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Rising from the Ashes

In the fall of 2020 the Phoenix Trolley Museum was contacted by Mike Bystrom of Restaurant Equipment Hunter explaining that he had a storage unit that was repurposed out of an old streetcar. And…he wanted to know if the museum was interested in it. We were shocked to discover its existence, but even more surprised as Mr. Bystrom offered to donate it to the museum and even pay to transport it to the Grand Avenue site. Of course, the museum accepted the generous offer. And a part of Phoenix’s history “arose” from what was thought to be have been a fiery death.

So how did this happen? Located in the east valley, Bystrom contacted a friend of his with the Arizona Rail Museum in Chandler. That fellow just happened to be a friend of the Phoenix Trolley Museum as well and referred Bystrom to the museum. Stored in the yard of a sand and gravel company in Mesa, the owner wanted it gone. It was, give it to the museum, or send it to the dump. Horrors!! Just how could the museum pass up this offer?

Unless you have ridden on San Francisco’s cable cars, you might not understand the intrigue and enchantment about leisurely riding on a streetcar with the windows down, at least when it’s cool. No steep hills to surmount, Phoenix streetcars were still involved in accidents with cars, trucks, and occasionally pedestrians, and even a minor fire or two inside an operating car. Unlike the light rail of today, there were no platforms or specific stops with the original Phoenix trolley/streetcar system. If you wanted to get on, you stood in the street waving down the operator. Still as a rider, you had to remember that it did take some time for the car to actually stop. Needless to say, many streetcar riders had a terrible time in the transition to buses on some routes, because they needed to be on the curb and at a specific site.

While the exterior will need to be revealed to show the car number, the interior shows all the tell-tail signs of being an honest trolley built in 1928. .

In mid-1947, Phoenix had only one line still operating streetcars: the Capitol-West Adams-Washington Street Line. Shortly before the city of Phoenix finally phased out the entire streetcar system in favor of buses, a disaster struck. According to newspaper accounts, seven cars were destroyed and another badly damaged in the system’s mysterious car barn fire on Washington and 13th Street in October 1947. This destruction may very well have accelerated the discontinuation of the streetcars.

The men who started the Phoenix Trolley Museum, and particularly Larry Fleming, had as carefully as they could, determined what had happened to the remaining cars when the city cancelled the service in February 1948. Those still in use when the service ceased were originally saved for “emergencies.” But by September of that year, the city sold them. And according to the data in Larry Fleming’s book Ride a Mile and Smile the While, the disposition of most of them had been determined.

Car 509 started its life as car 118 and ran on the Kenilworth line.

Still, those men involved with the Trolley Museum in its early days were not sure whether it was Car 509 or 515 destroyed in that car barn fire. Fleming suspected that either car could have been in the car barn fire, but no one knew for sure until now. A puzzling matter indeed.

Still, over the years, those trolley guys managed to acquire the bodies to rebuild two cars plus additional parts and open a museum in 1977, by the Ellis-Shackelford House. Today, we might consider that the museum and Car #509 have multiple lives. How many have they used up? We can’t be sure. Now that the museum has reached its fundraising goal to purchase the land it has been leasing since it was forced to move from Hance Park in 2017, we can be assured that it still has lives left.

Yes, Car #509 arose from the ashes. Its actual use for the museum has not been determined yet, but what luck to find that car after it was seemingly lost 73 years ago!

Several of those last seven trolleys are still unaccounted for today. Cars 506 and 511 are still “missing.” Wouldn’t it be fun if they too arose from the depths of some “pile of ashes”?

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