Wednesday, June 26, 2013

History of Car 170



Development of the Birney
St. Louis
Appendix A: Mechanical Specifications
Appendix B: Rail & Wire Accounts

Alton car 170, now preserved at IRM, operates through downtown Alton around 1935.  Stephen Scalzo Collection.

When small-town street railway systems were at the precipice of extinction in the years following the First World War, the one thing that bought many of them a reprieve was the Birney car.  Arguably the most standardized streetcar design in the history of electric railways in America, the Birney was – as with so many successful designs – not so much a transformational leap in technology as it was a marriage of several different designs and technologies that had already been proven.  The design was for a lightweight, single-truck “safety car” that could help street railways cut costs and improve efficiency.

One of the foremost innovators in lightweight single-truck car design during the mid-1910s was the Illinois Traction System.  The ITS operated a sizable network of interurban lines across central Illinois and also had a number of subsidiary street railway operations in small- and medium-size cities across the state.  One was in Galesburg, Illinois, a town of about 25,000 people located 50 miles south of Rock Island.  The Galesburg system was one of dozens that ordered Birney cars at the peak of their popularity, around 1920, and operated them until the end of streetcar service in that city.  Most then made their way to the system in Alton, Illinois, where they remained until they were scrapped after cessation of streetcar service.  Except, that is, for one car, number 170, which after an unlikely stint in the St. Louis interurban subway found its way into preservation as the only Birney from Illinois to be preserved.

Stephen Scalzo’s previously unpublished research into the history of the Galesburg and Alton street railway systems was invaluable in writing up the history of car 170, as was his provision of in-service photos of the Alton Birneys.  Don Ross and Don Leistikow, who were closely involved in saving car 170 in 1957, provided photos and information about the car following acquisition by IERM.  Bob Bruneau, who helped maintain and gather parts for the car during the 1970s and 1980s, provided information on its current condition.

By the mid-1910s, all of the significant design characteristics that would be incorporated into the Birney car had been developed.  The earliest was its small four-wheel design, which was a throwback to the earliest electric streetcars built in the 1880s.  Those cars had evolved by the turn of the century into larger double-truck streetcars; by 1910 the majority of street railway companies were ordering double-truck cars and only the smallest operations were ordering four-wheel cars.  However as traffic levels began to fall during the late 1910s, interest in more economical four-wheel cars increased.

Much of what made the Birney car so economical to operate was its lightweight design, another major distinguishing feature.  Electric streetcars had been getting progressively larger and heavier since their invention, but by the early 1900s the disadvantages of running large, heavy cars were becoming obvious.  Excessive electrical power usage and increased wear and tear on the track made the cars expensive to operate.  Lightweight cars that could stand up to the stress of daily operation could not be developed until the advent of steel car construction late in the first decade of the century; during the 1910s steel construction was refined and the per-passenger weight of streetcars dropped by nearly half from its high during the wood construction era.

Builder's photo of Galesburg car 15.  This car was from the same order as car 170, which was originally numbered 7.  American Car Company photo, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum Collection.

The third significant feature of the Birney was that it could be operated by a single man.  The majority of streetcars at the turn of the century were operated by two men, a motorman and a conductor.  One-man operation had existed since some of the earliest horse-drawn streetcars but as streetcars increased in size, the larger passenger loads required a conductor whose role it was to collect fares.  Around 1905, difficulties in fare collection were eased by the invention of the Pay As You Enter (PAYE) system, where passengers paid as they boarded rather than paying a roaming conductor.  This helped to make one-man operation possible; as long as people passed the motorman as they boarded, he could take fares and make change from his station.

One significant drawback of one-man operation was safety: if the operator suffered a heart attack or was otherwise incapacitated while the car was in motion, there was no one else on the crew to bring the car to a safe stop.  The solution was the fourth major characteristic of the Birney and the last one to be developed: “safety car” equipment.  Safety car equipment was developed with the goal of stopping the car safely in the event the operator became incapacitated and was the brainchild of J.M. Bosenbury of the Illinois Traction System.  Bosenbury developed a control system that would automatically stop the streetcar if the operator let go of the controller, a feature known as “dead man” control for its addressing of the problem of the operator dying suddenly.  Safety car equipment was first used on ITS streetcars built in 1913 and was applied to all Birney cars built.

Builder's photo showing the interior of the Galesburg Birneys, of which car 170 was one.  Note the spartan interior.  American Car Company photo, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum Collection.

