The Spring City Trolley
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published February 15, 2019. It has been updated with more information and 29 new images. The updated blog (2021) begins following the trolley schedule published in the Spring City Sun on February 26, 1903.
The local trolley transportation era in Spring City lasted a very short period of time, 25 years to be exact. The span of service can be defined as beginning on July 5, 1899 when the first trolley started running and continued through until the great crash of July 24, 1924 that ended all business.
As the old green trolley approached its stop the bell would be ringing and people would scramble on to find a seat. The trolley ran every hour and enabled people to travel to Phoenixville with one of the major stops being at Bonnie Brae Park.
Although the locals referred to it as the Spring City trolley a more accurate description was the Montgomery and Chester Electric Railway car. In fact in 1893 the Phoenixville Electric Railway Company was formed but its plans to run a trolley to Spring City and Royersford failed. Finally the idea became a reality on July 5th 1899 when the Montgomery and Chester Electric Railway Co. opened a trolley line from Spring City to Phoenixville.
From the very beginning, when the first stock was sold, the intention to build a bridge across the Schuylkill connecting with Royersford and into the Montgomery County area was assumed. Plans for such a bridge were actually begun but delayed by World War 1 and silenced forever when the crash of 1924 ended service. At the time of the crash the line was losing money and the automobile was gaining popularity and becoming the transportation of choice.
From the beginning of the line they used both closed and open-air trolleys. The Number 21 was a Brill open-air trolley that was purchased in June of 1903. This convertible model had double trucks, a deck roof, and eight bench seats. It measured 26 feet in length. The color scheme on these early cars is uncertain but in later years they were painted green with red window sashes.
The route started near the current day Turkey Hill and went south on Main Street. There was a stop at Main and Hall Street and then another at Main and Walnut Street. At Walnut Street the tracks turned right and went up the steep hill to Wall Street. The trolley barn was at Cedar and Walnut Streets. This building serves as an apartment house today.
The trolley turned on to Phoenix road (Wall Street) and then on out Pikeland Avenue with a stop at Quigley's and one at Zion Lutheran Church. Bonnie Brae Park sits next to the Church and was a very popular stop in the summer. Many of the photos of the open air trolley on route to the park show standing room only as people clung to the railing while standing on the side running boards. They make for great photos but with todays safety regulations you just wouldn't see this happening.
There is a long story about the connection between trolleys and amusement parks and this relationship was no different. Often times trolley services would help subsidize amusement parks as a destination for the traveler. It is more than a coincidence that Bonnie Brae Park closed in 1927, just three years after the trolley service ended. In 1930 the Bonnie Brae Association, a front name for the Ku Klux Klan, purchased the park and moved their operations to this location. The Klan operated here from 1930 until 1945. This is another story for another time.
The trolley, after leaving Bonnie Brae, continued down to Ironsides with a couple stops along the way. Ironsides is near the parking lot at Redner's market in Phoenixville. The Pickering Valley Railroad lines ran nearby and their station was called "Ironsides". The named was derived from the fact that the land on both sides of the station had belonged to the iron company and the railroad employees called the station "Ironsides".
In 1899 there was no bridge over the Pickering Valley line so trolley passengers had to get off the trolley and walk across the tracks of the railroad to board another trolley that was waiting to take them into Phoenixville. In 1908 they finally built a trolley bridge over the railroad tracks and you could ride all the way to Phoenixville without changing trolleys.
The trolley company had it share of problems over the 25 years of its operation. Over the years there were numerous accidents due mostly to the hilly terrain. In the very beginning years the theft of wire was also a problem. In those days the electric service to the wires was turned off at 11 PM and sometimes wire would disappear overnight. Back in 1900 it was reported that 700 feet of wire was stolen overnight disrupting the morning service. That problem seemed to go away when the power was left on. The trolley operated on a 40-minute schedule. According to the 1903 schedule printed in the Spring City Sun the first car out of Spring City in the morning left at 7:35 AM and was scheduled to arrive in Phoenixville at 8:13 AM.
I think back to that time and try to imagine what it might have been like if on one summer morning I went for a ride on the Spring City Trolley. I was standing at the water pump on North Main Street when I heard the bell ring and the screeching sounds of the trolley as it came to a stop. I got on the old open-air car and sat to the outside of the bench. As we headed south on Main Street you could hear children playing and see the horse drawn carriages pass on either side of us as the trolley tracks were right in the middle of the road. At one spot there was a clearing where you could see down to the canal. As we passed by the bakery you could smell the aroma of fresh baked breads. There were many sounds coming from the foundry and a couple of workers at the pattern house waved as we passed by. We stopped at Main and Walnut where a large number of people boarded. The old car was now full with standing room only. The trip up the hill was slow but it was better than walking. The trip across the trestle was exciting to say the least. The clickity clack of the rails on the wooden bridge and the height made it seem as if you were on a roller coaster going up hill. We finally reached the main road and I could see Zion Lutheran Church off to my right. As we passed the church I could hear the sounds of a carousel in the distance. The next stop was Bonnie Brae Amusement Park. I think I will get off here and end my trolley ride and my daydreaming.
