Never Too Late

Former Chicago Surface Lines mail car 6, built in 1891, as it looked on May 25, 1958. This car is now at the Fox River Trolley Museum, where it was recently vandalized. You can see a black-and-white photo of this car, taken at the same time as this one, in our previous post Throwback Thursday (January 7, 2016). To see a picture of West Chicago Street Railway car 4, also taken the same day, there's one in our post Chicago Streetcars In Color (February 22, 2015).

Former Chicago Surface Lines mail car 6, built in 1891, as it looked on May 25, 1958. This car is now at the Fox River Trolley Museum, where it was recently vandalized. You can see a black-and-white photo of this car, taken at the same time as this one, in our previous post Throwback Thursday (January 7, 2016). To see a picture of West Chicago Street Railway car 4, also taken the same day, there’s one in our post Chicago Streetcars In Color (February 22, 2015).

Recent news reports that eight historic railcars at the Fox River Trolley Museum were vandalized to the tune of perhaps as much as $150,000 brought back some memories.

Back in 1961, when I was six years old, my family took a Sunday drive out to the Chicago Aurora & Elgin’s Wheaton Yards to take one last look at their fleet. We had read in the news that efforts to save the CA&E had failed, and that the entire line was being abandoned forever.

I never did get to ride the CA&E, which stopped running passenger service in 1957. But I did at least get to see the railcars on their home turf in Wheaton. I distinctly recall being gratified that they did not appear to be vandalized. I did not see any broken windows.

Not all of these cars were saved, but some did make it off the property and several lived to run again in museum service in various parts of the country. (We ran some pictures of the “hospital train” in our post Trolley Dodger Mailbag, 1-29-2016.)

That anything at all got saved was, in my humble opinion, a miracle. Now it is true that in the waning days of traction, there were fans who “liberated” various bits and pieces of trolleys that were destined for the scrap heap. Their goal was to preserve history, not desecrate it. In some cases, these original parts have since been put back onto historic equipment, or are now in the collections of railroad museums. At least they were saved for future generations.

Railroad museums across the country depend on small groups of dedicated volunteers. Occasionally, entire museum operations have either failed or have been obliged to relocate. The sad situation faced by the Indiana Transportation Museum, which was recently evicted from its home in Noblesville, is but the latest example.

Let’s take a closer look at Aurora, Elgin & Fox River car 304. This fine specimen of a 1920s interurban car, which returned to run on the small surviving portion of its home rails at the Fox River Trolley Museum, was damaged by the two young vandals. It is not just a piece of equipment that was injured. This was a senseless attack on the history of an entire region.

While this blog is not affiliated with the Fox River Trolley Museum, we wholeheartedly support their efforts, and historic preservation. Insurance, unfortunately, will only cover a small portion of the cost of replacing all the broken glass and other damage. The bulk of funds will have to come from private donations.

The museum has begun a fundraising campaign, which must be successful. I realize many of us are angry about this senseless destruction, but let’s turn our anger into something constructive.

We are but the current caretakers of precious artifacts of the past. If we fail to preserve them, it will be a loss to all who come after us. We can all lament that a couple of young kids did a tremendous amount of harm here, but it’s never too late for the rest of us to do the right thing, right now.

-David Sadowski

The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains

We recently acquired the original artwork for this January 17, 1938 Toonerville Trolley comic panel by the great Fontaine Fox (1884-1964).

We recently acquired the original artwork for this January 17, 1938 Toonerville Trolley comic panel by the great Fontaine Fox (1884-1964).

In a time when trolley lines criss-crossed this country, and were a part of everyday life for Americans, there was even a railfan comic strip. Or, better put, a comic strip by a railfan, Fontaine Fox.

His “Toonerville Trolley” comic ran in newspapers from 1913 until he retired in 1955. Over time, he even grew to resemble the “Skipper,” his own creation. Fox even answered his voluminous fan mail using letterhead he had printed up for the Toonerville Electric Railway Company.

Here is what the Filson (Kentucky) Historical Society has to say about Fontaine Fox:

Fontaine Talbot Fox III, creator of the famous Toonerville Trolley, was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. He started his career as a reporter for the Louisville Herald, but soon abandoned this course to pursue his true passion of drawing cartoons. During a visit to the small town of Pelham, New York, Fox received inspiration for what would become one of the nation’s most beloved comics. While in Pelham, he rode on the local trolley car, where the conductor’s unhurried manner and penchant for gossiping with his passengers gave Fox the idea for his own comic strip. By 1915, the resulting comic series, Toonerville Folks, had come to the attention of the Wheeler Syndicate and was soon published in newspapers across the nation.