In 1915, several different car companies began constructing single-truck lightweight safety cars of generally similar design and appearance, but it was in 1916 that the Stone & Webster Company, which owned a number of electric railways spread across the country, ordered cars of this type from the American Car Company in St. Louis.  The car design work was done by Charles O. Birney, a Stone and Webster employee, and American – a Brill subsidiary – began selling cars conforming to this design to other cities.  With the end of the First World War the popularity of the design exploded and soon the American plant in St. Louis couldn’t handle all of the orders; starting with an order for 200 cars for Brooklyn in 1919 the main Brill plant in Philadelphia began building Birney cars as well.  At the same time competitors like St. Louis Car Company and Cincinnati Car Company were building cars to essentially the same design, and soon similar designs for double-truck or curve-sided versions of the Birney car were being produced as well.

It was with smaller streetcar systems in smaller cities that the Birney car found its true niche, and the Galesburg Railway Lighting & Power Company (GRL&P) was typical of Birney customers.  Galesburg had had streetcars since its first horse car line had been built in 1885.  In 1892 the Galesburg Electric Motor & Power Company had absorbed the horse car lines and begun electric operations, with route extensions gradually expanding the size of the system over the ensuing 25 years.  In 1903 the system was sold to the McKinley Syndicate, whose subsidiary Illinois Traction System (ITS) operated a network of interurban lines and several city systems in Illinois, and was soon rechristened the Galesburg Railway & Light Company.  Route expansions and equipment acquisition continued and by the end of World War I the company was operating 36 streetcars over 21.6 miles of track.

It was right at this time that the ITS was energetically working to modernize the fleets of its various city operations, and in 1919 the GRL&P was granted permission to operate one-man streetcars in Galesburg.  An order for 20 Birney cars, numbered 1-20, was placed with the American Car Company and the new cars arrived in January 1921.  Although automobile competition was affecting passenger levels, expansions continued; a rural line to nearby Abingdon was purchased from People’s Traction Company in 1923.  Shortly thereafter, a corporate reorganization of the ITS changed the ownership of the Galesburg street railway system.  It was now a subsidiary of Illinois Power & Light Company (IP&L) and lost its GRL&P name, becoming simply the IP&L Galesburg Division.

Galesburg Birney 12 is shown in service in the only currently-known photo of a Birney in operation in Galesburg.  Stephen Scalzo Collection.

The Galesburg lines, only marginally profitable even in the best of times, continued to lose passengers.  A review undertaken by IP&L concluded that the company could not justify major capital investment, such as that required when streets were to be repaved and the railway company was required to rebuild its tracks.  It became company policy to abandon streetcar lines as repaving projects arose.

In 1924 the eight-mile line to Knoxville was suspended, reinstated briefly in 1925, then permanently abandoned in favor of buses in 1926.  Meanwhile the line to Abingdon, bought only two years earlier, was abandoned in 1925.  The following year saw one of the busier Galesburg routes, the North Broad Street line, partially converted to bus, followed by the rest of the North Broad Street line and the Clark Street line in 1928.  By this time the 20-car Birney fleet had been reduced to 14 cars; three had been transferred to the IP&L Jacksonville Division in 1927 and three more sold to Jefferson City, Missouri in 1928.  By mid-1929 ridership had fallen off so much that only eight of the 14 cars were required to hold down service.

The Galesburg lines requested regulatory authority to abandon all streetcar operations in mid-1930 but the request was declined; however by the following summer it was clear that streetcar service was doomed and authority to abandon the street railway system in Galesburg was granted.  The last cars ran on April 30, 1931 and the wires were all down within a week.

The fourteen remaining Galesburg Birney cars were stored on a siding east of the car barn for nearly a year, until in February 1932 the cars were all transferred to the IP&L Alton Division.  Alton, a city on the east bank of the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, had been an early adopter of street railways.  Its first horse car line had been built in 1867, steam dummy service had begun in 1889, and its first electric streetcars had been put into service in 1895 by the Alton Railway & Illuminating Company.

In 1904 the Alton Granite & St. Louis (AG&SL) had been formed to take over the Alton city system, then consisting of 16 miles of track and 18 streetcars, and to build a suburban electric line south along the Illinois bank of the river to East St. Louis.  Lines were built to Edwardsville and to East St. Louis via East Alton and Granite City.  Acquisition of the AG&SL by the East St. Louis & Suburban in 1906 meant that the streetcar fleet in Alton grew in size, the beneficiary of various cars transferred in from other ESL&S routes, however the AG&SL was still operated as an independent company.

