Wednesday, March 12, 2014

There Were Streetcars Galore in Fort Thomas – Once Upon a Time!

By John Deering
This was the cover story for the March 2014 Fort Thomas Living Magazine. Volume Thirty-Eight, Number Three. If you'd like to order a copy of the magazine, please call 859-291-1412
Obviously many of us have been following the on-again and off-again discussion about streetcars in Cincinnati.  Ohioans certainly have been taking sides in this discussion.  Kentuckians and other nonresidents have been either indifferent or definitely for or against restoring them. I personally hope they are totally restored. However,  we on this side of the river do not have to pay for them; so it’s easy for us to say, “Hey, go with it, Buckeyes . It’s only money!”  This debate in Cincinnati brought up memories of our own streetcars in Northern Kentucky and how important they once were.
As a kid growing up near Holmes High School in Covington, I was on two streetcar lines –Latonia and Rosedale -- numbers 6 and 7. Each line was on Madison Avenue but divided a mile or two farther south.  I took them not only to and from downtown Covington and Cincinnati, but occasionally to Fort Thomas where my grandmother lived -- next door to Samuel Woodfill himself, the WW I war hero for which our Woodfill School is named.  When I was going just for a couple of days, I’d take a book or a ten cent model airplane kit to work on; Mother and Dad would get me --eventually. When I was going to stay a week or so, Dad would fasten my Schwinn-Autocycle on the back bumper of our 1931 Chevrolet and take it there for me.  I was then free to explore Fort Thomas at my leisure --- which I did. (I even discovered I could see Coney Island from a couple of the streets.)


photo: NKYViews.com

Come with me on one of my sojourns from my home in Covington to Fort Thomas -- on two streetcars! Well, it took a nickel to get me to the Dixie Terminal just across the Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati. It took another nickel to get me to Newport via the L&N Bridge [Purple People Bridge]. Once in Newport, the street car turned left onto Washington Avenue, went south to 10th, then turned  left to Belleview where streetcars crossed three trestles. From there they proceeded eventually to Waterworks Road. (Yes, you’re right; this route later became Memorial Parkway.)  The street cars on this trip were of the “multi-wheel” variety -- two sets of four-wheel trucks. (On some shorter routes or at less busy times of the day, there were smaller more economical ones with only four-wheels.)    The trestles awed me! Looking out the windows of the street car when we were crossing those trestles gave an illusion of flying since nothing else was visible between the street car and the ground far below.  (The imagination of a twelve-year old boy can work wonders!)  The tracks were the same as a railroad route – rails and ties.  Then we’d arrive in Fort Thomas and proceed to Inverness on tracks again imbedded in the paved street. From Inverness we’d go to Woodside Place where the pavement ended but the tracks went on near a narrow but barely paved lane. Highlands’ kids used to walk to school on this lane. There was a house below road level where the Norman Lawson family lived and later became the temporary office of the Board of Education. (The Middle School is there now.)  Then we came to Highlands to our left and on to North Fort Thomas Avenue where the tracks were in the center of the street.  That is, they were in the center of the avenue where electric poles still stand and seasonal flowers and bushes now beautify the area.


What is now Memorial Parkway. Photo credit: Nkyviews.com

The tracks did not become a part of the paved avenue again until they had passed St. Thomas Church where they turned right and proceeded to the juncture with Fort Thomas and Grand Avenues. Then they   turned left and proceeded south past the stone water tower and the Fort. In fact, until recently the location of the tracks could be easily seen in places where the seams in the concrete showed where the tracks had been.  From there it was on to the turnaround loop just before they got to where the Blue Marble is now.  Again there the concrete seams showed how the tracks had formally turned left into the turnaround. There is a home just where the tracks made a circle of turning.   I’d get off the streetcar there and walk to my destination.

Who else but twelve-year old boys going to visit their grandmothers used this trip from other cities to Fort Thomas? As a matter of fact, there were many others including teenagers and young adults.  “Where were they going?” you ask. To the skating rink! (You don’t remember the skating rink? Well, it was a fun place to visit and skate.) It was near where the Citizens’ Bank is now.  Kroger’s later had a store there.  In that case, when we were in high school and going to the rink, we’d get off the street cars where Stegners Grocery once stood. Now it is where the Fort Thomas Board of Education is. After the War had started, many soldiers from the fort spent their evenings there.

When Ann and I began our student teaching in the fall of 1949, I caught a trolley bus and Ann caught a streetcar to downtown Covington where we met; and using transfer   tickets we caught a cross-town bus to Newport where in turn we caught a #11 bus to Fort Thomas. We reversed this maneuver each afternoon. Yes, streetcars had given way to buses before I became a part of Highlands in 1949; even though the tracks were gone, the road beds were still intact in at least several places. I remember parking   my 1941 Chevrolet in the track bed across the street from Highlands and near the Methodist Church. All- in- all the Green line streetcars were a vital part of transportation in Northern Kentucky. Diesel buses eventually took their places.  

