Many of the surviving Washington, DC streetcars have interesting stories surrounding their existence since being removed from service. Cars are preserved in collections in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Sarajevo and Barcelona. While none of the stories to date can match the miraculous restoration of the ex-Washington PCC in Sarajevo, all are interesting tales for the distance that many of the cars has traveled on the way to being preserved in museums. However, none of the surviving cars has suffered under such good intentions as Washington Railway and Electric Company (WRECo.) No. 650.
J.G. Brill Company constructed WRECo. 650 in 1912 as the sample for a fleet of center door design cars that would eventually number 50. Designed by WRECo. Master Mechanic W. A. Wenner, the car combined the features of a semi-convertible body and a center-door design. In his book Capital Transit: Washington's Streetcars: The Final Era, Peter Kohler outlines in great detail the design, construction and operation of 650 by WRECo, and Capital Transit Company (CTCo.).
As the sample, WRECo. 650 featured a semi-convertible body, forced air ventilation and a unique pair of three-fold center doors that opened inward. The intention with the door design was to create a set of dividers to direct passengers boarding and leaving the car through the wide opening. The car rode on standard Brill 27E trucks.
By 1915, WRECo. had modified the design for the car body on subsequent car orders. Changes included replacing the wide three-fold doors with standard bi-fold doors, and changing the ventilation from forced air to a standard roof ventilator. Two narrow windows, on each side of the center doors, now fill the space where the doors were changed on WRECo. 650, in 1915, to standardize the car with the rest of the fleet. At this time WRECo. also raised part of the lower floor in the center step well in all of the center doors.
In 1933 WRECo. merged with Capital Traction Company, forming Capital Transit Company. Capital Transit renumbered WRECo. 650 to CTCo. 884.
Age, and the arrival of the PCCs in 1937, would bring the demise of the center door cars in Washington. With slower acceleration in city traffic the cars were no longer as efficient as they were in 1912. Mills Dean remembers the last years of the center door cars: "Once the new PCC's were delivered in numbers, these old Camel Back cars were found to be really slow. Going up Pennsylvania Avenue the PCC's and the ten hundreds would back up behind these old eight hundred series." Capital Transit removed the last group from service in September 1944. The center door cars had served Washington for 32 years. WRECo. 650 would soon begin its long trip from the Capital Transit's Falls Barn to the collection at the National Capital Trolley Museum.
Acclaimed by Brill Magazine as "one of the most interesting cars of the centre (sic) entrance type that has ever been built," WRECo. 650 presents excellent qualities for preservation. Roy King states "in a way, the center doors defined Washington because no one else had anything like them." The Washington design was only used elsewhere in Buffalo, NY, for one car, and Perth, Australia for two cars.
Beyond the significance of its initial impact on the operation of WRECo., the Washington center door cars were destined to attract the attention of railfans. Roy King writes: "the one thing I liked about the center doors is that you could sit right up by the motorman." And Richard Gross recalls: "I really loved the 'center-door' cars because it was fascinating to watch the center conductor collecting the fares." In later years, the cars were used most often on the Cabin John Line to Glen Echo Park, which further endeared them in the memories of Washingtonians.
In December 1944, the Capital Transit Company agreed to donate WRECo. 650, now CTCo. 884, to the Electric Railroader's Association (ERA) in New York City. There is no documentation for what prompted CTCo. to preserve the car. Ed Schell speculates that Edward Merrill, president of CTCo. may have been motivated by reading an article in the October 1944 issue of Transit Lines, the company's employee newsletter. At the time Schell was employed as a Traffic Clerk.
The Transit Line's article was about Ed Schell's interest in collecting transfers, and included a paragraph about Schell's membership in the Electric Railroaders Association, and his involvement in St. Louis Electric Railway Historical Society. The article stated that "this latter group has endeavored to preserve old streetcars, so that they won't entirely disappear from the American scene." To Schell's surprise, a letter later appeared on his desk in his office at CTCo. one day in December 1944. Recalling the event almost 60 years later, Schell said that in the letter Mr. Merrill offered then CTCo. No. 884 to the ERA.
Ed Schell was the Washington representative for the ERA. In a letter to Henry Leinbach dated February 1, 1945, Schell wrote "plans are well under way to move 884 to the Central Railroad of New Jersey
(CNJ) Bronx Term. where a place can be rented for $15 Yr." On April 16, 1945, Ed Schell reported to the ERA office in New York that
"No. 884 was taken today from Falls Barn to Benning and I rode the car. It has no apparent mechanical difficulty. The
No. 2 controller is possessed of several worn fingers. Car rides rather well at moderate speed, but at higher speed it bounces more than a PCC. As soon as flat is obtained from the PRR the car will be loaded for shipment to the CNJ Bronx Terminal."
It was not long before the suggestion was made to involve the Branford Electric Railway Association
(BERA) with the care of the car. Robert S. Wilson of Yakima, Washington, addressed the issue in a postcard to Ed Schell dated October 31, 1945. " In regard to the Capital Transit 884, now in N.Y. and suffering damage from vandalism, I wish to suggest that you, if possible, investigate the possibility of having this transferred to the custody of the Branford Electric Railway Association in Connecticut…" An article in
CTCo. Transit Lines January 1946 with the headline "Railfans Preserve '884'" notes the possible move to New Haven and concludes with optimism: "So, before too long, '884' may once again react to 600 volts as a railfan motorman notches the controller up to 9 points."
But weeks later, this possibility seems to have fallen through. On October 17, 1949, Robert S. Crockett representing the WERHS wrote to
BERA: Mr. Blaiklock, the equipment engineer of CTCo., stopped by
A group from NCTM traveled to BERA to inspect WRECo. 650. The visitors confirmed that the car body was sound, but stripped of all fixtures and accessories. More importantly the car retained all running gear (trucks, motors, grids, compressor). Based on these findings, and following the recommendations of the General Plan, the Museum wrote to BERA in 1990 to begin negotiations to return the car to the Washington, DC area.
Writing on behalf of BERA on June 9, 1990, curator Michael Schrieber offers: "If NCTM can acquire a suitable replacement center-entrance car and deliver same to BERA's railroad in East Haven Connecticut, BERA would be willing to donate No. 650 to NCTM so that the few remaining Washington streetcars can be preserved at a single location." Concurrent with this offer, the Museum learned that SEPTA, the transit authority in Philadelphia, PA, was disposing of its remaining Red Arrow center door car later in that same year. An effort was mounted to seek cooperation from the trolley museums in Pennsylvania and allow NCTM to acquire Red Arrow 73 for a trade to BERA.
However, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum wished to add Red Arrow 73 to its collections and the plan failed. A Red Arrow center door body was then located in Indiana. This car, Red Arrow 68, was previously stripped of original running gear and was not found by BERA to be suitable for trade as outlined in their offer.
After this flurry of activity, the negotiations stopped. WRECo. 650 remained in Connecticut. During the winter of 1992-1993 there were two severe coastal storms that flooded the BERA site. As if the early years of vandalism were not enough to test the durability of the car, WRECo. 650's motors were twice flooded with salt water that winter.
An unusual discovery in Scranton, PA began process that would finally see WRECo. 650 return home. Workers demolishing a restaurant near Scranton, PA in 1999 uncovered the body of Scranton Railway Co. 324, a 1903 Brill Semi-convertible. The fledging Electric City Trolley Museum (ECTM) saw the potential to restore this car for their new operations in Scranton adjacent to Steamtown. Working with Bill Wall at BERA, ECTM was able to negotiate a trade that would release Red Arrow 75, a center door car, to BERA, while NCTM would assist in purchasing parts for the restoration of the Scranton car body, and in return receive WRECo. 650. NCTM and BERA signed an agreement on May 8, 2001 to transfer WRECo. 650 to NCTM.
Silk Road Transportation Co. delivered WRECo. 650 to NCTM's site in Maryland on June 28, 2002, 90 years after the car was first received in Washington. After being badly damaged in the Bronx, saved by BERA in 1947, saved again by Ruschmeyer and Hill in 1952, reclaimed by BERA in 1977, and then flooded by storms in the 1990s, Washington's first center door, and now its last, has returned home. In a recent email to the author Russ Jackson, a member of BERA, sums up the saga of WRECo. 650: "When you think about it, it is amazing that it exists. Had it been found on some farm complete with underfloor equipment, imagine the hoorah."