The Penn State Trolley Cars

Penn State has just about seen it all when it comes to ways of getting around - from leather moccasins to air cushioned high-tops, horseback to Harleys, steam trains to corporate jets.

Add to that list now the electric trolley car, or to be more precise, the electrically converted cable car.

From the 1890's into the early years of this century, Penn State's Electrical Engineering Department operated an experimental electric railway along a one-mile stretch of track from the court yard behind the old Main Engineering Building westward to the "Y" near the former Struble station. Not in commercial use, the trolley system helped electrical engineering students get hands-on experience with the technology of a then-widely used form of public transportation.

Little is known of the operation, the documentation perhaps being destroyed in a 1918 inferno which destroyed the Main Engineering Building. The only thing rarer than photos of the trolley system are the recollections of it among veteran E. E. faculty members. What little can be cobbled together, however, provides some interesting glimpses of Penn State's past.

Budding engineers at Penn State began learning about trolleys as early as the 1893-94 school year, also the founding year of the Department of Electrical Engineering then under the leadership of 24-year-old department chair John Price Jackson.

The original course in Electrical Railroads and Transmission of Energy covering the technical and economic aspects of trolleys, was offered for three years before Jackson was to formally announce that the new experimental trolley system was under construction.

In his history of Penn State's College of Engineering, Michael Bezilla says the old cable car was probably donated by the Philadelphia Traction Company.

Remodeling the vehicle meant faculty and students had to remove the grip mechanism and add electric motors. Power, according to Bezilla, was supplied by a 500-volt direct current received from the power plant via an overhead line.

In the years following 1897, Jackson's annual reports show seemingly constant endeavors to obtain new trolley apparatus, either with college funds or from private sources. His diligence had apparent payoffs.

"The experimental railway is being steadily improved and is proving of great use as an aid in giving practical instruction concerning the problems to be met in transportation of electricity," recorded the electrical engineering chair in June, 1899.

However, the trolley system wasn't Jackson's only worry. Almost since their inception, all of Penn State's engineering courses were incredibly popular. By 1895, engineering students made up two-thirds of the college's total student population. Forty-four percent of those engineers were in electrical engineering.

This meant an incessant pressure to maintain an adequate faculty within the department while other colleges and private industry could entice talented personnel with better salaries. Lack of building and maintenance money meant cramped facilities and uncorrected wear and tear on equipment.

Against this backdrop, time, and perhaps Happy Valley weather, took its toll on the original Penn State trolley. By 1901, Jackson was asking the president for a new car body and related equipment. Help did not arrive until four years later when, in June 1905, a new castoff arrived.

According to Bezilla, this thirteen year-old trolley came from the United Railways and Electric Company of Baltimore. Like the first Penn State trolley, the replacement was a former cable car.

From 1900-01 onward, the curriculum in electric railways became more diversified. In 1902-03 it was offered as one of the four options for specialization in the School of Engineering. By 1913-14, the basic course in the field was supplemented by one in electric railways engineering and a laboratory course in which the car and assembly were used as teaching tools. On them, students learned to test automatic and hand operated gear for faults and operational efficiency.

Later, as commercial trolley systems disappeared, so did the studies in electric railways at Penn State.

College bulletins indicate that the discipline disappeared completely after the 1951-52 term.

What happened to Penn State's trolley car is unknown. Because of its poor apparent condition, much of the first car may well have been scrapped. It is quite possible, according to Bezilla, that the second car survived the disastrous fire of November 25,1918, because the shed in which it was stored was at a safe distance from the destroyed Main Engineering Building. However, past 1910, there is no evidence of any trolley operations, states Albert, who speculates that if any records indeed existed, they were lost in the flames of 1918.

Today, when trolleys at Penn State may be considered an artifact of Happy Valley history, they are making a come back in a number of major cities - largely on the West Coast.

While this may not represent the start of a major national trend demanding study and research, the University could experience a bit of deja vu if State College's streets again echo with the clatter of tracks and the clang of a trolley bell.

Adapted with permission
from an article by Charles C. DuBois
in the June 1993 Town and Gown.
DuBois is assistant to the dean in the Smeal College of Business.