Streetcars are nothing new in Cincinnati

(Editor’s note: Lissa posted this article on her website on March 3, 2010. It was during the city’s debate on establishing a new streetcar route through downtown to spur development.)

By Lissa Kramer

The recent question of bringing back Cincinnati’s streetcars has been met with arguments from both sides of the issue. Regardless of what happens, though, there is no denying that at one time Cincinnati was served very well by its extensive streetcar system.

Bruce Bernhard of Fort Thomas remembers riding the system as a young boy in the late ’40s.

“Back in those days as a young kid in the seventh or eighth grade I would buy a Sunday pass and go by myself without my parents, just ride around the city from streetcar to streetcar and ride out to the end of the line and come back,” he says.

The Sunday pass, which was a quarter, was good for a ride on any and every streetcar all day on Sunday.

“I may have even hopped off and gone to Krohn Conservatory because you could get on and off with that pass. Get off wherever something was interesting. Just part of a ride on the streetcar,” he says.

Today any parent who let their child wander the city alone would be hauled into court as fast as you could say “child neglect.” Those were different times, though, and it was common to see younger boys exploring the city by themselves.

 “I guess my parents had no problem with me doing that,” he says. “I’d tell them and they’d say, ‘Be back by dinner.’”

Jerry Seiter also learned the city as a young boy riding the streetcars.

“It was a cheap date,” he says. “Young men would take their girls out because when they got going the breeze would get pretty good and it would cool you off.”  That was before air conditioning became popular in homes.

Seiter, a retired furniture salesman, gets a mischievous look in his eye as he recalls the fun he and his buddies had derailing the car.

“We’d get a bunch of boys in the back row and we’d all jump up and down at the same time and the rear wheels would come off the track,” he admits. “We’d all giggle when the motorman would have to get out and put the thing back on track.”

Bernhard grew up in Northside and had access to both the No. 17 to College Hill and the No. 61 car that ran from Northside to Clifton via Ludlow Avenue.

“It was a fun thing to do,” he says. “I thought the neatest thing was going out to Lockland on the 78 car because they were running the PCC’s (newer cars) and I would ride past the zoo.”

Electric streetcars have been around in Cincinnati since the 1870s. Cincinnati’s streetcars were unique, though, because for a time the cars were required to have a two-wire trolley instead of a single-wire. In the late 1800s the phone company filed suit against the Cincinnati Street Railway, claiming that the trolley wires were interfering with phone service in Mount Auburn, the first hilltop suburb in Cincinnati.

Judge Taft found in favor of the phone company, and the streetcar companies were required to use a separate line for their trolleys. The Ohio Supreme Court, though, eventually overturned the decision, and Cincinnati went back to using a single pole. Bernhard remembers watching the conductor switch from the double-wire trolley to the single-wire at Mitchell Avenue and Vine Street.

“They would unhook it and away we’d go,” he says. “As a kid I was fascinated with that.”

Streetcars were phased out in 1951 as more people moved to the suburbs and buses and automobiles became the preferred method of transportation. Urban renewal has triggered a return to the city and mass transit is once again being considered.

“Now, being older,” says Bernhard, “looking back and realizing what they were, it is something we wish we had now.”

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