PCC restoration back on track

By August 5, 2019Features

By John Engleman, Baltimore Streetcar Museum

Reproduced with permission from the Live Wire newsletter.

Editor’s note: Seventeen years ago the Baltimore Streetcar Museum acquired former San Diego Electric #503 (St. Louis Car 1937), then El Paso City Lines #1503. It’s one of the earliest PCC cars, almost identical to the first series of Baltimore PCCs, none of which survived. It will be restored as #7303. The project stalled due to a volunteer’s death and has resumed after a long hiatus. This is a good example of the long-term dedication of a museum.

It’s been a little over three months now that 7303 has been inside the carhouse, and in those three months a tremendous amount of work has been done on the car’s interior.  It is really starting to look like a streetcar again.  Not that it ever wasn’t……..oh, wait a minute, for a couple years it wasn’t…….it was a real estate office stuffed in Cloudcroft, N.M.

It’s hard to imagine, but this car has been at BSM for 17 years now, with the first half of that time being stored outside underneath first a blue plastic bag and then a black rubber tarp before being moved under direct cover from the elements onto the then new open-sided #4 track outside the carhouse.  This was a help but in no way was contributory to good heath. While the car was in the bag we were at least relieved that the constant rain and wet weather wasn’t getting to the car but failed to take into consideration that the condensation being formed inside the bag was eating at what was a comparatively pristine car that had almost no rust and corrosion. Then the bag was taken off and the car could breathe again.   Also taken off at that time was the wooden section of the roof, in almost gleeful exhilaration that restoration was about to start.

The car had found two champions who were experts in restorations, Jerry Neault and his son, Rick.  Neither had undertaken a streetcar before but did have business where they specialized in restorations of both wooden and metal objects.  This was just going to be a bigger job then they had tackled before.  And they started.  Jerry almost immediately formed a bond with Carvey Davis, 7303’s benefactor, when Carvey found out he liked steamboats and would be working on ‘his’ streetcar.

Unfortunately, all too soon, and just after real work had started, it all came to a screeching end when Jerry suddenly passed away from a massive heart attack in the middle of the night, at the still young age of 50!  Rick had said that he would try to continue but his heart just wasn’t in it; he hadn’t even been involved quite long enough to get interested, and getting his Dad’s affairs in order became his main effort.  And thus, with no roof, no ceiling, and with a lot of its sidewalls missing, and with other parts removed prior to them being reconditioned, 7303 became an orphan sitting on the open sided lean-to of #4 track with much bare metal completely exposed to all the elements except direct downpours  Wind blew the rain in through the open roof, through the missing windows, and truth be told the car looked for all the world like it had been stripped prior to a scrapping. Luckily the outside had been repainted into Baltimore colors when it first arrived at BSM at least providing a look at what was supposed to come.  Carvey was in no position to do any physical work and neither were the majority of the people interested in 7303, age and infirmities being the order of the day.  Things looked bleak.

Then came John Roth and his son, Alex.  John saw potential in the car and was determined that he and Alex could save it.  The first thing they did was take all the old windows home and recondition the frames and have new safety glass installed.  Those of you who saw what the real estate agent had done to weatherproof the car as their office can sympathize at the job Alex and John did.  They then brought the windows back and put them in the car at least protecting the interior from the sideways windblown moisture. Unfortunately that was as much as they could do with the car still outside.

Now to bring you up to date. 

It took a month once the car was brought inside for the moisture to finally dry out.  We started to work on plans to refurbish the car as we had originally anticipated.  The first step was the roof.  Everything needs a roof, and 7303 is no exception.  However there was one thing that needed to be done before the roof could be put on, and that was the interior car lighting.  Baltimore’s St. Louis Car Company built PCCs were an odd-ball.  First was the height of the cars’ anti-climbers, which can be corrected, and second was the totally one off “ice-cube tray” lighting.  No other PCCs anyplace ever had it.  Mr. Kenneth Morse, a noted Baltimore railfan and historian, had mysteriously saved one section of the original ice-cube trays from the real 7303, obtaining it at the Boston Metals’ scrapyard, and donating it to the Museum before his passing.  And then Mr. Paul Ritterhoff, an absolutely wonderful man who was a master metal smith, crafted and recreated an entire cars’ worth of new and beautiful ice-cube tray lighting using this one section as a pattern.  Both men were long time railfans and Museum members for many years.  Mr. Ritterhoff loved the St. Louis cars and not only made the new lighting fixtures but also new window guards and latches for the missing ones on our windows.  Both of these two gentlemen have passed on but their kindness and thoughtfulness will forever be appreciated.

