Clang, Clang, Clang Went The Trolley

An exciting new development has started here in St Louis, as work on the Delmar Loop Trolley gets underway. I’m sure there have been other films set here, but “Meet me in St Louis” is certainly the most famous. Like many of these films that “everybody has seen” it seemed to pass me by entirely, and it was only recently that I actually got to see the whole film. Within this famous film, perhaps the most notable tune was the Trolley Song, taking excited people to the Great Exhibition in Forest Park, and the new trolley will also go there, recreating a scene not seen here since the 1960’s. This new development set me thinking about an interesting discovery I made about this city.St Louis is built in the classic grid system of most US cities, and my first inclination that there was something else happening was on a walk on a newly opened cross-city hiking trail. The normal thing you see as you travel along is a street, a back alley, then another street, but one crossing seemed different. It was built with concrete paving, which looked old and well worn. It had the backs of houses on both sides, so it was clearly not a normal street, but it was wide and well paved, and looked unlike all the alleyways I was used to. I looked down the long straight sweep of the concrete and noticed that the houses did not have any entrances onto this “road,” which was unusual for street or alley. No matter how far I looked, I could not see a dumpster, and every alley has dumpsters, so clearly this was something else.
I was intrigued, so I looked at the map on my phone, to find out that this “road” had a name, which also made it unlike most alleys I was aware of.

The name was also unusual because rather than ending with the normal Street, Avenue or Boulevard, it was named Hodimont Tracks. Looking further on the map I could see that it seemed to join University City with downtown St Louis, and I started to wonder if it was the route of an old trolley. Back home, I investigated on the internet and found that, yes, that was indeed once a trolley route. Most of the time trolleys went along normal streets, but sometimes a more direct route was built.

The history of the trolley in St Louis – more accurately called Streetcars – is a fascinating one. The first streetcar was proposed before the civil war, but they really came into their own during the middle of the nineteenth century. Their history reminds me very much of how the London Underground developed, small companies created individual lines for particular communities, which were merged together until there was just one company for the whole city. In this investigation of St Louis streetcars, I found references to something called “the Great American streetcar scandal”, although I’m not sure from reading about it what side to believe. In any case, the St Louis streetcars slowly declined from the 1930’s, and eventually closed down altogether in the 1960’s.

After these discovery, I was more attuned to looking for these old trolley-ways, and I’ve seen a number of these old routes around my part of the City. You can identify them by their width, and how they seem to intersect with residential streets, but don’t connect to them. I assume that the original tracks were kept clear of dumpsters and house entrances to give the trolleys a clear run, and whilst I have seen a few homeowners who have made driveways into them, in the most part they are still clear ways through the city neighbourhoods.

Soon, St Louis will be getting a trolley again! The original Delmar Loop trolley closed down in 1966 and in order for the line to be re-established there is a lot of work to be done. At one end of the route, work began a few weeks ago on the construction of a roundabout to allow the trolley to turn around. Near the other end, the replacement of a railway bridge with a stronger one has started, resulting in that road being closed for most of the summer. The actual streetcars will be the original ornate cars, refurbished to meet current safety standards, and it’s planned to start operating in the summer of 2016. I’m looking forward to next year when St Louis will once again resound to the “clang, clang, clang of the trolley”.

Derek was raised on the UK's South Coast, and has lived in London, England, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the East Anglia region of England. He is now a resident of St Louis, Missouri, USA. He is an author and blogger, and you can also follow Derek's adventures on his blog and Facebook page.

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