As in Galesburg, decreasing ridership hit the AG&SL hard following World War I; the company went into receivership in August 1920.  The receiver pledged to put the funds raised by a hasty fare hike into property improvements and, like so many smaller street railways, one obvious way to improve operations was to purchase Birney cars.  Ten Birney cars were purchased from the American Car Company in 1921 and the older cars kept in service were converted to one-man operation.

Alton Birney 163 is seen in operation in 1933, not long after it was acquired from the Galesburg system.  Stephen Scalzo Collection.

Ridership continued to fall; the State Hospital line was abandoned in 1925 and in 1926 the courts ordered that the AG&SL, still in receivership, be broken up.  The Alton Railway Company took over city operations, with 28 streetcars operating over 20 miles of track.  In 1930, the operation was purchased by IP&L, by which time operations had been reduced to 19 cars operating over 15.6 miles of track.  Then in March 1931 the Alton system was sold again, this time to the newly-formed Illinois Terminal Transportation Company (ITTC), a subsidiary of the Illinois Terminal Railroad.

Alton car 172 in operation during the 1930s.  Robert E. Bruneau Collection.

The ITTC purchased the 14 Galesburg Birney cars, which were in better condition than the ten worn-out Alton Birneys, and moved them to Alton to maintain service there.  The cars were renumbered into the 160-173 series, with Galesburg car 7 becoming Alton car 170.  It was only a matter of time, though, as ridership continued to fall during the depths of the Depression.  Buses replaced streetcars on parts of Broadway, College Avenue and Washington Street in 1933 and the Middletown line was abandoned at the end of the year.  By 1935 only eight of the Birney cars were needed to hold down service and in early 1936 authority to abandon all streetcar service in Alton was granted.  The last Birney ran on August 27, 1936.

Alton Birney 169 is at Alby & 6th Streets on Memorial Day 1935, only a year or so before the end of streetcar service in Alton.  Stephen Scalzo Collection.

The remaining Alton Birneys were operated under power, with disabled cars being towed by operating ones, to LaClede Steel to be scrapped.  The one car that escaped scrapping was car 170, the body of which was removed from its running gear and given to the Illinois Terminal Railroad.  The Birney body was transferred to downtown St. Louis, where it was placed in the subway at the entrance to the IT St. Louis terminal for use as a yard office and storage locker for the railroad’s employees.

Car 170 remained there underground for over 20 years, longer than it had been used in regular service and twice as long as either of its previous assignments.  During World War II and the decline of IT interurban service in the 1950s, the Birney body sat neglected alongside the tracks at the St. Louis terminal.  It was used for storage and as a yard office.

In 1957, soon after Illinois Terminal interurban service had ended and with only the suburban operation to Granite City remaining of the once-mighty IT traction empire, the forlorn Birney got a reprieve.  Members of the Illinois Electric Railway Museum in North Chicago purchased the car body.  It was the first car body ever acquired by the museum, but it was acquired with the intention of fitting it with the truck, motors, and mechanical equipment off of a Birney that was being used by the Cleveland Transit System as a work car.  This car, CTS 0800, had been built in 1920 for the Mahoning & Shenango and was bought by Cleveland Railway in 1934 to use as a rail grinder.  Transferred to the CTS rapid transit line in the mid-1950s, it was due to be scrapped in 1958.  IRM arranged with the scrappers to cut up the body and hold out the truck, motors and equipment for the museum, but in an unfortunate mistake the instructions got garbled.  Museum personnel discovered that the scrappers had cut up the motors, wheels and much of the truck.  Though some of the components needed for car 170 were saved, IRM ended up with only an incomplete “kit” of a truck along with some miscellaneous parts.

Car 170 is shown at North Chicago in December 1957, six months after acquisition, stored on cribbing.  On the right is North Shore 354 while behind it is wooden elevated trailer 1268.  Both have since been restored.  Don Ross Collection.

As a stopgap, car 170 was soon fitted with a Brill 21E truck salvaged from Mason City & Clear Lake 35.  Though incorrect for this car, the 21E was used on many pre-Birney single-truck cars.  Unfortunately the museum was never able to find a correct 79E truck, so the car still sits on the 21E truck it has had since its North Chicago days.  The car was moved out to Union, IL along with the rest of the Illinois Railway Museum collection in 1964 and was generally stored outdoors until Barn 7 was built in 1985, when it was moved into indoor storage and given a coat of Traction orange.  Bob Bruneau rebuilt about half of the car’s side windows around this time, and installed a set of seats in the car, but other than that no significant restoration work was done.  The car has been on display in either Barn 7 or Barn 8 for the past three decades in its incomplete and painted, partially lettered state.

