Pittsburgh’s trolleys are long gone, but the tracks and poles are still around — for now

Councilman Dan Gilman is on a crusade to remove trolley poles.

An old trolley pole at the corner of Forbes Ave. at Schenley Drive Extension in Oakland.

An old trolley pole at the corner of Forbes Ave. at Schenley Drive Extension in Oakland.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

In December 1948, a 24-year-old man named Earl Fleeger got drunk and decided to take a Pittsburgh trolley for a joyride.

His trip began at the Manchester car barn on the North Side, the Pittsburgh Press reported at the time, and he made his way down to the Mexican War Streets before police caught up to him.

Fleeger wasn’t charged with larceny, because the trolley never left the tracks. “It was still on company property,” a judge reasoned. “Where could he steal it from?”

The Emsworth No. 13, Fleeger’s streetcar of choice, is presumably gone, as is most of Pittsburgh’s trolley system (what remains is a very small part of Port Authority’s light rail system).

But there are still reminders around the city of what it once was.

The tracks on Fleeger’s North Side route were at some point covered in asphalt, but a portion has partially emerged on Jacksonia Street at Buena Vista.

Trolly tracks are visible on Jacksonia at Buena Vista in the Mexican War Streets.

Trolley tracks are visible on Jacksonia at Buena Vista in the Mexican War Streets.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

You can see exposed streetcar tracks on brick roads like Chestnut Street.

And there’s one remnant that particularly bothers Councilmember Dan Gilman: the old metal poles.

Gilman, who represents Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, has introduced a resolution asking the city to solicit bids to remove all remaining poles. He also wants to know if it’s feasible to offset the cost by allowing the winning company to sell the poles for scrap metal.

“This is a pet peeve of mine,” Gilman told The Incline. “We still have metal trolley poles throughout the city. Many of them aren’t being used at all.”

Gilman said it’s unclear how many poles there still are — there’s no list or map — but he believes there are hundreds. Some have been repurposed and now serve as sign poles. Others still have electricity flowing through them.

Then there are the poles — naked and rusted — that are just still there.

Gilman said he hasn’t received any complaints from constituents about the poles. But beyond bugging him personally, the councilmember said they can be a public safety issue. He said he’s heard anecdotes from the Department of Public Safety about fatal crashes that involved the old poles.

The trolley pole resolution was referred to the council’s Committee on Public Works last week and was preliminarily approved during council’s standing committee meeting Wednesday, meaning it will come up for a final vote Tuesday.

While too early to make an estimate, Gilman said he would hope that the poles could be removed within three to five years after a contract is awarded.

As for the miles and miles of trolley tracks lurking beneath the pavement, Mike Gable, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, said that in most cases, the city paved over trolley tracks rather than removing them. In an instance where part of the track is protruding and creating a hazard, crews would remove that section, Gable said. The only time trolley tracks would be wholly removed is if a street was undergoing “full-depth reconstruction.”

At its peak, Pittsburgh Railways Company had 99 routes that covered 606 miles of track in the city. That was in 1918. By 1964, the Pittsburgh Railways Company was gone. In 1999, Port Authority retired the few remaining PCC cars from service.

You can, however, still ride an old-fashioned trolley: in a loop around the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington.