Mass Transit, When it Meant Something

By Eric Olson

December 11, 2012 Updated Dec 11, 2012 at 10:30 AM EST

FORT WAYNE, Indiana-They still crop up now and then, usually during some street or sewer project…those iron tracks that once carried the finest mass transit system Fort Wayne has ever known. It began in the 1880's, Fort Wayne’s first street cars, riding on rails, pulled by horses. In 1892 the streetcar system went electric, and crews began laying down track in every neighborhood in town, like these rail workers on Wells Street.

“The cars were not really strong on creature comforts but they were comfortable,” says historian Craig Berndt. “They were utilitarian, built of materials that could take a lot of abuse and last a long time.”

For decades the electric streetcar was a familiar sight in town, sturdy wooden coaches scooting silently down the road. Too silently, it turns out. Running down pedestrians was so common an occurrence the cars were fitted with iron basket contraptions in front, designed to harmlessly scoop up the inattentive and hold them until the conductor could stop the car. After World War Two the streetcars disappeared, this is the last one in Fort Wayne making its final run in June 1947…to be replaced by electric trolley coaches, they were called…electric buses, really…more comfortable, using the same overhead electric wires that powered the old streetcars. But even these modern upgrades were living on borrowed time. One thing and one thing only was slowly killing the electric trolley system.

“It was literally the automobile, plain and simple,” says Berndt. “Automobiles were starting to become more mass produced and more available to people of lesser means and so people were buying them.”

In November 1960 Fort Wayne’s last electric bus was retired, the overhead electric lines torn down, and the buses sent off to the scrap yard where their predecessors, the streetcars, had already been shredded. An inglorious end to a transit system that once came right to your neighborhood, and for pennies, carried you off to wherever your heart desired. Eric Olson reporting out in Your Country.




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