It’s 1967 and car 170 is in Yard 1, the current location of 50th Avenue Station, with what appears to be Milwaukee 966 to the left and Sand Springs 68 in the right background.  Don Ross Collection.

However, the car has been far from forgotten.  It has periodically been the recipient of efforts to collect parts for an eventual restoration, including door motors salvaged out of a Birney body in Aurora, Illinois and new-build 79E truck parts procured in cooperation with other museums around 2010.  GE 265 motors similar to what the car had originally are on hand, as are most of the other mechanical and electrical parts that would be needed to fully restore the car, and if the remaining missing truck components could be replicated – as well as a pair of wheel sets, which would be no small task – then the car could be placed on the correct truck and would be substantially complete.

The body of car 170 has suffered from some rust, but overall is in fair condition.  The side sheets are rusted out along the floor line and the floor would likely need partial replacement.  The roof was tarpapered for most of the car’s life outdoors and this prevented much damage to the interior woodwork.  The condition of the wooden roof is uncertain but it is likely that some wood replacement would be necessary if the car were to be restored.  All windows are present however the car’s original doors are missing; the doors currently fitted to the car, dating to its days in the St. Louis subway, are from scrapped Illinois Terminal interurban cars.

When it was located in St. Louis the car was a stripped shell, but most of the parts needed for car 170’s restoration have been procured by IRM.  Seats were found and are currently located in the car.  Controllers and brake equipment are in storage, as are motors and an air compressor which can be used under the car.  Some components, including doors, steps and resistance grids, are missing but have been replicated for other projects in the past.  The largest missing item, of course, is the 79E truck, for which only some parts are on hand.  Journal boxes were fabricated around 2010 and other replacement castings are currently being sourced, of which wheel-and-axle sets would be the most expensive to obtain.

Car 170 in its current state, shown during switching in December 2009.  Photo by Randy Hicks.

Built: American Car Company, 1921, order #1263

Length over bumpers: 27’10”
Width overall: 8’3”
Height overall: 11’10”
Height over running board: 10’0”
Height rail to floor: 2’4”
Total weight: 18,250 lbs

Seating capacity: 30
Fare register: International
Heaters: C.C.H.Co. single coil type

Motors: WH 508A (2)
Controllers: K-10Q (2)
Truck: Brill 79E
Wheelbase: 8’0”
Wheel diameter: 26”
Journal size: 3”x6”

Brakes: SME
Motorman’s valve: M28
Air compressor: DH-16
Emergency valve: E1
Governor: S6B
Brake cylinder: 8”x12”

Galesburg livery: unknown two-tone color scheme

Alton livery: Traction orange; tile red doors, windows, roof; black lettering, underbody; white herald with carmine red background

Information on the acquisition of, and early restoration work on, car 170 does appear in several issues of Rail & Wire, the Illinois Railway Museum’s newsletter, from the period.

Issue #2, March 1957 – “A Birney in Sight At Last”

At a special meeting of the Board of Directors on March 2nd, approval was granted for purchase in whole or in part of Cleveland Transit System #0800.  This is the last Birney owned by an American transit system and was used as a rail grinder.  Since the body is not in the best of condition, it was felt that the truck and electrical equipment could be applied to one of the many bodies in this area.  Actual purchase is dependant on financial ability.  Larry Goerges has started the ball rolling by pledging $100.  Any more contributors?

Issue #3, April 1957 – “More on the Birney”

The Illinois Terminal has offered to sell us a Birney body for $50 if we will move it from Saint Louis.  It looks more and more in favor of our finally having a Birney.  Our biggest need is financial aid.  Now about some donations to the Birney fund?

Issue #5, June 1957 – “Another Car”

Last month we mentioned that it looked as if we would have a Birney.  We got it!!  On June 9th, a semi-tractor and trailer rolled into North Chicago after a day and a half trip from Saint Louis with our Birney.  Upon arrival it didn’t look like much as it had almost two decades of accumulated dirt from the Illinois Terminal subway where it had been used as a yard office.  After it had been unloaded on cribbing, members went to work on it with a hose and a couple of boxes of Soilax.  It wasn’t too long before it began to glisten in Traction Orange with maroon trim.  Even the old number from Alton came through-170.  Since then, a headlight has been installed and broken windows have been replaced.  Negotiations are going forward on purchase of parts from the Cleveland Transit System #0800 rail grinder Birney.

