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Tampa Tribune  - A Streetcar Named Nostalgia

A Streetcar Named Nostalgia
LELAND HAWES
lhawes@tampatrib.com

Originally published on July 7, 2002

A little after 2 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, 1946, the old Tampa Electric Co. streetcars ceased operations, and buses took over as the city's major form of public transportation.

Emily Johnson, now 82 and a resident of Bullhead City, Ariz., was among the trolley operators who switched jobs that weekend.

In a nostalgic mood, she visited Tampa recently to take a look at the new streetcars scheduled to roll in October as part of the TECO Line Streetcar System. She was impressed.

Johnson, one of four women working as trolley operators, or conductors, 56 years ago, didn't last long driving a bus. She decided to give it up after a week.

Later that month, she married another former streetcar conductor and became a homemaker.

Standing in one of the bright yellow, ``replica'' trolleys at the operations center of HART, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, on 21st Avenue, Johnson couldn't help but compare the new with the old.

Grasping the handle that serves as a steering wheel, she said, ``This [the old one] worked on an air controller. You had to hold it down.''

Then she looked down at the floor and said, ``We had a pedal or a button down here for cruise control.''

Johnson gazed backward to a spot near the ceiling and said, ``We had a counter up there to register the number of people who boarded.''

She added that if the nickel fares in the box didn't coincide with the number on the counters, she had some explaining to do. Once, she was summoned to the superintendent's office because five pennies had been withheld from the receptacle.

Tampa Electric also used "spotters" to ride the trolleys to make sure conductors weren't pilfering fares, she said.

In the old days, transfer slips enabled passengers to continue an extended ride to either Port Tampa or to Sulphur Springs. Transfers won't be needed on the new 2.3-mile route from the Tampa Convention Center downtown to Ybor City.

 

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Birney streetcar #163 on Tampa St. when it was in service originally.
 

Johnson recalled flipping the old wooden seats to change directions when she reached the end of a route. Operators will still flip seats when they reach the end of the line of the new system. The shiny seats flipped easily when she tried them out.

In fact, changing trolley directions will be accomplished by switching overhead wires - there will be one for each direction.

HART plans to operate four cars on the single line, with six sidings to enable the cars to pass.

Johnson remembers the frustration of trying to meet a schedule while trailing a slow bicyclist or an automobile driver dawdling on the tracks.

In the irritating category was a passenger who handed her a $20 bill. She had to ``give her a handful of change.''

Johnson's scariest moment came when she was on a return trip down Nebraska Avenue and a car suddenly darted out from a side street. ``It hit me on the door and knocked me off the tracks,'' she said.

With no way of communicating from the disabled streetcar, Johnson had to stop and find a telephone to call for assistance.

By then, the people occupying the wayward car had ``backed up and left.'' It was a hit-and-run.

When trolley cars came southward on Tampa Street downtown, inevitably the conductors would stop at a small booth alongside Tibbett's Corner, a restaurant at Tampa and Lafayette streets. Lafayette is known today as Kennedy Boulevard.

``Usually, we'd run in for a cup of coffee and use the restroom,'' she remembered.

A single mother at the time, Johnson had worked in the sheet metal department at Tampa Shipbuilding. Earlier, she had a job at MacDill Field, the wartime predecessor to today's MacDill Air Force Base.

But she enjoyed her streetcar job best. ``I think it was the best job I ever had,'' she said.

The hardest part, she added, was standing on her feet for much of an eight-hour shift.

A native of Tampa, Johnson is a graduate of Hillsborough High School. She was visiting family friends in Bartow recently when a trip was arranged to view the new HART trolleys.

 

Link to this story the Tampa Tribune website:  Streetcars Back On Track - Multimedia Report

 

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