Streetcar museum has winter visitor

Earlier this month on an insufferable Baltimore summer's day, the only thing my colleague and friend Jacques Kelly and I wanted after work were a couple of tall cool gin-and-tonics.

And in pursuit of those wonderful English Raj heat beaters, our journey to McCabe's took us out Falls Road.

As we came abreast of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, there sitting in the middle of the North Avenue streetcar loop, chained to a piece of track fixed aboard a flatbed truck, was a harbinger of winter.

There under a blazing sun, sat a vintage 1920s faded green snow sweeper, wearing the number C-127 and metal nameplate of its former owner, the Philadelphia Transportation Co., whose duty in life was roaming the streets of the Quaker City when Old Man Winter came calling.

We paused and pulled into the museum yard and parked.

We walked over and around the massive streetcar that would more accurately be described by streetcar brethren as a "work car."

Why was it here, we wondered, as we checked it out, because the museum already has a similar car in its collection.

Back in 2005, several museum members paid $4,500 for a C-145 that had earned its keep for decades removing snow from streetcar trackage for the Philadelphia Transportation Co. and successor company, SEPTA.

The cars don't actually push snow off streetcar rails; that's the job of the giant spinning sweepers that are hung under the car's superstructure.

Museum members spent several years bringing the old work car back to perfection, and one day last fall, I was given the opportunity to ride the car with Jacques, and even took a turn operating it as a "student motorman," with assistance from those intimate with its operation.

Museum members could hardly wait for the first decent snowstorm to put it to work, and last December, a week or so before Christmas, snow arrived. The C-145 exited the car house and made its appointed rounds in a grand manner.

I missed that performance, but Jacques was aboard and even took a turn at its controller.

As we walked around the new car, which smelled of fragrant oil oozing from its trucks, and admired the massive monster, much higher than a regular streetcar, we kept hoping to run into somebody from the museum who could explain its sudden appearance.

No one was around, so a few days later, I called Andy Blumberg, longtime museum member, motorman, and official photographer, who also handles public relations for the streetcar retirement home.

According to Andy, the car was built in 1923 by Philadelphia's J.G. Brill Co.

"It was one of more than 520 pieces of surface passenger equipment ordered by the PTC from Brill in 1923, and it represented the largest single order for surface passenger equipment at one time for Brill," he said.

"This one order alone was reputed to have kept the giant Brill plant busy for the balance of the year," he said. "The C-127 is virtually identical to BSM's C-145. Both were built in 1923, except the former was built for use as a snow sweeper from the beginning, while the latter saw service as a snow plow."

Andy explained that the visitor was just that, and the museum was just acting as a "baby sitter" and interim curator because the snow sweeper is being moved to another museum.

"We plan to house it, perhaps for an extended period, under cover on 4 track, which is the farthest from Falls Road," he said.

Andy urged that I speak with Ed Amrhein, another longtime streetcar enthusiast and museum member.

"Ed's talents at 'horse trading' make him a very valuable member of the BSM, as he's helped create many multiple-museum swaps of cars and parts, in the process acquiring quite a reputation as deal maker among traction museum members," he said. "That's a pretty interesting story in itself."

So, I called the ever-genial and amiable Amrhein.

And, Andy was right, it was an integral part of one of Amrhein's schemes.

"Actually, the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa., owns it," he explained. "The C-127 does run but it needs extensive restoration. However, it is more complete than when our snow sweeper came to us."

Amrhein said that the C-127 was able to back off the flatbed truck using its own traction motors.

"It doesn't have a pole and we strung a wire over to it and down she came," he said.

He said that no restoration work will be undertaken while the car is in Baltimore.

The Scranton museum will donate to the BSM a 1926 flatcar with a crane that was installed in 1980, and then the sweeper will go north to Scranton.

"By getting the crane car, we can put ours on display, and use the 1926 crane car for our track work," said Amrhein.

Also, a side deal will bring two missing wing snow plows, which were suspended under the sweeper car and swung out when in service, and after being reinstalled, will make the C-147 nearly as complete as when it rolled out of Brill's Woodland Avenue car works 88 years ago.

When its days roaming Philadelphia's streets came to an end, it was sold by SEPTA to a streetcar fan.

"The C-127 came from a private owner in Uniontown, Pa., and left SEPTA a long time ago," said Amrhein.

"The guy's name was Ed Mitchell and he bought it and operated it on his place in Uniontown. He had 100 feet or so of track. He kept it in the barn and operated it for the pleasure of his grandkids," he said. "After he died, Electric City bought it for $2,000."

With an average of 48 inches of snow a year in Scranton, it looks as though the C-127, once restored, will be kept mighty busy.

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