The final street car through Mt. Lebanon got a little off track on its way to Dormont.
The last of the heavier PCC trolleys derailed near West Liberty Avenue on its ceremonial final voyage on April 14, 1984, three years before the Port Authority’s new Light Rail Transit system was ready to ride the rails to Pittsburgh.
Car #1758, painted to acknowledge “Trolley Day” with the words “So Long, Washington Rd.” on its siding, had much fanfare as it made loops back and forth on the old 38/42 street car line in the South Hills. But as the trolley tried to make a turn in the Y-intersection near where the present day Dormont station is located, the rear wheels “split the tracks” and workers had to prop the car’s wheels back onto the rails, longtime Port Authority employee George Gula remembers.
For the next three years, shuttle buses transferred riders around the area as the Port Authority worked to construct its light rail system that had been conceived in the previous decade. But before then, the street cars were a staple around the South Hills, transporting people all the way from Charleroi and Washington to Pittsburgh.
M.A. Jackson, who graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1985, remembers growing up in the township at a time when the street cars rolled down Washington Road. There were island stops for riders in the middle of the street that motorists had to dodge, in addition to the trolleys.
“There were traffic islands where people would get on and off,” Jackson says. “You’d be driving down the street and here’s a street car coming at you. It was bumpy and rutted. It was always an adventure going down Washington Road.”
The old Pittsburgh Railways system folded in 1963 and led to the formation of the Port Authority a year later. PAT continued to operate the Presidents’ Conference Committee street cars for another two decades, but Gula and Jackson remember that Mt. Lebanon officials wanted the trolleys off their main business district along Washington Road.
PAT officials also knew they needed to find a replacement for the PCC cars and momentarily pondered constructing a “skybus” system of unmanned cars on elevated tracks, dropping off passengers at stops a mile from each other, Gula says.
“The old-fashioned trolleys were obsolete,” says Gula, a Mt. Lebanon resident who worked in PAT’s service and scheduling department for 33 years before retiring in 2008.
But the “skybus” system – a prototype was unveiled at the Allegheny County Fair in South Park during the late 1960s – would have led to park-and-ride lots, effectively disconnecting South Hills neighborhoods from the transit line. That idea died in 1976, so the solution, Gula says, was the Light Rail Transit system on right-of-ways off the street. That also meant a tunnel was needed to connect the Mt. Lebanon’s business district to Dormont.
“Mt. Lebanon didn’t want these huge structures,” Gula says of elevated tracks.
A 3,000-foot-long tunnel about 100 feet below Washington Road was bored and tucked into the overall $522 million light rail project, nearly the same cost at the North Shore Connector that opened in 2010. The low bid to build just the tunnel was awarded to Paschen-Dick Joint Venture for $17.2 million, according to Gula.
The tunnel was dug in October 1984 and crews worked for the next few years building transit stops. Jackson, now a senior assistant at Mt. Lebanon Public Library, remembers construction seemingly dragging on over the years. Meanwhile, the rest of the light rail system was operating in Pittsburgh while shuttle buses worked overtime in the South Hills.
Finally, the South Hills light rail segment affectionately known as “The T” opened on May 22, 1987, with the same flare and celebration that greeted the final street car. Jackson recalls people standing at the Mt. Lebanon station holding balloons and waiting for a ride, while Gula remembers a parade of cars, including the old PCC street cars, that escorted the brand new LRT vehicles.
“I think it was a big deal,” Gula says.
One of those first light rail drivers on the new 42S line in that parade of cars was Hattie Bartosik, who was one of the first female street car drivers in Pittsburgh when there was a shortage during World War II.
“I ran everything else,” Gula remembers Bartosik saying. “I want to drive this.”
Some Mt. Lebanon merchants missed the street cars rolling by their shops on Washington Road, Gula says, but others appreciated the rails being off the road. More than 30 years after the transit system left the streets and went underground, Gula says those old cars still hold great memories for those who remember them.
“People were watching from all over,” Gula says of those last rides in April 1984. “Then they realized this was never going to happen again.”