In 1915 the great plan to cross the Schuylkill River to Royersford, on up to Linfield and then connect with Pottstown was still alive. In March of that year all of the grading and bridges required to extend the line to Pennhurst were completed. All that was required was final permission to build the main bridge over the Schuylkill to Royersford. That approval was to come from the War Department but it never materialized. By the beginning of the 1920’s business had deteriorated partly due to the competition of automobiles and partly due to the quality of service. The line, which was leased at that time, was turned over to Thomas O’Donnell in 1922. He was the president of the Phoenixville and Valley Forge and Strafford Lines. His intentions were to rebuild the service. On July 8th 1924 all of the best intentions came to rest at the bottom of Walnut Street. A runaway trolley (brake failure) derailed and demolished the vehicle of Oliver Place a local resident. No one was killed that day but it was the last day for a trolley to run on the Montgomery and Chester Line. The 25-year era of the trolley had come to an end.
2021 ADDITION TO THE TROLLEY BLOG
The era of the trolley was a significant period in our local history, and it is hard to believe that it really only lasted in Spring City for 25 years. 1899 to 1924 marked an era when we see photography expanding and the average worker owning a car. We see the businesses on Main Street thriving and we see the automobile becoming a direct threat to local trolley service.
It is evident to me that taking a picture of the trolley was also something many people did based on the number of photos donated to the museum over the years. Photos of the trolley on the trestle near Pikeland Avenue and on Main Street were common. The trolley barn was also a point of interest and photos of the great trolley crash were also a favorite. I do not know how long it took to clean up the aftermath of the crash, but it had to be several days. Today an accident such as this would be cleared in a matter of hours.
I went over these trolley related photographs and selected 40 additional photos to be included in the blog post. I have grouped them into similar themes. The original newsletter I wrote in 2003 and the blog in 2019 stand alone and these photographs add to the story, but are ones not originally included.
STARTING ON MAIN STREET
The Spring City Sun was located at the junction of Main Street and Bridge Street, at the North end of town. It was right next to the trolley terminus as this was where the trolley run began and where it ended.
This is a postcard view from an early 1905 card. I first saw it at a historical society Show & Tell program. Show & Tell programs were poplar shows in the early days of our museum. Those programs were easy, as no speaker was needed, no speaker’s fees were charged, and lots of people brought in something to talk about. I had never seen the card before and tried to buy it. No luck, but I did find one on E-Bay years later.
Below is a Frank Kline colorized postcard. It dates to 1910 and it was colored in watercolor by Annie Zook, who did all of his color cards. I always wondered what the color scheme of the early trolley cars on the line was. I asked my mother-in-law, Elaine Litka, who as a young girl remembered riding on the trolley. She could remember a lot about the town but she just couldn’t remember the color. I read in a trolley book at the Chester County Library that the first Spring City trolley was painted green with red trim. It looks like Annie painted this one red.
Below is an actual photograph taken at the same spot as the above postcard and close to the same time but it is not identical. The buggy on the left side of the road is missing as is the little girl on the right side under the trees. There is something white stacked in the store window on the far left.
The bottom of Hall Street on Main Street was a trolley stop. The store on the right was the Harry L. Lewis Shoe Store at the time of the photo but many will remember it as Jean’s Cleaners in later years. The trolley can be seen several blocks down as it will turn right on Walnut Street and go up the hill toward the trolley barn.
AT THE TROLLEY BARN
This late 1920s photo (below) was sold on an E-Bay auction about 15 years ago. It was rare as it was never featured in a newspaper story or a postcard. The photo belonged to a man in New Jersey and I ended up paying $35.00 to own this photo and share it with our members. It looked like it should be torn down, but it has survived and is apartments today.
The trolleys provided a great place to pose for a photo and you could always find a trolley parked at the barn on Walnut Street. One of these schoolgirls posing here was Helen Francis Mowrer.
AT THE PIKELAND AVENUE TRESTLE
THE TROLLEY AT BONNIE BRAE
Tin 1899, the year it opened, the trolley company helped start Bonnie Brae Park as a summer picnic grove. With its tracks going from Spring City to Phoenixville, it was a natural location on the Schuylkill Road between the two towns. It was quite common at that time to see many parks subsidized by a local rail company.
