A generation ago, the wooden and steel streetcars creaked and clanged and rumbled, their bells pealing as they crisscrossed the streets of Baltimore.
Now, those vintage electric streetcars long relegated to museums and memories of a bygone era could be on the verge of rolling once more on the streets of the city that invented them.
A proposal to restore old trolleys to shuttle tourists among city attractions has generated considerable support and interest among business leaders, civic groups and those in the tourist industry.
As envisioned, the trolleys would run around Harborplace between Federal Hill, Camden Yards and the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion, then, eventually, to Fells Point, Canton and Southwest Baltimore.
"There's just a charm to them that you don't feel when you get on the light rail with its plastic seats," said Parker D. Pennington, a Baltimore designer and a founding member of the nonprofit Inner Harbor Streetcar Preservation Trust Inc.
"We think that people do want to ride them because they're actual streetcars that rode on the streets of Baltimore 80, 90, 100 years ago," Mr. Pennington said. "An argument can be made very strongly that they never should have gone away."
Though the proposal still awaits city approval and needs funding, the foundation is moving forward with its plans.
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum has agreed to provide three old streetcars for the first phase, and Massachusetts transportation authorities are donating 10 old subway cars to be used for parts to restore the trolleys.
City planners have included the trolley in a long-term master plan for the Inner Harbor area, making available a lane that had been used for streetcar-look-alike tour buses until about five years ago.
And foundation leaders say they're confident a combination of private and public financing, possibly including low-cost loans and corporate backing, will cover the estimated $5 million cost of the first 1.5-mile leg of the 8-mile line.
Nationwide, more than 20 cities have turned back to the future, restoring trolley service as a virtually pollution-free, user-friendly alternative to buses, cabs and cars clogging cities. Many of the ++ systems have become major tourist draws, including those in New Orleans, Denver, Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco.
Baltimore should follow suit, the proposal's supporters argue. What better place, they say, to resume streetcar service than in the city that gave birth to streetcars? Baltimore, after all, gave the nation horse-drawn trolleys that ran on tracks in 1859 and their electric successors in 1885.
Beyond celebrating a rich transportation history, many see trolleys as a way to help fulfill long-standing transportation needs. They would link attractions out-side the harbor basin, as well as metro and light rail, which is to extend to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station within two years.
Mary Sue McCarthy, executive director of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment & Culture, said gaps in downtown public transportation have long frustrated businesses and tourist attractions, particularly east and west of the Inner Harbor.
"When you stand back and you look at Baltimore as whole, you see that the existing transportation systems serve really a small, yet important minority of our attractions," she said.
Demand is likely to intensify with the addition of numerous attractions. The $25 million Port Discovery children's museum, being designed by a subsidiary of Walt Disney Co. in the former Fishmarket complex on Market Place, is expected to draw 500,000 visitors a year.
Nearby, the City Life Museums are adding a nickelodeon museum on Museum Row, just east of downtown, showcasing the small neighborhood theaters of old. The museum will offer an orientation to the small City Life museums and a starting point for visitors touring the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, a four-story building featuring 30,000 square feet of exhibits about Baltimore history.
Across the harbor, on Key Highway, the $7 million American Visionary Arts Museum is being built as a national repository of sculpture, paintings and other works by "visionary" artists, those self-taught, independent of the influence of mainstream art. Farther along Key Highway, the Baltimore Museum of Industry is expanding.
Tourism officials, hoteliers and leaders of attractions agree that better transportation is critical to extending the tourist center beyond the Inner Harbor. Getting around can be particularly tricky for out-of-town visitors unfamiliar with local public transportation and seeking alternatives to driving clogged streets in a downtown where parking is at a premium.
Traveling to the B&O; Railroad Museum or the City Life Museums, for example, entails crossing wide expanses of busy roads, Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west and President Street on the east.
With no regular transportation to such sites, tourism officials say, attractions outside the Inner Harbor have fallen far short of their potential to draw visitors. The Inner Harbor area draws nearly 6 million visitors a year, and one of its most popular attractions, the National Aquarium, 1.5 million annual visitors. By contrast, the B&O; gets about 100,000 visitors, the City Life Museums, 85,000.
