It was a ride like no other.
At 1:30 in the morning on Sunday, Oct. 15, 1950, Wilkes-Barre Transit Corp. motorman Robert Cipriani tried to walk through his trolley car, 788, to collect the fares before beginning the trek through the darkness back to Public Square.
Physically unable to make his way through the packed streetcar, Cipriani simply gave up and set off for Wilkes-Barre.
With no room left inside there was no point bothering to stop for passengers, so Cipriani ran the car straight through to the other end of the line in Wilkes-Barre.
When he arrived at Public Square at 2 a.m., souvenir-hunting passengers had stripped the car clean of light bulbs, strap hangers, seat handles and anything else they could pry loose, the Wilkes-Barre Record reported.
So ended the last streetcar run in Wilkes-Barre, but that raucous trip didn’t mark the final chapter in the region’s electric trolley history.
One of the four cars that remained on the transit company’s property on the last day of service — 790, a sister of 788 — cheated the scrapper’s torch and has spent the last 67 years heavily disguised as a cottage in Franklin Township, overlooking a small lake in the Back Mountain.
After many years of organizing and negotiating, a group of local volunteers has created a nonprofit organization, Anthracite Trolleys Inc., and are raising funds to extricate 94-year-old car 790 from its longtime resting place and restore it to running condition.
“This is it,” said James Wert, an Exeter resident and member of the group said of 790. “Out of the hundreds of trolley cars that once ran in Wilkes-Barre, this is the only one we know to exist.”
Electric trolleys, which were powered by overhead wires and ran along rails that were mostly embedded in city streets, served the region from 1888 until that last run in 1950, carrying coal miners, railroad and factory workers, office employees, students, shoppers and pleasure seekers along an iron web that radiated out from Public Square as far as Nanticoke, Hanover, Plymouth, Larksville, Edwardsville, much of the West Side, Plains, Dallas, Harveys Lake, Pittston, Avoca, Dupont and as far north as Old Forge in Lackawanna County.
At the end of their useful lives, the trolleys that served riders over those six decades were mostly stripped of any useful parts before the bodies were sold and burned to salvage any scrap metal from the wood, glass and other materials.
One other Wilkes-Barre car was known to survive. It was turned into a diner, but has long since been lost to history.
Fellow volunteer Frank Paczewski said the group needs to raise about $30,000 for the first phase of the 790 project, which is to demolish the house that was built around 790 and remove it to Baut Studios in Swoyersville, a religious door and window company operated by another volunteer, Conrad Baut.
Baut was the first to “discover” the trolley at its current site overlooking Perrins Marsh.
Once the trolley is taken to Baut’s building, Baut and the others expect to assess the car’s condition and how much time, effort and money will be required to make it look, sound and run as it did when it carried passengers throughout the Wyoming Valley in the 1930s and ’40s.
That is an endeavor that could cost about $300,000 and require at least two-and-a-half years to complete, Paczewski said, and the group is hoping to raise the needed funds in the communities the trolley once served.
Once the body work is complete, many of the components needed to bring the car back to life can be obtained through trolley museums who maintain stocks of parts that are long out of production.
Vitally, the group believes it can obtain an appropriate set of trucks — as railroad wheel and axle assemblies are called — from a Canadian trolley of similar vintage, Wert explained.
Once all that work is done, the group expects to donate the car to the Electric City Trolley Museum in Lackawanna County, which operates other restored streetcars over a 5-mile line between downtown Scranton and PNC Field in Moosic.
The group does have a looming deadline, however. Relatives of the now-deceased couple who built the cottage said the group can have the trolley as long as they complete the demolition and clear the site by the end of 2019.
“We really just want to save this piece of history,” Wert said.
The volunteers’ hope is that the car will help illustrate a vital history in the region’s development, as well as rekindling memories for those who can still recall when trolleys served the valley.
Emil Augustine, one of the group’s members, can recall his childhood in Newport Township, when his aunt from Glen Lyon would take him to Nanticoke to catch the trolley into Wilkes-Barre.
“We would have lunch, go shopping, look around at the Boston Store, and then at 5:30 or so we would get on the trolley and head back to Nanticoke,” Augustine said.
This trolley is a piece of history that is relevant not just to the Wyoming Valley, but to Pennsylvania as a whole.
But 790’s story since it left the rails decades ago is much longer — and perhaps just as interesting — as its time carrying passengers on the streets of Wilkes-Barre and surrounding communities.