The first thing one sees as they reach the Old Schuylkill Road is the historic Zion Lutheran Church and just South of the church is the entrance to Bonnie Brae Park. The land had been used for many years as a picnic grove but all of that was to change when the trolley arrived. In 1899, the year it started, the trolley company, helped start Bonnie Brae Park as a summer picnic grove. With its tracks going from Spring City to Phoenixville, it was a natural location on the Schuylkill Road between the two towns. It was quite common at that time to see many parks subsidized by a local rail company. Bonnie Brae Park was located on Route 724 next to the Zion Lutheran Church about 2 miles southwest of Spring City. In the very beginning there were pony cart rides, swings, an arcade, and a picnic grove. In a 1907 news article appearing in the local West Chester paper it was noted that many improvements were being made at Bonnie Brae that year including the construction of a large new pavilion. The story compared Lenape Park in Southern Chester County to Bonnie Brae Park in Northern Chester County. In later years, a carousel was in operation at the local park.
Classic colorized postcard by Frank Kline of Spring City. Because of its location both the park and the Zion Lutheran Church were covered by publishers from both Spring City and Phoenixville. The Trolley, pony carts, welcome sign and shelter, are all in this photo.
ON THE ROUTE TO PHOENIXVILLE
The Grand Phoenixville Hotel was located at the corner of Main and Bridge Street in Phoenixville. The trolley approaches the intersection where it will make a sharp turn and head up the steep hill on Main Street. This is a 1907 postcard view. The hotel was removed around 1950 to make way for the W.T. Grant store. Today it is a parking lot.
It is amazing to me that the Montgomery and Chester Railway Lines deemed it necessary to build and operate their own power plant to supply the electric needed to run the lines. The plant was located near canal lock 60 in Mont Clare, just across the river from Phoenixville. Although the company planned to expand the line to Royersford and beyond, that never happened and the line was used only to connect the two towns of Spring City and Phoenixville.
One of the retired trolleys from the local line found a new home in Phoenixville and ended up as an auction house office at the entrance to the old Toonerville Inn. It was on Route 23 West of the French Creek.
THE GREAT TROLLEY CRASH OF 1924
In the summer of 1924, the Spring City – Phoenixville Trolley service ended abruptly after a crash on Walnut Street caused the service to not only be interrupted, but also terminated. The lines had been in financial troubles for several years and were under a court appointed receivership. Mr. O’Connor, of Phoenixville, was operating the line during that final season, and upon getting the news of the accident declared that this day marks the official end of service. In years gone by the story has been told and retold. Just like a runaway trolley going downhill it has picked up speed and details. In the annals of folklore it has come to be known as the “Great Trolley Crash”. I want to tell that story based on the written newspaper article that appeared in the newspaper the following day.
On a Tuesday afternoon, July 8, 1924, the worst trolley crash ever to occur on the local Spring City to Phoenixville line took place. The trolley car, one of the heaviest on the line, had just pulled out of the trolley barn on Walnut Street and headed down the hill. The motorman, Earl Paige, of Phoenixville, was the lone motorman with no passengers on board. He noticed the brakes were failing as the car headed down the hill. He stuck to his post and tried to slow the trolley down. He could not control the car and about half the way down the hill a safety derailer partly took the car off the rails, but it failed to stop the car. Directly ahead was the parked car of Oliver Place. It was gathered up and crumbled into a ball as the trolley went wildly down the hill. The trolley continued until it crashed into the brick building, of Edward Hillman at the corner of Main and Walnut Streets. No one from the Hillman family was injured and no one was in the parked car. The motorman was badly bruised and shaken up. He was taken to Phoenixville Hospital and later released. The photos were impressive, and it was quite amazing that no one suffered severe injuries.
80 YEARS LATER ONE LAST RIDE
In 2004, the Spring City Revitalization Committee wanted to do something special for the town of Spring City. They planned a trolley ride over the old trolley route and approached me to host the tour. The Spring City Library helped with setting up a display and handling tickets. So many requests required three separate tours with the last one coming back at sundown. I never got to ride the old trolley, but I was honored to be asked to be the tour guide. It was a ride I will never forget. Thanks to all those who came out to take a ride into history with me on that special day.
William C. Brunner served on the board of the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society for 30 years, 15 of those years serving as its president. He now serves as President Emeritus and continues to write articles, blog posts, and newsletter inserts for the society. Bill has written three books about Spring City and Royersford, all available at the museum. He loves photography, garden railroading, postcard collecting, and local history. He graduated from Spring-Ford High School in 1962. He and his wife of 57 years, Joyce, live in Spring City. They have a son, Chuck, a daughter, Joyce, three grandchildren, Amber, Willie & Frank, and 5 great grandchildren.