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A Streetcar Named Obsession

A lawyer, a builder and a millwright found that you still can take a streetcar. If you have the time, guts and the proper permits, you can take one just about anywhere you want it.

“It went really slick,” lawyer Larry Fleming said. “We lost a lot of nuts and bolts and dirt, and the resident owl flew away. And I hope some scorpions.”

Fleming and his associates in the Arizona Street Railway Museum moved a 1928 model Phoenix streetcar from the vicinity of Estrella Mountain Park to the area of Scottsdale Airport. The trip took only two hours and ten minutes. You can’t get there by bus in that time, especially on a Sunday morning. Public transit used to work in Phoenix as far as it went, which was Glendale. Larry has written a book about it, “Ride a Mile and Smile the While,” published this year (1977) $18.95, Swaine Publications, Phoenix.

Fleming, 45, grew up in Phoenix in streetcar days. He lived on the west Washington- Capitol Line in a house his grandfather built, and later on the Kenilworth Line.

The name Fleming is prominent in Phoenix history. “We were the other Flemings,” the lawyer said. His family used to live at 505 West Linwood and Mayor R. Fleming lived at 302 West Linwood. “We used to get each other’s laundry,” the other Fleming said.

His father was a bricklayer who became custodian at the courthouse. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “Dad would go down to the courthouse at night to surprise the janitors. When I was four or five years old I would climb up on Judge Phelps’ bench and play with the gavel.”

He became not only a lawyer but a history buff and a rail addict. Fleming belonged to the Orange Empire Railway Museum which has track and rolling stock at Perris, California.

Another member was retired millwright Dwight Vencill, who has lived in Arizona since childhood. Vencill wondered who in the Valley shared his interests, and came up with the names of Fleming and Carl Wickes. Wickes’ family has been in the construction business long enough to have built the first bridge over the Colorado River at Parker in

the 1930s.

The trio formed the Arizona Street Railway Museum, a non-profit corporation, and began trying to track down old Phoenix streetcars. Some of them were moved out to ranches for use as line shacks, and to farms where they were quarters for migrant laborers. Some more modern ones were destroyed in a car barn fire in 1947 that canceled the first and last route in Phoenix, the Capitol line.

The six working cars out on the street at the time of the fire were stored behind Guys and Dolls, a club at 32nd and Washington streets. As near as Fleming can figure, two of those cars went to Mesa, and he’s trying to track them from there.

Four cars became rental units in a trailer court near 35th Avenue and Lincoln Street. The streetcar buffs dickered for them but never could make a deal with

the owners.

About three years ago they heard the court had been condemned and a wrecker was tearing out the cars. One car already had been destroyed, but they bought the three others from the scrap dealer. The cars had been stripped, vented, shimmed, partitioned, painted and stuccoed. “The business of streetcar restoration is not very glamorous, at least in the early stages,” Fleming said. “It’s a matter of beating out walls, chasing rattlesnakes and rousting some really greasy bugs.”

The streetcars had been moved to a game refuge and hunting club near Estrella Mountain Park. Fleming is part owner of the club. They began restoring what was originally Car 116, renumbered 508 in 1941.

“At the duck club there is no electricity,” Fleming said. “Try to do woodworking without electricity. It’s a real pain. We had to knock out windows, knock off the concrete and get down to bare streetcar. There were about ninety coats of paint we first had to take off. All the wood is mahogany, first-class stuff. We had to do the grinding wheel kind of thing to get down to real brass again.

“We took all the parts we had out to Carl Wickes’ home and shop (near Thunderbird Road and Scottsdale). We decided the obvious place to do the work was Carl’s shop.” But they didn’t want to pay for a crane and lowboy trailer to move the streetcar. Vencill got a master welder, Robert E. White of Gilbert, to build new trucks with rubber tires.

“Fortunately, it worked,” Fleming said. “The trucks are the same general dimensions, but the wheelbase was wide for stability on the road. We can use the car as a mobile museum. We can take it to a shopping center, for instance, and fill it with displays and artifacts. “Our ultimate plan is to find real trucks & running gear and restore it to operating condition.”

Getting original equipment may be a problem, he said. “When they converted these cars to homes, seats had to be taken out and they went somewhere. The equipment went somewhere. Some of this is bound to be still around and we’d like to find it.

“We’re trying to smoke out any street railway equipment, parts, seats. We would like to beg, borrow or steal anything that pertains to Phoenix

street railway history. We’re also interested in finding any other streetcar bodies we don’t know about.”

To move the streetcar, they had to have permits. “You don’t want any kind of hassle,” Fleming said, “because the project itself is hassle enough. The State Highway Department application asked who manufactured it, the year, did we expect to rent it for hire without a driver. Wide load permit forms are not really geared for streetcars.

“Then they said you have to get a county permit. Dwight Vencill called the county and they said you can’t move it on Sunday. Any day but Sunday. But

we could apply and get an exception, so I called (Supervisor) Bob Corbin, whom I’ve known forever, and he got us a special permit.

“The city of Phoenix just wanted the number off our state permit. Glendale said no permit was needed because it wasn’t ten feet wide. Candidly, we didn’t give a darn about Paradise Valley.”

Early on a Sunday morning they hooked a Chevy Blazer onto Car 116 and moved out: Bullard Road, Broadway, Litchfield Road to Lower Buckeye, Lower Buckeye to 75th

Avenue, up 75th to Thunderbird and across to Scottsdale.

“Only a couple of things that we got hung up on,” Fleming said. “my brother insisted on bringing his nineteen thirty four Ford pickup along for laughs. It boiled over.

“And we didn’t plan on the balloon races.” A hot air balloon race originated that day at the American Graduate School of International Management. “We had carefully figured out the least busy route. But when we got in the general vicinity of - what do they call it now, used to be the Institute of Foreign Trade? - we got into a lot of traffic.

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