The proposed streetcars for Cincinnati are in many ways far different from the ones we remember in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati. The most striking difference is the streamlined appearance of the new ones.  Ann and I have ridden newer ones in Seattle and New Orleans; they don’t look anything like the ones we once had, but the comfort of the ride is far better.  An even older streetcar is on display at Covington’s Berringer-Crawford Museum in Devou Park. Every Christmas season, though, there is a beautiful model of one of the past era on display at the Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell -- once the location of another streetcar turnaround. They always have some great photos of streetcars in their entrance hallway. The location of the tavern is near another former site of a streetcar turnaround.

Parenthetically, there is indeed something nostalgic about street cars. For example, think of Cincinnati’s Elm Street in front of Music Hall. After most of Elm had been “cleansed” of the tracks and the cobble stone surface, the cobble stones have been kept in place and so have the tracks. They still fit so well into the nostalgia of Music Hall.      

Here are some tidbits about our once-upon-a-time streetcars that so many of us remember with fond memories. Northern Kentucky’s Greenline had two major “car barns”: the larger one was located at 20th and Madison Avenue in Covington and another one still remains to the right of the 12th Street Bridge from Covington into Newport.  Sometimes street cars had their problems: trolleys sometimes came off the overhead electrical lines, but some other times “rascals” ran out to a stopped one and pulled the line to the  trolley. That disconnected the power. (Then they’d run away laughing!)  It was quite dangerous because at night, this removal of the trolleys turned the on-board lights off making it difficult for automobile drivers to see them. In some streets, there was a single set of tracks in the middle of the street, which made passing them by automobile “interesting.”  When drivers grew impatient with the frequent stopping and starting, they were permitted to pass a moving streetcar on the right side only. All of us got rather good at doing that; but for obvious reasons, drivers were permitted to pass neither on the right nor on the left when one had stopped for passengers to get on or off.  All-in-all they were a safe, convenient, relatively inexpensive means of transportation. Yes, in the summer time, they were noisy because the windows were open for ventilation, but they had a grillwork for safety – no sticking arms out the windows, for example. Crossing the Suspension Bridge was even noisier as they passed the large stone piers. The reverberation of the sound was almost deafening.  Of course, they were heated in the winter. Every street car had advertising posters of local businesses on the outside and more on the inside. They were mounted on a special position high on the walls of every car!  Some of these posters recently came up for evaluation on Antiques Road Show. They have become collectors’ items, some of which sell for hundreds of dollars each.  Each streetcar   had a motorman and a conductor although the conductor position was sometimes eliminated during the Depression and World War II.

In Cincinnati the streetcars were an orange color, but they also covered all the area including the University of Cincinnati. Ann began taking classes in the Evening College of U.C. in 1945, and she took a Greenline streetcar to the Dixie Terminal and then a Cincinnati streetcar to the campus. To come home, she’d go to one of the mid-street and lighted   islands to await the next one back downtown. She contends she felt completely safe. Consider that now in that area of town where almost every 11:00 news begins with the “who- shot- whom” headline -- or maybe even worse when one thinks of the misbehavior in or around the city some of which is near the university.   Unfortunately more than street cars have changed.  When the Cincinnati streetcars have returned, we’ll take a ride if for nothing else but the nostalgia of it all. Hmm!  I wonder if they’ll bring back the incline, a unique part of the Cincinnati line. Streetcars rolled onto conveyances on their own tracks and then literally carried the streetcar up an incline to another part of town. Then they’d roll off and continue the route – on a somewhat higher lever. Yes, the incline carried them – and their passengers -- up and down. Hey, it was interesting and it was fun. 

For writing this feature, I Googled “street cars” and found all kinds of historical information. For those of you who have found this interesting or for those who remember our street cars, I urge you also to Google “streetcars” although I have found no pertinent information of those in Fort Thomas or other cities in Northern Kentucky; however you will get the history of streetcars and some beautiful pictures of them  from the very first horse-drawn ones to the electric  ones. You’ll also find there are other parts of the country that are bringing them back just as Cincinnati is doing.  If you have been to San Francisco, perhaps you have ridden their famous cable cars! Talk about interesting, they are fun to ride too. There also are pictures of those.   Maybe we should consider bringing streetcars back here. It would be great nostalgia! No? Well, Okay!  Gosh!  I just thought it would be fun.

I am indebted to Doug Bickell, my long-time friend; Debbie Lucas of the Fort Thomas Police Department; and Gabe Wainscott, manager of the Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell for significant information about streetcars in our area.      


Photo credit: NKYViews.com

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting article! Thanks for writing down and capturing our history!

Anonymous said...

Very cool!! What I would give to get a slice of pizza and walk across the street to catch a flick at the old Hiland Theatre. The Gaslight in Clifton preserved their theatre and district with a grassroots movement. So did Mariemont. Why can't we do the same in Ft. Thomas?

Anonymous said...

How about a shout to to the site where you got the pictures?

Mark Collier said...

All the captions show a photo credit.