black-and-white photos at CERA meetings many years ago.
Bill Robb writes:
Toronto had 350 Peter Witt cars and 225 similar trailers. The motor cars had even numbers and the trailers had odd numbers.
Attached is a Ray F Corley TTC document on the Peter Witt design.
But Philadelphia had a larger fleet. Philadelphia also had 535 Peter Witt cars purchased in three orders during the 1920s, which were locally known as Eighty Hundreds. The last PTC 8000s ran in December 1957. More on the Philadelphia orders: