Before there was Metro Light Rail, there was the Phoenix Railway System. The two opened almost exactly 80 years apart, but shared the same purpose: get Phoenicians around the city efficiently. Of course, the area looked a lot different back in 1887, when the railway system started, and not a lot of people remember riding the electric cars and trolleys first-hand (the system shut down in 1948).
Luckily, there's a Phoenix Trolley Museum downtown trying to keep the memory alive. It's located in a sheet metal car barn behind an old mansion, right across the street from the Burton-Barr Central Library. Blink and you might miss it, which would be a shame, because this little museum houses some pretty cool stuff.
The Phoenix Trolley Museum is volunteer-run and short on funds, which is why it's only open on Saturdays. Our tour guide was Ernie, and he's been involved with the museum and restoring trolleys since 1975. He can tell you everything you never knew you wanted to know about electric street cars, right down to the replica vintage advertisements in car number 116.
Car number 116 is the most fully-restored trolley in the museum, and was one of the last three cars to operate in Phoenix. It was built by American Car Company in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, and sold to the city of Phoenix for $13,700. Ernie says complete restoration of 116 today will require an additional $50,000. That's to get it running again, so people can ride it along the tracks from the museum up to Central Avenue and back. It's all of about 20 feet, but it would give people an idea of what it was like to ride.
The interior of 116 includes the restored original oak wood flooring in the front and rear, reversible vintage leather and rattan seats, and near the roof, several replicas of old advertisements for things like Burma Shave, The Lone Ranger, and war bonds. There was one original ad -- for Wrigley's chewing gum -- laying tattered on one of the seats. It's taken decades to partially restore the car, which had been rebuilt into a five-bedroom home when the museum acquired it.
A replica of a vintage ad (left) and an original trolley ad (right) in car 116
In addition to car 116, the Phoenix Trolley Museum is also home to car number 504, which is, at present, a yawning mass of skeletal steel. After this car was retired from the railway, it was used as a concessions stand in downtown Phoenix, and later, as a monkey house in a petting zoo. Ernie says they've managed to arrest most of the wood rot and scoop out the monkey poop, but full restoration will take about $800,000.
Car 504, formerly known as "the monkey house"
It's cool to see a lost part of Phoenix history, and to talk with enthusiastic people who want to preserve it. And now's a good as time as any -- the museum's lease is up in October, and they'll have to move somewhere else down the line.
The Phoenix Trolley Museum is located at 25 W. Culver Street. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission costs $1; donations are appreciated. For more information, call 602-254-0307 or visit www.phoenixtrolley.com
One of the outdoor displays at Phoenix Trolley Museum