Coming back to the subject at hand, we need to re-install the lights before we put the roof on as much of the work needing to be done could be done, and actually needs to be done, from the outside as there is a mere 2 to 3 inches of clearance between the ceiling and the roof where the wiring runs.

The car is 82 years old, and much of the wiring is original, and in the interest of safety we just cannot trust 82 year old 600 volt wiring, so the entire lighting circuits as well as the main power cable need to be equipped with new wiring.  The 600 volt trolley cable from the pole base to the underfloor needs to be interwoven through before the roof and ceiling are in place. This is where Mr. Todd Sestero, another long time BSM member comes in.  Todd is an electrical expert and his knowledge of almost anything electrical and his ability to rethink things made him an obvious choice to do the re-wiring job.  Todd agreed to tackle the job.

But before putting the actual fixtures into place, John Roth decided that the ceiling that had been previously cut to accept the new lights needed to at least have a coat of primer and a first coat of the real ceiling’s color applied first.  So a coat of primer was put on and then a coat of paint.  Then some unanticipated delays in Todd’s schedule happened and John decided to continue with the primer on the rest of the car’s interior.  It changed the appearance so much that he decided to start painting the new colors on the entire metal ceiling and upper side walls.  It looked great but it was soon determined that the color was not quite spot on correct.  The match had been obtained from 7407’s ceiling, which is 100% correct for the color its exterior is painted, but not for 7303, as its exterior is going to be the later yellow and gray and with those colors the interior also changed.  A new, lighter cream paint was applied and it was spot on.

The stripped interior looking toward the front…

…and toward the rear.

As part of the many years ago removal of parts, the car’s interior advertising racks had been removed.  While these were gone John had again applied his painting talents and completely primed the inside of the car’s outside shell that was exposed.  But there were no replacement ad racks to be found, so using a small section of one that had been preserved he found a metal shop and ordered completely new ones but used one section of an original Baltimore ad rack, albeit from a Pullman.  After receiving these back he proceeded to install them, prime them, and then paint them as well.  His paint and the paint on the Pullman section matched. Now all the metal from the windows up was painted.  John had previously measured, ordered, and cut new masonite panels for the sidewalls below the windows, and while waiting for the wiring work to start has installed and painted them.  Everything that was inside the car that had been removed is now back in place.  The car no longer looks like a car ready to be scrapped but like a car undergoing a full restoration and refurbishment.

As this is being written, the entire interior of the car is now back in place, minus the masonite ceiling panels which must wait until the lights are completed. The work on them has started though.  The left side overhead wiring has been removed and Todd is busy making a new harness which will be used on the car’s left side lights.   The last of the cracked windows (unfortunately happening at BSM), a front windshield and the operator’s wing window, have been removed and will be taken to the Chaudron Glass Company for replacement after the frames have been cleaned up.  Once these windows are back in place and the lighting wiring and fixtures are in place and working, we can begin the final steps to completing stage one, i.e. the replacement of the roof and ceiling.  At that point, for all practical purposes the car body will be finished inside from the top down to near floor level, needing only the final coat of paint and gloss coat.  Of course, the window posts, the guards, and associated hardware are all still to be installed but this is a relatively minor project easily completed.  We have obtained the seats needed from a couple of ex-Pittsburgh Railways cars as well as the specially curved stanchions which are much different than those in a Pullman-Standard PCC car. They have all been in storage at the Museum for many years and will be in need of a complete cleaning and reupholstering.

We are anticipating next winter’s project to be the wooden floor.  It all needs to be removed and replaced as it has suffered mightily from the weather over the past 10 years in addition to the 70 plus that came before that. While the floor is out all the underfloor wiring, piping, and rodding needs to be inspected, repaired, and / or replaced.  Once that is done, we can begin to think about the exterior, again something that has suffered mightily from the 17 years of moisture exposure.  And the trucks…..we can’t forget them, or the rear tow bar assembly that has been cracked and must be repaired by welding it and bolting supports on either side of it before the car can be towed or pushed from the rear.

All in all, we still have a long way to go.  With your help the impossible will become a fully functioning car that the Museum will be proud of.