Article From the Fall 2003 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


A major new exhibit has been hung at the museum, consisting of 30 photographs of streetcars and interurban trolley cars. "STREETCARS 1930s to 1960s—Railfan Photo Documentation of North American Electric Railways" is the title of this new show, and as it indicates, the images are all from the cameras of trolley enthusiasts. The negatives used for the exhibit prints are from the personal collection of NYMT Trustee Charles R. Lowe, and were selected to show a variety of equipment and eras over a wide geographic area.

Charlie worked closely with NYMT member Shelden S. King in choosing the pictures and in creating the informative captions that accompany the images. The pictures and captions will surely appeal to present-day enthusiasts, but the general public, short on trolley experience, will also find much of interest too.

We asked Shelden if he would help put the early world of trolley fan photography in perspective for us, and we’re happy to share his words with you:

by Shelden S. King

It was the Depression era of the 1930s. Life was not easy for many. Jobs were at a premium.

Young men interested in electric railways discovered that their favorite lines were being supplanted by buses. This led to picture taking. Usually the family box camera—often one made in Rochester by Kodak—was used. Most box cameras of the 1930s used 116 or 616 size film (4 ½ inches by 2 ½ inches), with eight exposures on a roll. That size became a standard used by most fans.

These young men and their friends found others involved in the same activity, because they often took photos in the same places at the same times. This growing interest in trolley and rail photography led, by the mid-1930s, to the formation of the Electric Railroaders’ Association and the National Railway Historical Society. Through publications of these organizations and through principally Railroad Magazine via its columns and advertisements, more lasting associations were made. Fan trips were operated over lines about to be discontinued, providing more personal contacts—and more photo opportunities, including views of seldom-used cars and service equipment.

Pearl Harbor—December 7, 1941—saw many of these young men in the service of their country during the ensuing four years. Their interest in electric railways did not languish. If stationed stateside near an area served by trolleys, cars were ridden and photographed. It was these servicemen who photo-documented the trolleys of Little Rock and Oklahoma City, for example.

Fans would often trade—"swap"—photos and negatives in order to build up collections. Some would shoot an entire roll of film on one car in one location, usually standing, in order to have negatives to trade with other fans for negatives from their areas. Because shutter speeds were slow, almost all photos were made of standing equipment.

The late Stephen D. Maguire and the late Barney Neuburger amassed impressive collections of negatives, and made prints available to enthusiasts. Maguire traveled in pre-World War II days with his father, whose business took him long distances from their home in New Jersey. That enabled him to ride and photograph many systems. For example, Maguire made the only known fan photos of Mobile and Tuscaloosa, Alabama on such trips.

Third Avenue Transit System 32: New York City street railways in Manhattan were prohibited by city ordinance from using overhead trolley wire, and an underground conduit carrying an electrified third rail was used instead. On the street, a slot could be seen between the running rails; a plow used for current collection would fit through the slot to reach the third rail in the below-ground conduit. Keeping the slots free of ice in the winter required use of slot scraper cars. These were often constructed from older passenger equipment. Slot scraper 32, a former cable car numbered 234, was built by Laclede Car Company in 1893 and electrified in 1899. It served as a passenger car until 1908 when it was rebuilt into a slot scraper. In our photo, it is seen as it goes about its chores on 42nd Street near 1st Avenue. Steve Maguire made this view on March 21, 1944, shortly after Third Avenue Railway System had changed its name to Third Avenue Transit System to reflect the increased importance of buses.

Photo by Stephen D. Maguire original negative owned by Charles R. Lowe

Maguire also visited Rochester, and made many photos of its cars in operation during their last years. He made contact with local fans, and also traded and purchased, so his collection of Rochester views was extensive. Photos attributed to Maguire are included in the exhibit.

Barney Neuburger was located in the Chicago area. His coverage of Chicago trolleys was vast. By trading and purchasing, he put together a catalog of photos of trolleys from all major and many minor companies in North America.

In the Rochester area, John Woodbury was the leading fan, and it is believed that he was instrumental in bringing leading fans, such as Francis Goldsmith of New York City, to Rochester. John Woodbury put together a sizable collection of railroad and electric railway negatives, apparently mainly through purchase. He published lists, and made prints available to fans. The Woodbury collection is owned by Rochester Chapter, NRHS.

While fans usually made "three-quarter" views of cars (showing the front and the side), automobiles, buildings and people appeared in many views. These pictures give one the feel of the era in which they were made. Note especially the view of Worcester Street Railway car 557. That is a downtown scene as downtown is remembered by many—the place were the major stores and offices were located. (Continued, page 4)

Worcester Street Railway 557: Here is a street scene once quite common in the United States. Worcester (Massachusetts) Street Railway's car 557 has pulled up to the City Hall stop on Main Street. A steel sign on heavy concrete bases protects passengers as they board or depart cars at this center-of-the-street stop. A lady intent on a day of shopping is leaving car 557 while a nearby boy gazes at a young woman crossing the street in front of car 557. The date is August 21, 1939, and Boston railfan William V. Kenny was on hand with his 828-size camera to record the action. The tiny 828 film was 35mm wide but did not have sprocket holes as does modern 35mm film. As a result, 828 negatives have an image area that is slightly larger than a standard 35mm frame size. Photo by William V. Kenny

original negative owned by Charles R. Lowe

There was a great variety of trolley cars in use over the period represented in the exhibit. Visitors will see such equipment as the single-truck Birney "safety" car, large double-truck city streetcars, streamlined PCC cars, and the fabulous "Electroliner" of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee.

Enjoy your trip back in time!