My Dad The Trolley Man: A Son’s Legacy    

This essay was written in 2003 by my Uncle Sy, who is my father’s older brother, to honor their father.

trolley photo

As a young boy, I was constantly exposed to trolley cars. I rode them to work, picnics, parks, downtown and to the doctor’s office. In addition, I also ate by them; for you see my Dad worked for the local trolley company. When ‘ol 1212 was stuck on the line, the whole family waited until Dad came home to have our dinner together.

In July of ’41, the Connecticut Company as well as other traction companies decided to phase out the trolleys and replace them with busses (ugh!). For my parents it was a traumatic experience that was likened to a death in the family. To create a better understanding of their feeling I will tell you about my Dad and his love for the trolley car.

Without the benefit of parents my Dad emigrated to the United States at the tender age of eighteen. He did have the help of a sponsor to enter the country; however, the sponsor let my Dad know upon his arrival that he was definitely “on his own.”

His first job was with a rail gang laying track. In a sense on might say he was a captive laborer. Track was being laid in the northeast to cross to the west. In those days the men worked on the track from dawn to dusk, ate along side the track, (no fast food restaurants) and created their own amusement playing the guitar, harmonica or a game of checkers. When work was done for the day, they bedded down under the open skies without the convenience of modern hotels or motels.

In three years my Dad covered the states of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was hard work and a rough way of life, and like most young men he soon felt this great country must have something better to offer him.

He told me, “He walked at times, hopped the freight cars when he could and just kept following the tracks back to the east.” While following these tracks he came to a barn. Now this was not an ordinary barn. This particular barn housed a vehicle that looked like a steam passenger coach. He soon discovered it was not pulled by a billowing steam locomotive, but was a self-propelled by an electric motor which explained the overhead wire. All this was quite new to a young emigrant from the farms of Italy.

What kind of work could such a man do? As you might have guessed, it was manual work such as cleaning, sweeping and helping on the lineman crew. There were poles to be set and wires to be strung. So in early 1903, Dad signed with the Farmington Street Railway and a trolley man was born! He became a lineman’s helper and later a full fledged lineman. To work outside on high voltage wire in the cold winter months was quite an adjustment for a man who had grown up in sunny Italy.

As time passed, he became a married man with a growing family and was eager to better himself. In the trolley barn, he learned quickly about the electrics and how they operated. He earned the highly responsible job of a mechanic, and gained the respect of his fellow workers.

In my youth, I well remember Dad talking proudly of his work with his family and friends. Words and phrases such as commutators, brushes and spinning the motors became familiar to me. Dad showed me the bell box he had made to check for open circuits and he explained the functions of the dead-man control. All of the mechanics of the trolley car fascinated me.

History shows that in Connecticut, as well as other states; small traction lines were bought by or merged with larger companies. Thus the Farmington Street Railway was absorbed by the Connecticut Company. The car barn which was along the border of Farmington and Unionville closed, and the men and equipment transferred to Hartford. Of course Dad was part of this move.

family photo

The Farmington Street Railway cars had gold striping on a maroon background. A couple of wooden steam roof suburban cars along with a baggage car were repainted canary yellow with red lettering. One of those cars became Connecticut Company No. 929.

Harford was a big city because it had three car barns. They were the Vernon Street, which is used for buses today, the State Street barn which was central, and the Wethersfield Avenue barn located in the south end of Hartford which still stands as is known as the Hartford Trolley Barn Office Complex.

When I was thirteen years old and my brother Peter ten, one of our favorite pass times was to walk to the barn on Sunday mornings after church. The Wethersfield Avenue barn was about one and one quarter miles from our home. In those days, Dad’s regular work was ten hours a day, and seven days a week. Time and a half for over forty hours and double time on Sundays was unheard of! However, Sundays did have one fringe benefit. No repair work was done, just stand-by. If a car had trouble on the line, the workers had to go out and exchange cars.

The stand-by gave Dad some time to spend with his two sons. Good behavior and a favorable report card were always rewarded with special treats. Under his supervision the first big moment, was to take a trolley car out of the back door into the yard, and then change poles and throw a reverse switch inside the car and bring her in again. The next big moment was lunchtime. Everyday Dad came home for lunch and Sundays was no exception. We were privileged to board the car with Dad, and because he knew all the motormen we rode “For Free.” We felt we were the luckiest kids on the block.

After several visits to Dad’s place of work we discovered he had two names. Most of the motormen, conductors and mechanics were Irish and English emigrants. With a name like Onorato Spirito, they were not about to pronounce that with an Irish brogue. So in a few short months they forgot his surname and rechristened him as Harry Hartigan. When my brother and I came into the barn they would say “oh, you are Harry’s boys.” That is probably why Dad did not really have an Italian accent, come to think of it, it did sound a little Irish. They were all a fine group of men!

We soon learned all the lines. There was the Park Street line, Capitol Avenue, Blue Hills Avenue, East Hartford line and Vernon and Manchester. There was also the Farmington and Unionville line with a stop at the famous Elm Tree Inn station. Back at Hartford again, there was the Franklin Avenue and the Wethersfield Avenue line which traveled south to the town of Wethersfield past the old state prison and to Middletown.

Dad often spoke of the times the city and towns depended on the trolley cars to remove the snow from the center of the streets. The cars were also used to deliver sand, stone, ice and lumber to the cities and towns. I fact they even moved a large aircraft engine company. Yes, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft loaded their manufacturing machines on standard railroad flat bed cars, and Connecticut Company Motor No. 2023 pulled them east on Capitol Avenue, north on Main Street, and east across Bulkeley Bridge, then south on Main Street in East Hartford to Pratt & Whitney’s present site. This was accomplished just in time because ten years later, World War II brought many demands for Wasp engines.

Then came July 27, 1941, and one of the last cars to ride in service on the streets of Hartford was Connecticut Company No. 929. This car was on of the original cars used in the Farmington Street railway.

Dad was transferred to the Vernon Street bus garage, and worked on the buses. After only three months, Dad came home one night discourage and humiliated. He announced to his family “The smell that comes out of those buses will kill me some day.” Dad was; I guess one of our first environmentalists. In the later part of 1941, Dad resigned and found employment in a defense plant. Thirty eight years of first love had come to an end. For quite some time we never mentioned trolley cars in his presence.

I returned to my parent’s home after World War II. It was not until two years later that I decided it was time to take my chances with a plan. I deliberately drove by the Connecticut Electrical Railway Museum at Warehouse Point with Dad. I stopped the car and casually wondered out loud “What the heck are those trolley cars doing here, Pop? Let’s take a look around and find out.” Well, we did look around and there was another favorite, Connecticut Company No. 65 sitting in a back siding. Dad looked around and saw one of the members of the museum and asked him “Have you fixed the step on the rear left side?” The member did not really know, so the three of us went over to look and sure enough, it was still broken, eight years later! Well, that broke the silence on trolley cars and I guess we became “Born-again trolley buffs.”

Yes, I do have memories of the trolley cars and pleasant ones at that. I admit I have a dream and I often said Pop, those trolley cars will come back one of these days.” Well, Dad passed away at the age of ninety-four. He did not see them coming back, but I am sure I will one of these days.

Epilog: Uncle Sy didn’t get to see the trolleys come back either. Other than the rebirth of a few restored short lines in a couple of major cities the new era trolley car with modern technology has not returned. Uncle Sy passed away in 2006 at the age of 88.

Click her to see the Connecticut Trolley Museum.