SEVILLE, Ohio - In my left hand was the throttle and in my right, I released the brake. The old train car lurched ahead, swaying me, as its wheels bit into the track below. I pulled on the chord and old whistle. As it had responded hundreds of thousands of times before, it let out a double-noted yell. The old streetcar pulled out and we were off and running the rails.
At the Northern Ohio Railway Museum, there are dozens of old streetcars that once transported passengers from one end of Cleveland to another. The museum works to preserve the old cars and tries to get them back in running order.
"There is no comparison to sitting down and riding, knowing this is what my grandparents and parents rode," said Steven Heister, director of the museum.
It is located on a huge meadow at 5515 Buffham Rd. in the Medina County community of Seville. Even when all the old trolleys (the words trolley and streetcar are interchangeable) are inside the huge garages, the museum is easily found. Rails for the cars to be moved about are evident as they crisscross a few acres of rural landscape. Nearby are stacks of railroad ties and other heavy equipment.
Scurrying among the old and rusting cars are volunteers who do the refurbishing.
"I help lay the tracks, help lay the ties, help run the spiking machine that spikes the track," Chuck Legree said.
None of the volunteers actually labored on or around a working streetcar. However, when they joined the cadre of volunteers at the museum, they each learned about the cars and how they ran. The day I was there, each man was busying working on an upholstered seat or a braking system.
"I was a kid when I rode streetcars with my mother," Don Schltz said. "I would go to the end of the St. Clair Avenue line at Nottingham and ride the streetcar all the way downtown."
Heister gets so excited explaining how the streetcars worked that he sometimes would jump from subject to subject. Standing near the farebox in the center of a vintage car, he described how a conductor manned the door for passengers getting on and off.
"He would ring that bell," said Heister, pointing to a chord that ran nearly the length of the car. "Two bells and that would tell the motorman to go ahead, go forward."
"If he had a passenger come up and want to get off at the next stop, he's ring that bell once," Heister said.
From the turn of the 20th century to the mid-1950s, streetcars were common on Cleveland streets. They followed rails that were laid among the cobblestone or concrete streets. Overhead were electric lines to which the streetcars attached to draw the electricity to power the cars. Many of the cars contained coal-fired stoves to warm the passengers, who, during cold days, would try to find seats near the stoves.
The rails were laid along the center of streets. In Cleveland's Public Square, the center of the city, streetcars coming from every direction stopped and took on the thousands of passengers who relied on mass transit.
Not only did the transit companies have to maintain their fleet of trolleys, they also had to maintain much of the streets their cars ran. Transit companies were responsible for keeping those areas plowed of snow because the rails in the center of the thoroughfares. Although there were many other reasons streetcars were eventually retired in favor of the gasoline-powered buses, which ran on rubber tires, the responsibilities of maintaining parts of the streets certainly contributed toward transit companies turning away from the electric streetcars.
However, not all rails disappeared. In Cleveland and dozens of other American cities, there is still mass transit on rail. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority runs its rapid transit trains on three lines, one of which goes directly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The rapid transit was built in Cleveland in 1955.
The streetcars that rumbled along Euclid, St. Clair, Lorain,and scores of other Cleveland streets are no longer there. Those were the days before buses. It was a different time because so much of the community relied on mass transportation. If you missed one car, you did not have to wait long for the next.
At the Northern Ohio Railway Museum, those days and those cars are celebrated. So, too, are the cars that were part of interurban travel. Cleveland ran cars into Detroit, Columbus, Toledo and Buffalo, with stops in between those communities.
In the 1944 Hollywood hit film "Meet Me in St. Louis" Judy Garland sang a song written especially for her. She sang the "Trolley Song" as she jumped on a trolley car.
"Clang, clang, clang went the trolley // Ding, ding, ding went the bell." The song was presented as Judy was surprised by the romantic young man of her dreams who ran to catch up with the trolley so he could sit next to her.
The song continued with the tipping of his hat and him holding of her hand. As the trolley swayed along the streets of St. Louis, the two fell in love,
holding hands "'til the end of the line."
I thought about that movie and that song as I throttled the car that the Northern Ohio Railway Museum let me drive for only a few yards. Heister stood next to me, overseeing every movement I made. But it was a kick, feeling the lurch of that car and its wheels biting into the rail that was out before me.
It was a nostalgic trip to a time long ago when my parents and my ancestors before them jumped on the streetcar, paid their fare and traveled across town. What a ride it must have been for them. Decades later, what a ride it was for me.
Contact the Northern Ohio Railways Museum, which offers free tours on Saturdays May through October. It is located at 5515 Buffham Rd., Seville, Medina County. Its website is www.northernohiorailwaymuseum.org .