The Filson’s collections contain a number of items documenting the life and career of this celebrated cartoonist, including photographs of Fox and his family, as well as some of his correspondence and several scrapbooks with clippings of his cartoons. Notable among Fox’s papers are a collection of twenty-one original pen and ink cartoons from his beloved Toonerville Folks. Set in the fictional town of Toonerville, the single-paneled cartoon featured a rickety trolley car and a glimpse into suburban life in the early twentieth century. Fox created a cast of characters that charmed a nation: the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang, the Powerful Katrinka, Mickey (Himself) McGuire (the town bully), Aunt Eppie Hogg (the fattest woman in three counties), and of course the Skipper, who piloted the beloved trolley car. Toonerville Folks ran in hundreds of newspapers nationwide for over forty years, until Fox’s retirement in 1955. His comics would become an inspiration for a future generation of cartoonists.

Actually, it was a single panel cartoon six days a week. On Sunday, it was in color, in multiple panels. The strip had various names, including The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains and Toonerville Folks. Eventually, the adventures of the “Skipper” and his rickety trolley car only took up a part of the action, as Fox developed a variety of memorable characters for Toonerville.

Blake A. Bell
writes an excellent blog called Historic Pelham, and has written extensively about Fox, the Toonerville Trolley, and its connection to the area.

While the phrase “Toonerville Trolley” eventually became synonymous with any rural streetcar or interurban running on poorly maintained track, Pelham, NY, its inspiration, is actually a suburb, located 14 miles from Midtown Manhattan in Westchester County. It is near the city of New Rochelle, made famous as the home of Rob and Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966).

The Toonerville Trolley ran in over 200 daily newspapers in its heyday, and was popular enough to inspire numerous motion pictures. The first series, circa 1920-21, was silent and produced by the Betzwood Studios in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (more on that in our book review section). You can watch one of those films here.

Next, a young Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) later starred in 78 short films based on the Toonerville character Mickey McGuire, made between 1927 and 1934. This was Mickey Rooney’s first big break in show business. He even attempted, unsuccessfully, to legally change his name to Mickey McGuire.

There were also some Toonerville Trolley animated shorts, made in 1936 by Van Beuren Studios, which can be seen on Youtube. Here is one example:

By the late 1930s, trolley lines were starting to disappear from the American scene. On July 31, 1937 the Pelham Manor “H” trolley line ran its last. Fontaine Fox used the popularity of his comic strip to turn this into a major event.

From Historical Treasures of Westchester County:

On July 31, 1937, the H-Line Trolley that inspired Fontaine Fox was shut down for good – replaced by a bus line. That day the Village of Pelham Manor hosted a celebration attended by about 8,000 people for the last run of the “Toonerville Trolley”.

This “pass,” signed by Fontaine Fox who attended the event, entitled the bearer to ride the trolley car during its last trip. That trip took hours to travel only a couple of miles due to the crowds and the antics of local residents dressed as various characters from the “Toonerville Folks” comic strip.

The Hagerstown & Frederick interurban, which we have featured in a variety of posts, is an example of a country interurban that was frequently called a “Toonerville Trolley.” Its last passenger interurban ran on February 20, 1954.

Perhaps inspired by this, around this time Fontaine Fox bowed to the inevitable, and “retired” the trolley from his strip, replacing it with a bus. But such was the popularity of the old contraption that I believe he brought it back, prior to the strip’s demise in 1955 with Fox’s retirement. He donated some of his original artwork to a trolley museum.

As a tribute to Fontaine Fox, here we present an entire month’s worth of daily Toonerville panels, from June 1927. You will note that only some of the dailies include the trolley and Skipper (who, apparently, was based on real-life Pelham operator James (“Old Jim”) Bailey, who lived in the Bronx). Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974) made his historic non-stop flight from New YHork to Paris on May 20-21, 1927 and “Lindbergh mania” is reflected in many of the strips shown here, suggesting that Fox was working on some of these panels not long before they appeared in newspapers.

Fontaine Fox in retirement:

Book Reviews

Montgomery County Trolleys
by Mike Szilagyi, with a Foreword by Andrew W. Maginnis
Arcadia Publishing, 2018

We recently received a copy of Montogomery County Trolleys from the author, as we had provided a couple of images he used in the book. Otherwise, chances are we might not have seen this fine addition to Arcadia’s Images of Rail series, which we are also involved with (see below for information on Building Chicago’s Subways, and our Online Store for copies of Chicago Trolleys).

Author Mike Szilagyi was no stranger to us, as we had corresponded concerning a different book project he was involved with as mapmaker. This was eventually published as Riding the Bell: Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell Route by Ron Ruddell, Bulletin 147 of the Central Electric Railfans’ Association (2015).

Naturally, the maps Mr. Szilagyi made for this new book are excellent. But the entire thing is well done, from the scope the author set out to cover, the organization of the chapters, picture selection, text, and captions.