The car was built in 1924 by the J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia, then the largest manufacturer of streetcars in the world. It was one of 10 constructed for East Penn Railways of Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, Wert said.
Already, however, the Great Depression and growth in auto ownership were hitting many trolley systems hard, and East Penn ceased operations in 1931, Baut explained.
Wilkes-Barre Railway Co. — later reorganized as Wilkes-Barre Transit and both predecessors of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority — still had a sizable and busy streetcar system. The company bought those 10 cars from Pottsville to replace some of its oldest trolleys, dating to the early 1900s.
So it was that 790 came to Wilkes-Barre in 1933, Wert added.
Still, its 17 years of service here witnessed Wilkes-Barre follow many other cities, with the remaining trolley lines gradually replaced by gas and electric buses.
World War II halted the process briefly, thanks to gas and rubber rationing; given the need to transport large numbers of wartime workers, including coal miners, the remaining trolleys were worked to the limit.
But the postwar economic boom and an explosion in demand for private cars pushed Wilkes-Barre Transit to again favor buses, which cost less to buy and maintain.
By 1950, the trolley system had been whittled to two lines, linking Public Square with Hanover and Nanticoke. On that hectic October morning when Cipriani hauled one last load of thrill-seekers up the valley, it all came to an end.
Not for 790, however.
A new home
As the Wilkes-Barre Record reported, the last four cars were taken back to the transit company’s yard at South Main and Wood streets to await stripping and sale.
A chance discovery led Baut to learn what happened next.
More than 30 years ago, Baut was biking around Mill Road near Perrins Marsh when he saw the ends of a trolley poking out from an otherwise ordinary lakeside cottage.
“I was just fascinated,” said Baut, who had a long interest in rail transportation, going back to childhood encounters with model trains. From that time on, he had a dream that someday the trolley could be removed and restored.
Baut learned the cottage was home to Mary Krakowski, and came back to speak with her.
“It took four visits, but she finally let me in to see the interior,” Baut said.
In 1951, Baut learned, Krakowski and her husband Walter lived in Wilkes-Barre’s Rolling Mill Hills section. He worked in the mines, and she worked at Pomeroy’s Department Store downtown.
Krakowski’s husband suffered from asthma, and the couple were thinking about ways they might move out to the country.
“She passed that trolley on the way home from work,” Baut explained, and had the idea it might give them a cheap foundation for building their own cottage.
Walter Krakowski bought the trolley body for $200, had it hauled nearly 20 miles out to a site overlooking the marsh and placed it on a concrete foundation, Baut said.
There, he added two wings and an enclosure, creating a multi-room home with a basement and a 12-window sun-porch overlooking the water.
Mr. Krakowski enjoyed sitting in the yard relaxing and watching the water, sometimes with a Yuengling in hand, Baut said, until he died in the 1970s. His wife lived there until she, too, passed away about 20 years later. The property passed to their nieces and nephews.
Mementos of the couple’s life and faith still grace the cottage: Crucifixes in several rooms, statues of the Virgin Mary, a 30-year-old copy of “The Catholic Light” newspaper.
So, too, does a 44-foot-long piece of transportation history.
The trolley’s ends poke out from the house, but much of it is enclosed and protected by a second roof, which means it is much more structurally sound than if it had been sitting outside all these years, Baut explained.
While its motors, wheels, seats, controllers and other electrical equipment are long gone, the walls, roof, windows and other structural elements are still largely intact, including the brass window posts with buzzer buttons passengers pushed to signal they were ready to get off.
“It’s in very good condition — amazing condition, for its age,” Wert said.
Surprisingly, also intact are the cloth destination signs at either end of the car that were used to tell passengers where it was going, including Hanover, Nanticoke and Sans Souci Park, still visible scrolled away inside their protective boxes above the windshields at either end.
Behind a dismantled section of house wall, dusty but vivid splashes of color can be seen on some of the trolley’s exterior panels that have been shielded from the sun and elements. Wilkes-Barre Transit’s distinctive livery of Chinese red, bright yellow, brown trim and silver roof.
On a bulkhead above the motorman’s platform, Baut held up a flashlight to illuminate the outlines of long-faded “no smoking” notices and the car’s number, 790.
Such discoveries, and the chance to finally bring his dream to fruition, brought a smile to Baut’s face.
“You better believe I’m excited about this,” he said.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.