On June 29th, a group travelled to Long Lake, Wisconsin, to strip the body of North Shore Birney #333 which has been used as a shed since 1949.  This was in the nick of time as the owner plans to burn the 333 for scrap in the immediate future.  A number of necessary fittings were secured as were a few other usable parts for some of our other cars.  The group consisted of Larry Goerges, Dave Shore, Joe Barth, Jim Becker, and Don Ross.  The mosquitoes of the area were happy to see such a large group out for supper.

The gang involved in moving the 170 from Saint Louis included Don Leistikow, Walt Murphy, Larry Goerges, Dave Shore, Tom Jervan, and Don Ross.  Thanks also go to the two drivers from Geuder Paeschke & Frey who handled the big job of wheeling the truck over 700 miles.

Issue #6, September 1957 – “Birney”

As reported in our last issue we have now purchased Birney #0800 from Cleveland.  Howie Odinius and Walt Murphy went down to Cleveland to scrap the car and save the parts we need.  Unfortunately, after their departure the scrap dealer took more than he was authorized and then refused to pay for what he had taken.  This is a case of really being taken to the cleaners.  Walt, who doubles in brass as Counsel, is now taking legal steps to recover what is rightfully ours.

Issue #10, December 1958 – “North Chicago Notes”

170 – Status quo.  The search is still going on for a truck for our Birney.  Meanwhile it is serving as additional storage space, and it too is overcrowded.

Issue #20, July-August 1962 – “Car Progress Report”

Lastly, work has commenced on preserving Illinois Terminal #170, our Birney.  Warren Cobb spent several Saturdays removing the rust, stains, etc. from her sides and has primed and painted orange everything below the belt rails.  The windows have been cleaned, reglazed and painted yellow.  The doors, which are not correct for the car, have been given a fast cleaning and one is painted red with yellow window trim – the other to match soon.  We are perhaps a step closer to restoration of this car.  July 27 and 28 Bob Bruneau and Warren Cobb drove a truck to Mason City, Iowa where they picked up a Brill 21E truck from the Iowa Terminal Railroad, belonging to the Connecticut Electric Railway Ass’n.  This truck has the proper journal boxes for the Birney and it is hoped they may be exchanged for some others we have at the Museum.  Suffice it to say that those were long, long miles, all 750 of them.

Issue #25, May-June 1963 – “Car Progress Report”

Illinois Terminal #170: Long left unattended because of the substation, this car has received only a little work until a week ago.  Cobb had replaced the headlight and repainted the south end windows, posts, etc.  On the 4th, Bob Bruneau and Warren Cobb removed everything from the roof to start the job of rebuilding.  One small spot was found where the roof had been on fire – possibly caused by a trolley wire break, way back in the days.

Issue #26, July-August 1963 – “Car Progress Report”

The Birney car (#170) now sports a new roof – of sorts.  Warren Cobb, with plenty of assistance from Bob Bruneau, “stripped” the roof of vents, etc. and has replaced about half of the roof boards with new 3/8 plywood, a not unpleasant task with Miss Ellyn Rogge helping with the painting.  The roof is now covered with 30 lb. felt paper, and to date has sprung no leaks.

Issue #27, September-October 1963 – “Car Progress Report”

The last little item of car progress is the completion of the exterior woodwork on IT #170, our Birney.  Ye editor has one letterboard to go and the exterior will be complete, but with a new felt paper roof, the car now faces the winter in better shape than in many years.

Bruneau, Robert E. Interview by author.  Telephone. Chicago, IL., June 6, 2013.

Bruneau, Robert E., Warren Cobb, and Don Ross. “Car Progress Report” et al. Rail & Wire, various issues (1957-1963).

Car Inventory RecordSt. Louis, Missouri: Illinois Terminal Railroad System, 1932.

Cox, Harold E.  The Birney Car. Harold E. Cox, 1966.

Scalzo, Stephen M., “The Alton Streetcar Story,” Hicks Car Works, accessed May 29, 2013.

Scalzo, Stephen M., “The Galesburg Streetcar Story,” Hicks Car Works, accessed May 21, 2013.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The museum is lucky to have the motors to go under that car! after the truck they are the hardest part to get for a Birney. Other difficult items are the little 26" wheels.
We have a couple of Birney bodies at the Western Railway Museum as well as a restored car.

A couple of Birney trucks turned up in a feed lot in Southern California; the owner had built a 42" gauge railroad using a couple of retired cable car bodies riding on some LA Transit Birney trucks.
The Kelley Park Trolley people used one of them to restore to operation a Fresno car and the other went to Rio Vista for a future restoration.

Good luck with the project!

Ted Miles
IRM Member
WRM Member