Here is a capsule description:

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was once served by 140 miles of trolley lines. In the first half of the 20th century, a wide array of trolley cars rolled over Montgomery County’s rails, from quaint open streetcars rumbling through borough streets to sleek 80-mile-an-hour trolleys sailing across open fields in Upper Gwynedd and Hatfield Townships. The cars had zero emissions, and some lines were powered by renewable hydroelectric power. Taking the trolley was a convenient, affordable option for those travelling and commuting in Montgomery County, nearby Philadelphia, and points beyond. Freight was also carried on board trolleys, with prompt parcel delivery service. Fortunately, many years ago, dedicated trolley fans had the foresight to aim their cameras at these unique vehicles, providing rare glimpses not just of the trolleys but also of Montgomery County’s rapidly changing landscapes.

Mike Szilagyi’s interest in trolleys was sparked at a young age by the sight of big green streamliners gliding down Old York Road near his grandmother’s house in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia. Today, Szilagyi lives and works in Montgomery County, where he plans and designs bicycle paths and serves on the North Wales Historic Commission.

This volume’s foreword was written by noted transit historian and longtime Montgomery County resident Andrew W. Maginnis.

In addition to detailed captions for each photograph, the book offers a brief history of transportation in Montgomery County, placing the trolley era in its historical context. The timeline of travel may be very generally summed up as:

dirt roads – canals – railroads – trolleys – motor vehicles

Rather than each mode supplanting the previous, there were varying degrees of overlap between them. That said, the use of animals for motive power was there from the beginning, only fading as motor vehicles gained prominence in the 1910s and 1920s. The bicycle came on the scene in a big way in the 1890s, never really completely disappeared, and is today enjoying widespread resurgence.

By concentrating on Montgomery County, the author is able to provide tremendous variety, as he was therefore able to include the Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell interurban, the Philadelphia & Western High-Speed Line to Norristown, numerous small-town trolleys, and even a bit of Philadelphia streetcars (Route 6 went into the county). Although very little of this remains, back in the day I did manage to ride Bullets and Strafford cars on the Norristown line (which still operates, with more modern equipment) as well as PCCs on SEPTA’s Route 6, which was replaced by buses in January 1986, subjects covered in this book.

Montgomery County Trolleys is dedicated to the memory of the late Harry Foesig (1897-2003) whose long life spanned parts of three centuries. He was co-author, along with Dr. Harold E. Cox, of Trolleys of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (1968). This was an obvious inspiration for this new volume, which can be thought of as a kind of “spiritual descendant” of that earlier tome. That book also included some excellent maps, rendered by Foesig.

Anyone who has an interest in the subject, and the rich heritage of Keystone-state traction, would do well to pick up copies of each. While the earlier book is long out of print, you should have little difficulty in finding a used copy at a reasonable price. Mine only cost about $10, which is perhaps about half what you should expect to pay for Montgomery County Trolleys.

Interestingly, longtime railfan Andrew W. Maginnis contributed to both books, 50 years apart. Perhaps the 50-year anniversary was also a factor that motivated the author to put this new collection together, just as I was inspired by some anniversaries to do my new book (see below).

-David Sadowski

Pre-Order Our New Book Building Chicago’s Subways

There are three subway anniversaries this year in Chicago:
60 years since the West Side Subway opened (June 22, 1958)
75 years since the State Street Subway opened (October 17, 1943)
80 years since subway construction started (December 17, 1938)

To commemorate these anniversaries, we have written a new book, Building Chicago’s Subways.

While the elevated Chicago Loop is justly famous as a symbol of the city, the fascinating history of its subways is less well known. The City of Chicago broke ground on what would become the “Initial System of Subways” during the Great Depression and finished 20 years later. This gigantic construction project, a part of the New Deal, would overcome many obstacles while tunneling through Chicago’s soft blue clay, under congested downtown streets, and even beneath the mighty Chicago River. Chicago’s first rapid transit subway opened in 1943 after decades of wrangling over routes, financing, and logistics. It grew to encompass the State Street, Dearborn-Milwaukee, and West Side Subways, with the latter modernizing the old Garfield Park “L” into the median of Chicago’s first expressway. Take a trip underground and see how Chicago’s “I Will” spirit overcame challenges and persevered to help with the successful building of the subways that move millions. Building Chicago’s subways was national news and a matter of considerable civic pride–making it a “Second City” no more!

Bibliographic information:

Title Building Chicago’s Subways
Images of America
Author David Sadowski
Edition illustrated
Publisher Arcadia Publishing (SC), 2018
ISBN 1467129380, 9781467129381
Length 128 pages

Chapter Titles:
01. The River Tunnels
02. The Freight Tunnels
03. Make No Little Plans
04. The State Street Subway
05. The Dearborn-Milwaukee Subway
06. Displaced
07. Death of an Interurban
08. The Last Street Railway
09. Subways and Superhighways
10. Subways Since 1960

Building Chicago’s Subways will be published on October 1, 2018. Order your copy today, and it will be shipped on or about that date. All copies purchased through The Trolley Dodger will be signed by the author.

The price of $23.99 includes shipping within the United States.

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