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Hampton Streetcar, Once York County House, Returns Home for Restoration
Submitted by M. Seamus McGrann

Streetcar imageHAMPTON, VA   After a 71-year absence, and 100 years since it was built, Hampton’s streetcar 390 returns to the city it served for restoration and eventual display. The public is invited to a special welcome home ceremony on Wednesday, August 2 at 10:00 a.m. at 57 Patch Road on Fort Monroe.

The streetcar 390 is one of two street cars of its kind left in the United States. Built in 1917 and delivered to Hampton in 1918, it was in use until January 1946. It was one of 20 remaining streetcars running before all streetcars were discontinued in favor of buses.

The 390 was built by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia, PA. The car was of the type called a semi-convertible. This model featured windows that opened completely to let the air flow throughout the car making for a more comfortable ride for passengers than other models of the era. When the 390 arrived in Hampton it was 8’6” wide and 46’7” long, and could carry 52 seated passengers and approximately 47 standing, although this number was often exceeded during peak periods.

After it was pulled from service, the 390 was sold to John and Mary Anderson for $100. It was moved to their Grafton property in York County, where the couple turned the car into their home where they lived until 1977.

While returning to Baltimore from Virginia Beach with his family in the summer of 1977, one of the members of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum noticed the streetcar along the side of Route 17, and stopped to inquire about it. The semi-convertible model was once common in Baltimore, but the museum did not have one in its collection. Arrangements were made to have the car donated to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.

The 390 has been sitting at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum since then. The museum periodically performed restoration work on the car over the years, but decided in 2013 to offer the 390 to Hampton to bring it back home.

According to Hampton Streetcar 390 chair Greg Siegel, "The volunteers of this project have been working to bring the 390 home since 2014. On August 2 we will have achieved the first of many goals to come. This streetcar represents the growth of the area during the time when local businesses and military were growing at a rapid pace. The streetcars provided access for new neighborhoods farther out around Newport News and Hampton where only a 5 cents fare would get you anywhere you need to go from shopping, to work and to play. The streetcar will bring this story to life to share these decades of growth to a new generation is something you can’t pass up.”

The trolley’s return for restoration was spearheaded by Hampton’s Streetcar 390 project with support from the Hampton History Museum. The facility where the restoration will take place is provided by the Fort Monroe Authority. Restoration work will be done by Keith Bray, who has restored a number of streetcars for organizations around the country, with support from a group of volunteers.

Restoration and Display
Once the 390 is unloaded into building 57, Greg Siegel, Mike McHenry, Hank Mummert and restorer Keith Bray will conduct a survey of the car to start the process of building a timeline of restoration.

After restoration, plans call for the streetcar to be placed in a custom-built pavilion in Downtown Hampton. The pavilion will be not just home to the 390 but will act as a learning venue featuring a multimedia display that will take visitors on an exciting ride though Hampton during the 1930’s. Along with this, there will be interactive displays about how the streetcar system functioned and how it shaped the physical and cultural development of Hampton.

Streetcars in Hampton
The advent in 1889 of Collis P. Huntington’s huge shipyard on the James River in Newport News meant good jobs for many Hamptonians, but transportation was difficult. Lumber, hotel and seafood entrepreneur James S. Darling had the solution. Along with banker brothers Henry and George Schmelz, Darling organized a street railway or trolley company to fill this need.

Darling’s trolley tracks were laid through open fields and farms, from present day Victoria Avenue near the present Darling Memorial Stadium directly to 27th Street in Newport News, connecting with existing trolley lines. The first cars traveled the new route on Christmas Eve, 1892. Since rents and sales of houses in booming Newport News were now at a premium, people found they could live more cheaply in Hampton and have room for a backyard garden.

Eventually a street was built alongside the trolley line, appropriately named Electric Avenue. Working-class "carline communities” sprang up along the route. Chief among these was Riverview, centered on Electric and Franklin avenues between Shell Road and Bay Avenue, with its own fire department and elementary school. Another "streetcar suburb” called Little England was developed by the Darlings on the land of the colonial plantation near Hampton, with a mix of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and American Foursquare homes along Victoria, Columbia, and Armistead avenues.

Darling convinced the city to build Bridge Street and its bridge to link his development to downtown. A second streetcar line was laid along the waterfront next to Chesapeake Avenue, connecting to the company’s coal-fired power plant on the south side of Sunset Creek. At one time more than 60 streetcars operated on the lower Peninsula’s trolley lines. The trolley "car barn” was on Electric Avenue, where later a facility for buses was located.

The great storm of 1933 destroyed the trolley tracks along Chesapeake Avenue, and in 1946 street railway service was discontinued on the Peninsula, replaced with buses. The name Electric Avenue was in 1950 changed to Victoria Boulevard, which became a four-lane divided thoroughfare after the trolley tracks were removed.


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