"People need a couple of bridges -- pragmatic and psychological -- to take advantage of these things that lie within walking or
riding distance," said Nancy Brennan, director of the City Life Museums.
She views a trolley as an ideal way of breaking down the barriers, extending the tourism area and keeping tourists in town longer.
Baltimore lags well behind the national average in length of stays, retaining visitors two nights compared with 3.4 nights nationwide. The difference amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in spending in a city with a $1 billion-a-year tourism industry.
John Ott, director of the B&0 museum in Mount Clare west of the harbor, shares Ms. Brennan's sentiments.
A few weeks ago, he started a bus service to bring tourists to the museum, one of the city's gems, celebrating the railroading heritage of the city where the first passenger train in America operated. The reason is simple: Out-of-town tourists needed a quick, easy way to get to the museum.
"These huge highways, they just dissect the city," said Mr. Ott, a strong supporter of the proposed trolley. "What we need to do is get the tourist moving back and forth so the impression of Baltimore goes beyond the harbor and makes it a more fulfilling experience."
Many tourists, he said, fear walking beyond the immediate area surrounding the Inner Harbor because of the crime they associate with big-city neighborhoods. Like others, Mr. Ott believes a trolley line would complement and boost the success of attractions beyond the Inner Harbor and become a major attraction in itself.
"There are more examples of more cities where this is probably one of the most effective, the most enjoyable ways of moving people," he said. "It's just nobody has tried to capitalize on it here."
Mr. Ott has worked closely with the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, which sits in a flood plain along Falls Road, and is considering moving to Mount Clare, next to the B&0. Leaders of the two museums see big potential in creating a transportation museum commemorating rail travel here.
Mr. Pennington's design group also is looking into the possibility of building parking lots for automobiles and tour buses at both ends of the trolley line, near Carroll Park on Washington Boulevard and at Locust Point.
Leaders of the effort stress that the trolleys would not serve as widespread mass transit, as light rail does, but rather as a quaint way to get around downtown. The cars would travel about 10 mph to 18 mph and be authentic right down to the rattan seats and bells used by conductors and motormen.
The foundation hopes to begin service by the summer of 1997, the year Baltimore celebrates the 200th anniversary of its incorporation. It says the system would be self-sustaining, based on projected ridership of 600,000 passengers a year paying $1 fares to cover most of the operating costs. The remaining $60,000 in operating would come from advertising on the trolleys.
Plans call for only two permanent, full-time positions. Streetcars would be operated by part-time employees and volunteers, including those who work at the all-volunteer Streetcar Museum. The proposal's backers hope to team with the Living Classrooms Foundation, which provides hands-on training to youths, to restore the cars.
City planners say they will include a study of the streetcar project in a comprehensive downtown transportation study, to be completed within six months.
In their heyday, until the 1940s, electric trolleys rolled along the streets of nearly every city in America and into the suburbs ringing them. Families traveled to movies and amusement parks, commuters hopped trolleys to work. But the growing prevalance of the automobile and the move to replace trolleys with buses led to the rapid decline of a system seen as outmoded. By 1960, only a handful of urban transit networks used streetcars.
In Baltimore, where more than 1,000 streetcars operated in the 1940s, the last cars left the streets for good in 1963. Countless old-timers lamented their passing, and more than a few still miss them.
John Landrum understands why. The chief operating officer of the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority in Dallas lobbied for years to resurrect streetcar service there more than three decades after its demise. The effort led to the opening of a 2.8-mile line in 1989, reviving a decaying neighborhood now filled with booming businesses.
Flush with the success of the line, rated one of the top 10 tourist attractions by the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city is now extending the line about 4 miles and considering branching out farther.
"There can be no question about the streetcars' contribution," Mr. Landrum said. "It takes people back to a time when everything wasn't quite as rushed. You know, everybody talks about the good old days, and it's something that really was good about the good old days."
Mr. Landrum's father, who collected old streetcars, would agree. Maybe, Mr. Landrum tells kids who know little of the days when streetcars reigned, their grandparents were onto something.
"It seems we spent the last 45 years trying to prove that grandpa was stupid," Mr. Landrum said, "and now all of a sudden, we realize he wasn't so stupid."