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San Antonio - August 1996

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1996 News Article:

Old 300 needs work to get back on track
Vintage trolley could use restoration to ride right

by Scott Huddleston
San Antonio Express-News, Sunday, August 14, 1996

San Antonio’s future in rail may breathe new life into “Old 300.”

But the only way the 83-year-old trolley, now in storage in Oregon, may give San Antonians and VIA Metropolitan Transit a taste of electric rail–the clean, state-of-technology source of power of the new Dallas commuter trains–is through private donations.

“It belongs to San Antonio,” trolley preservationist Paul Class, who’s been caring for Old 300, said by phone from his shop in Glenw,ood, Ore.

Class is co-owner of Gales Creek Enterprises, which ran Old 300 a few years ago on a seven-mile line from Portland to Lake Oswego while leasing it from the San Antonio Museum of Art for the past six years.

Old 300 originally served San Antonio in the early 1900s before the city became the first large U.S. city to convert to motor buses in 1933.

A private local group restored Old 300 in the 1980s about the same time Galveston, Dallas and New Orleans began putting old trolleys back into service.

Insurance costs, however, put an end to the service.

The art museum can keep Old 300 in storage, let Gales Creek operate it for a portion of fare proceeds or return it to San Antonio, Class said.

Museum and VIA officials recently flew to Oregon and rode it at 15 mph–about half its estimated top steed.

“It has beautiful arched windows that are unique, and it rides like a dream,” said Class, estimating the streetcar is one of the few of its kind that’s operable, other than a similar one in Dallas, two in San Francisco and about 20 in New Orleans.

Although the lease on Old 300 required Gales Creek to pay for its return, the Oregon firm has declared bankruptcy and claims it can’t ship the trolley back.

“We are very anxious to bring it back to San Antonio and have it operating sometime here,” said Douglas Hyland, director of the art museum. “It’s better to have it running than sitting on blocks.”

But Frank Zuehl, a VIA garage foreman, said the trolley needs at least $50,000 in repairs, particularly to its wooden skeleton which deteriorated while sitting outside in Oregon for at least a year.

The car has good wiring and mechanical parts, he said.

“You’d really need to take it apart” to get it ready for daily passenger service, Zuehi said. “It would be worth doing.”

Class said his company repainted Old 300 and repaired its motor, brakes and suspension system. He blamed damage to the car’s wooden components on the South Texas climate.

“You have a disease in San Antonio, a unique fungus that dissolves the wood,” he said.

The H.B. Zachry Co. has offered to help pay for Old 300’s return, Hyland said.

Zachry is a principal in the Sunset Station Group, which plans to convert the old Southern Pacific Depot to a retail-entertainment complex as part of a tourism district near the Alamodome.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization plans to complete a $90,000 federally funded study next summer on a historic trolley service on 1.7 miles of existing tracks from the depot to the Pearl Brewery as San Antonio’s first public electric rail service in years.

If successful, the service could be expanded 1.5 miles north along Avenue B to Brackenridge Park, using public or private funds to build new tracks.

City leaders asked VIA to also study a route along North St. Mary’s Street.

The project doesn’t hinge on the return of Old 300, but could involve other restored trolleys or replicas. But VIA officials have said private funds would be needed to get the first phase started.

The brewery uses part of the existing track to carry freight, and plans to reopen its Jersey Lily Saloon, possibly as an attraction on the trolley route.

VIA officials believe trolleys could safely mingle with motor traffic along the track, which runs down the middle of Jones Avenue in front of the museum.

Electrical power would have to be extended to a half-mile of track near the dome.

About 25 U.S. cities have historic rail trolley service.


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