THE COMMUTE: If you’ve ever ventured out of Sheepshead Bay to go shopping — and why would you want to? — and visited Fairway in Red Hook, you have most likely seen three rusted Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) street cars behind the store on trolley tracks. They are there no more. After being on property owned by the O’Connell Organization for many years, a few weeks ago, company head Greg O’Connell decided to have them removed because of the serious deterioration they have undergone since Hurricane Sandy. He decided that it would be better to donate them to the Branford Electric Railway Association (BERA), which would house them at an undisclosed location and aid in the search for a permanent home. If none can be found, the cars will be scrapped for parts. The O’Connell Organization paid for the cars’ transport.
There is also a question as to whether the trolleys were, in fact, O’Connell’s property to donate, although they were on his property. Bob Diamond, whose dream it is to construct a waterfront trolley line in Red Hook utilizing an abandoned Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue, which he discovered in 1980, claims to have rightful ownership to the vehicles. Diamond abandoned the trolleys on O’Connell’s property several years ago after his plans to operate trolley service failed to materialize.
The Story Of A Dreamer
Those of you who are unfamiliar with Diamond’s story, and are interested in his plight, owe it to yourselves to read this article in its entirety in the TheVerge.com. Although much has been written over the years about the oldest subway tunnel in the world — built in 1844 beneath Atlantic Avenue and sealed closed in 1861 — this article is by far the most comprehensive. Diamond discovered the tunnel at age 20 after spending much time rummaging through municipal archives. There may even be an old locomotive buried in the tunnel. Diamond really did the city and history a huge service by discovering this tunnel, at great personal sacrifice by devoting his entire life to this tunnel. His efforts, however, have gone thoroughly unappreciated by the city. As Diamond states, the tunnel was part of his persona. I am not going to quote passages from the article because I would like you to read the article in its entirety. It is that good. It discusses the history of the tunnel, tours of the tunnel Diamond gave between 1982 and 2010, and his battles with the city.
The Last Trolleys In Brooklyn
The PCC cars were the most advanced trolley cars of its day and were in use in Brooklyn on only a few lines for fewer than 20 years when they were replaced by old smelly buses. The New York City Transit Authority — now part of the MTA — didn’t see fit to replace them with new buses. That didn’t prevent them from claiming that this was “another transit improvement” in the signs on the buses. Although, I was only six at the time in October 1955, I remember those signs and the new diesel fumes all too well.
In Brooklyn, the PCC trolleys last ran on the Coney Island Avenue B68, the Church Avenue B35, and the McDonald Avenue B50. The B50 did not receive replacement bus service. The PCC cars also previously operated on the Vanderbilt Avenue B69, and Smith Street B75 routes, and perhaps a few others. Four trolley cars continued to run over the Queensboro Bridge for an additional year. PCC cars were also in use on the Newark City Subway until 2001.
Most trolley routes discontinued service between 1948 and 1953. There are many reasons why trolleys are no more, from Mayor La Guardia’s hatred for them to a conspiracy by tire and rubber companies and General Motors to get rid of trolleys, a conspiracy that was not known about until the late 1970s. You can explore all that on your own if you are interested.
Trolleys Once Ruled Brooklyn
Before subways, we had elevated lines and streetcars. The streetcars, which were electrified at the beginning of the 20th century and also called trolleys and more recently light rail, provided the major source of surface mass transportation in Brooklyn. Buses, then called omnibuses, didn’t start operation until the 1920s and were much smaller than the buses we are familiar with today. They were more like jitneys, carrying only about 20 passengers, as compared to trolleys, which were longer and had more seats. Over the years, buses grew in length, increasing seating capacity from 20 in the 1920s to 53 by 1948. Since then, until the arrival of articulated buses, bus seating began to shrink to 31 on some 40-foot buses today.
Virtually all north/south routes in Brooklyn were operated by trolleys as well as virtually all east/west routes in northern and central Brooklyn. Since much of southern Brooklyn was still undeveloped in the 1930s and north/south trolley lines existed primarily to bring people to the shore, a need arose for east/west service by the 1930s. Rather than undergoing the expense of constructing additional trolley lines, the option of less expensive bus service was chosen.
It was decided to number the bus routes, since trolleys were identified by a large letter in front, denoting the major street of operation. (Numbers came later.) The first bus routes were the 1A, 1B and 1C, followed by the 2, 3, and 3A. Routes 4 through 20 quickly followed. The suffixes were later dropped. For example the 3A became the 31. However, all other route numbers higher than 22 were originally trolley lines, except for the B82, 83 and 84 which were either renumbered or newly created. So you can envision how extensive Brooklyn’s trolley system was. Brooklyn also flirted with a hybrid known as trolley coaches on a few routes and we also once had a few cable car routes.
Additionally, unlike today, where most bus routes remain stagnant, the early days of bus operation saw frequent bus re-routings. Trolley routings were even more subject to change than today’s bus routes. Separate trolley routes over existing trackage operated only during the summer. One of those operated over Gates Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Parkside Avenue onto the existing Coney Island Avenue trolley trackage, providing direct beach service for residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Open air trolleys were also in use on beach routes during summer months. Many were sorry to see the trolleys go.
Although I have never met or had any contact with Diamond, I sympathize with his plight. I know what it is to have a dream and be passionate about realizing it. Mine is to see the Brooklyn buses rerouted in areas where the current routing has outlived its usefulness. Diamond’s is to restore and utilize the tunnel he discovered for trolley service between Downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook. Let’s hope that both of our dreams — a more functional bus routing system and utilization of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel — see the light of day.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.