Under the Sun

Bob Graham and the Mystery of the Long-Lost Phoenix Trolley Car

Look what someone did to Phoenix Streetcar 509.
Look what someone did to Phoenix Streetcar 509. Bob Graham

Larry Fleming got a bunch of guys together to go hunting for Phoenix’s missing trolley cars. They found a pile of them in a trailer court out in Buckeye.

“That was in 1977,” Bob Graham remembered in a phone call last Wednesday. “The owner of the trailer court had salvaged the cars when our streetcar system was disbanded in 1948. He rehabbed them as living units and they’d been sitting there for something like 30 years.”

The trailer court was closing, and Fleming and his pals rescued Car 116, restored it, and got the city to display it at Margaret T. Hance Park. After that, it seemed like a good idea to round up the rest of the cars.

“That was the beginning of the Phoenix Trolley Museum,” said Graham, who joined the organization’s board seven years ago. “We were loosely affiliated with the state historical society and eventually wound up at Hance Park.”

It’s not that Graham was a streetcar nut, he said. But it was important to note that Phoenix developers built the city around its streetcar system, established in 1887 with a mule-drawn car that rolled on rails along Washington Street. The system, partly funded by savvy developers, peaked in the 1920s with more than 20 miles of track.

Streetcars were replaced by buses after an infamous car barn fire in 1947 destroyed most of the fleet. Others wound up in a storage yard by the Gila River, but were swept away in a 1979 flood. “They found them 2 miles down the road in a sandbar,” Graham recalled. “Completely destroyed.”

Three of the original fleet are still missing. Until a few weeks ago, there had been four streetcars unaccounted for.

“A guy came to us and said, ‘I think I’ve got one of your streetcars,’” Graham laughed. “That was 509, one of the two that we couldn’t figure out what happened to. Now we know.”

The man who donated 509 said it had been acquired in 1948 by a company that rented out movie props. It wound up in someone’s backyard for years. “The guy we got it from bought it at an estate sale,” Graham continued. “It had a sign on it that said, ‘Fireworks for sale.’ Someone had built a roof over the top of the car, and we pulled back a piece of the sheet metal and there was the number. It’s amazing this car survived at all.”

That brings the museum’s total to three streetcars. The second of these, Number 504, is in parts and was found in a lot behind the old Wax Museum, where it had been used as a monkey cage. Before it can be reassembled and restored, local streetcar fans need to scare up enough money to buy the building that houses the museum. After leaving Hance Park in 2017, the trolley collection relocated to Grand Avenue, where the museum leased a building it now wants to buy.

“Our immediate goal is to raise $30,000,” Graham explained. “We have a crowd-funding site, and we’re about halfway to our goal with three weeks to go. After that, we’re looking for a major donor, a corporate partner-type thing.”

Graham thought people didn’t know they should care about streetcars. “I’m not a trolley guy,” he said again. “I come to this as an historic preservation guy. Trolleys are a way into the more general history of Phoenix. The city grew up around the streetcar system, the suburbs got built along the streetcar lines. It’s a big part of our story, and something people might like to know.”

If it were up to him, Graham said, he wouldn’t restore 509. “We now have either all of part of three streetcars,” he pointed out. “And they’re basically all the same. I guess we can paint them each a different color.

“But what’s the point? If we keep it as what it is, a converted relic, we can say, ‘This is how the streetcars ended up. They were regarded as junk when they were scrapped by the city.’ It’s a way of saying, ‘This is who we are, 80 years later.’”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela