Trolley Car Days
A Touch of History
by Helen A. Rawlings
Many years ago when Waterloo's public transportation was serviced by trolley cars, no shelters were provided. We waited on street corners in every kind of weather to board a trolley that would take us to the downtown area or some distant point in the city. Sometimes it seemed an eternity before one came into view, although they were scheduled to run about every twenty minutes.
Far out from the center of town where we lived there was a double track set in the red brick pavement. Several streets forked together at a small shopping center, consisting of a grocery store, meat market, drug store, shoe repair shop, and a school, and there the double track ended and only a single track continued to the end of the line. We children preferred to board the trolley at the end of the double track, if possible. Then we could experience all the operations necessary for the return trip.
The motor man, dressed in a blue serge uniform with gold buttons and a stiff blocked cap to match, always has to go outside and manually change the trolley from one end of the car to the other for the return trip. The coin box mounted on a metal pipe had to be taken to the opposite end, as well as the motor and steering equipment which operated the doors as well as started and stopped the trolley car. After all these duties were performed, he went through the hinged, straw-woven covered seats so that people would not be riding backwards. The final task was inserting the card label in the front window slot so riders were able to tell, as it approached, if it was the correct trolley car to board for the direction they were going ..When everything was in readiness for the return trip, the motorman whipped out his watch and waited for the precise minute he was scheduled to start, because his car had to connect with others at the proper transfer points. Finally, we would be on our way, the metal flanged wheels making a loud grinding noise on the metal track and shooting sparks. Stops were made only at the corners where people were waiting to board.. Otherwise we continued on, gaining speed, and everyone swaying with the movement. If delivery wagons, people or dogs were on the track as we approached, the motorman sounded the loud clanging bell by pressing a metal floor lever. Sometimes we had the misfortune to be riding when the trolley "jumped". A delay resulted until it could be placed on the electric wire above and powered to operate was again restored.
One's education aboard the trolley was furthered if you could read. Over the windows on the sides of the cars were advertisements of available products. Even the planned arrival of circuses and carnivals was posted in these places long in advance. The only signs up front were over the spot where the motorman sat to operate the car. They read "No Smoking" and "Do not talk to operator." Postmen, policemen and firemen were allowed to ride free if in uniform. If the seats were vacant, they always sat up front directly behind the motorman, and the latter sign seemed to be disregarded then. Undoubtedly, he was informed of the latest developments in their respective occupations before the newspapers reached the streets.
To ensure that all fares were deposited by riders, passengers had to board at the front of the car. Strangers unsure of their destination would often ask the motorman to inform them when they reached the proper corner. He would oblige by calling out loudly the name of the street one block in advance. Regular riders familiar with the route signaled one block in advance their desire to disembark by pulling a cord above the window, which operated a loud coarse-sounding buzzer. Passengers left by the front door, but by the rear door if it was the closer.
At busy times of day when the seats were all occupied, people stood. To prevent falling, they grasped leather straps hanging from the ceiling. To fill the car to capacity, the motorman would often call out, "Move to the back, please. Make more room." Those were the days before Women's Lib, when polished gentlemen rose from their seats and offered them to standing women passengers.
Trolley cars were in service from 6 A.M. until midnight daily. Riding one at night gave us a eerie feeling. After we left the business district, the darkness seemed blacker, as we tried to discern, through the smudgy windows, points we'd pass. We alighted with extreme care on the bumpy brick pavement.
Along the familiar trolley route, we learned the names of all intersecting streets, outstanding landmarks, and the identity of many of the riders and their place of residence. If a friend boarded in route, we were happy to visit and share our seat with them.
When buses were introduced, it seemed some of the romance of public transportation vanished. They were less noisy and more mobile, but the cheery of the trolley bell seemed more desirable than the honk or beep of a bus. And, we could never hear their approach in the distance like the metallic sound of the old trolley cars.