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Train Museum Streetcar Sparks Memories of Light Rail Past

Harold Ambrosius revisited the controls of #551 at Union Station.
Photo by Steve Bell
Harold Ambrosius revisited the controls of #551 at Union Station.

By Steve Bell


Kansas City, MO –
On a dead-end spur of track outside Union Station stands the Kansas City Railroad Museum's latest addition, a 1947 model streetcar. Freshly painted, pale yellow and black "number 551" looks more sleek and modern than her 60 years. But she is a cosmetically restored shell. With no functioning motor, number 551 had to be pushed into place by human being power. But devotees talk about the way the streetcars sounded...


a lot like this modern one in Rotterdam the whirr of an electric motor and the subtle click-clack of steel wheels crossing rail joints. Streetcars didn't growl, bump and clunk like buses. Some fans, like Art Gibson, fell in love with them as children

Art Gibson:
I'd just walk out and get on a Club Line car, go to 75th in Waldo and have donuts and coffee in the little coffee shop that was in the south side of the substation building. Then I'd go on to Dodson. And I just spent the day riding streetcars after that.

In the 1940's and 50's many professionals like young attorney Tom Carr took the streetcar downtown to work.

Tom Carr:
One of the lawyers suggested at one time, you know this is so nice and easy, and I can sit here and not be jostled around and write. You know, maybe we should talk to the public service company and see if we wouldn't make a special car for a certain time in the morning - a sort of a club car - and we could have coffee and donuts and things like that and have the camaraderie of all the people we meet.

The most enchanted of streetcar memories seem to be those of childhood. Bonnie Hansen recalled streetcar trips with her mother and sister at holiday time.

Bonnie Hansen:
We would have a wonderful time looking out the window at all the beaufiful sites going by and then enter that enchanted world of downtown shopping. And then, of course, we would visit Santa. And then you would come home on the streetcar and maybe fall asleep. And it would be twilight. All the lights would be on in the houses that you passed. And it was just a warm, wonderful memory.

Bonnie Hansen's story sounds like the Country Club line in Kansas City in the 40's or 50's. But actually she rode Kansas City streetcars in Philadelphia in the 1960's. Philadelphia was one of the towns that bought Kansas City's cars when the system shut down - and continued to run them for another ten years. Harold Ambrosius' childhood memories are about Kansas City's Swope Park line.

Harold Ambrosius:
On that Swope Park on Holidays and Sundays people used to ride it for a dime from one end to the other. I know when I was a kid - it was a nickel for kids in those days - and I'd ride on Sundays. Very enjoyable. And we had a lot of sightseers that came into town and they liked to ride 'em.

When Ambrosius got out of the army he took a job as a streetcar operator. He says at its peak the Kansas City system had 30 lines with about 300 miles of track. In the daytime, there was a streetcar along every ten or fifteen minutes - every half-hour or so all night.

Boys delighted in putting pennies on the tracks to see them squashed - or rocks, which pulverized with a pop like a firecracker. The more mischievous would pull the trolly rope and disengage it from the overhead wire -- forcing the motorman to get out and reset the trolly.

Harold Ambrosius: Some of the operators would stick some pins in there, and they'd go up there and grab that rope and them pins would make em think again, you know what I mean? (He chuckles.)

Ambrosius was at the controls of number 551 on its last Kansas City ride - in 1957. The streetcar lines were doomed by laws that made the transit authorities responsible for all street maintenance along them - and, says rider Gibson, by private companies backed by bus and tire manufacturers that bought up transit systems.

Art Gibson:
By the time they trashed the service, and you went through that right here with the folks from Texas that bought out the Kansas City Public Service, they trashed the service so badly that there was nothing left to do but for them to get out of the business and the city had to take it over to maintain some semblance of a transit system.

The buses that had by then replaced the streetcars were never as popular with the public. Pete Hansen, president of the Kansas City chapter of the National Historic Rail Society says there were several reasons.

Pete Hansen:
I think it may have been a combination of things. I think that the ride on the streetcars was actually a little bit better. You don't have the fumes. And I think the noise of the bus is rather distracting as well.

Streetcar fans like Pete Hansen and Art Gibson travel to other cities to ride their historic streetcar lines. Gibson says when he is on an old Kansas City car in San Francisco he can close his eyes and be a kid again - riding the Country Club line. He hopes Kansas City's kids of today will take a similar ride in the future. That depends on whether the light rail plan voters approved stays on track.

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