Taking the trolley

Background: this Facebook posting on the 18th by Chris Hansen:

My online friend Arnold Zwicky is a kind of chronicler of comic strips, from a historical and a linguistic perspective. A transit group to which I belong recently reprinted a large number of cartoon panels from the Toonerville Trolley series. Aside from the very exacting drawings, the hand lettering is a beautiful example of what lettering can be. Here’s the link to the website; there’s a lot of trolley stuff in front of the comics and some afterward, but these cartoons are an intriguing collection of history and comedy from the 1920’s.

From The Trolley Dodger site, “Never Too Late” on 7/18/18 by David Sadowski:


(#1) The 6/8/1927 strip, with lotsa eye dialect and a pun on punch the clock

In a time when trolley lines criss-crossed this country, and were a part of everyday life for Americans, there was even a railfan comic strip. Or, better put, a comic strip by a railfan, Fontaine Fox.

His “Toonerville Trolley” comic ran in newspapers from 1913 until he retired in 1955. Over time, he even grew to resemble the “Skipper,” his own creation. Fox even answered his voluminous fan mail using letterhead he had printed up for the Toonerville Electric Railway Company.

I remember the strip well from my childhood. And I also remember trolleys well from my childhood.

About the strip, from Wikipedia:

Toonerville Folks(a.k.a. The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains) was a popular newspaper cartoon feature by Fontaine Fox, which ran from 1908 to 1955. It began in 1908 in the Chicago Post, and by 1913, it was syndicated nationally by the Wheeler Syndicate. From the 1930s on, it was distributed by the McNaught Syndicate.

The single-panel gag cartoon (with longer-form comics on Sunday) was a daily look at Toonerville, situated in what are now called the suburbs. Central to the strip was the rickety little trolley called the “Toonerville Trolley that met all the trains”, driven in a frenzy by the grizzly old Skipper to meet each commuter train as it arrived in town. A few of the many richly formed characters included the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang, the Physically Powerful Katrinka, Little Woo-Woo Wortle, Aunt Eppie Hogg (The Fattest Lady in 3 Counties) and Mickey McGuire, the town bully.

And about trolleys:

A tram (also tramcar; and in North America streetcar, trolley or trolley car) is a rail vehicle which runs on tramway tracks along public urban streets, and also sometimes on a segregated right of way. The lines or networks operated by tramcars are called tramways. Tramways powered by electricity, the most common type, were once called electric street railways (mainly in the United States) due to their being widely used in urban areas before the universal adoption of electrification.

… Tram vehicles are usually lighter and shorter than conventional trains and rapid transit trains. Today, most trams use electrical power, usually fed by an overhead pantograph sliding on an overhead wire; in some cases by a sliding shoe on a third rail, a trolley pole or a bow collector sliding on an overhead wire.

From the Pennsylvania of my childhood:


(#2) Commuters pose with the last [Reading / Berks Co.] trolley, streetcar No. 807, which ran from Reading to Mohnton and back on Jan. 7, 1952 [I was 11]

From the Reading Eagle on 1/5/2012 by Ron Devlin, “Last trolley run was 60 years ago”:

The last trolley, or streetcar, reached the end of the line on Jan. 7, 1952: 60 years ago.

The final trip was made on the Shillington-Mohnton route, giving way to an era when streetcars were replaced by buses as the main vehicle of public transportation in Berks County.

“Rust in Peace: The Shillington-Mohnton Trolley Reaches End of Line Tomorrow” was the headline in the Reading Eagle on Sunday, Jan. 6, announcing an end of an era.

Reporter John Walsh’s opening paragraphs put the historic occasion into perspective.

“A streetcar named ‘Mohnton’ will reach the end of the line tomorrow, the era of the clanging trolley in Reading is dead,” Walsh wrote. “Patrons who remember the long, stormy and colorful past of the trolley cars will say: Rust in Peace.”

According to Walsh’s story, the last streetcar left Fifth and Penn at 2 p.m. Jan. 7.

Edwin R. Brunner, 69, who had been with the Reading Street Railway Co. for 50 years, piloted the last trolley, No. 807.

The streetcar, built by General Motors in 1949, had 44 seats. It ran from Reading to Shillington and Mohnton before returning to the car barn at 10th and Exeter streets.

Ten minutes after the trolley returned, the first Reading Bus Co. bus left on the same route.

The event brought to a close the 78-year history of the Reading Street Railway Co., which began in 1874 with horse-drawn cars. The trolleys were electrified in 1890, when Reading’s population was about 60,000.

Streetcars had ceased running routes within Reading on May 17, 1947, when riders boarded old No. 95 in center city en route to Albright College. The trolley continued its city-to-suburbs routes.

J.P. Costello, bus company president, heralded the new era of faster, more comfortable and cheaper public transportation.

A bus ride from Reading to Mohnton would cost 13 cents, 4 cents cheaper than the trolley. [For comparison, first-class letter postage was 3 cents, and the postcard rate had just gone up from 1 to 2 cents on January 1st of 1952. The US minimum wage was then 75 cents an hour, or $30 for a 40-hour work week.]

In Los Angeles, which had a huge system of streetcars (as befits a city sprawling over a gigantic area), the trolleys were abandoned in favor of freeways for cars, rather than in favor of buses.

The largest trolley line ran along Penn Ave., only a few blocks from the house I grew up in. It went east through the center of Reading and on to, among other places, Carsonia Park. From the Berks History Center site:


(#3) The Thunderbolt and the Pretzel at Carsonia Park, late 1940’s

Carsonia Park operated in Lower Alsace Township from 1896 to 1950. The park was constructed by the United Traction Company as a destination for its trolley service. Over the course of its existence Carsonia Park featured many rides and attractions. The roller coasters Jack Rabbit and Thunderbolt, The Airplane Ride, Dodgem Cars, Strato Ship, Castle of Mirth, The Pretzel, Shoot the Shoot, Cuddle Up, and a ferris wheel are just a few examples of what the park offered.

Part of the map of the Reading/Berks trolley system:


(#4) Carsonia Park is the labeled spot between Mt. Penn and Stony Creek

Going west from the city: Wyomissing, where my dad grew up; West Lawn, where I grew up; Sinking Spring, where my Swiss grandparents lived while I was growing up; Robesonia, where my cousin David grew up and still lives. To the southwest of Reading: Shillington, where John Updike grew up.

2 Responses to “Taking the trolley”

  1. Chris Hansen Says:

    Glad to see that my innocent posting has elicited such a large amount of nostalgia and explanation.

    My late uncle was a member of John Updike’s (Shillington mention) poker club, and I have a number of books personalised for my uncle by Updike as well as an unpublished poem he wrote for the club. I must get them valued someday. Apparently my uncle was quite adept at poker and cleaned Updike out regularly; he mentions it quite a bit in the books and the poem.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Benita Bendon Campbell in e-mail:

    In 1941 or so …, I loved trolley cars. It was During The War, and many conductors on the Germantown Avenue route [in Philadelphia] were women – fine role models. Sometimes, they let me ring the bell. Life held no greater glory. At home, I lined up the dining room chairs where my dolls rode as passengers. I knew that I would be a trolley car conductor when I grew up.

    I replied:

    I too made a trolley car out of dining room chairs, at my Swiss grandparents’ place, when I stayed overnight there. (This was followed by listening to music and news from Radio Switzerland on the giant console radio.)

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