Can we keep the Phoenix Trolley Museum from going the way of the Phoenix History Museum?
We may soon find out whether Phoenix has the capacity to save its home-grown cultural institutions for itself, or if it will allow yet another unique opportunity to enrich its quality of life to fall away.
The Arizona Street Railway Museum, which has been using the name Phoenix Trolley Museum (PTM) to avoid confusion with another museum, has been going for 40 years in its Central Avenue location on the north edge of Hance Park. Like a lot of small museums, it hit the doldrums a few years back, and today few people seem to be aware that it’s there.
PTM has one unique asset that speaks volumes about the history of Phoenix: Car 116, an original Phoenix streetcar that survived the “great car-barn fire” of 1947. It’s a beautiful machine, restored for the most part. They even had it running a few years back, rolling out of its shed on a couple hundred feet of track and then back in. Maybe not much of a ride, but it moved, and was a living, breathing example of another era that recent transplants to our auto-centric valley find incredible: Phoenix had streetcars?
This is an important facet of our history, because it says so much about Phoenix and how ended up the way it did. Here are the Cliff’s Notes: Greedy land barons come in to develop in a new desert town. They invest in lots of urban infrastructure, like utilities and streets, and also a streetcar system. The new streetcar lines drive development patterns for fifty years. Autos are invented, and sprawl results as middle-class and better people stop taking streetcars in order to buy a house in the ‘burbs. The streetcar system is not properly maintained, and most of the rolling stock is consumed in a “suspicious” car barn fire. City fathers abandon streetcars in favor of more-flexible busses. The overhead wires and tracks in the streets are incrementally removed and paved over until little trace remains. (Tracks are revealed as cracks in certain streets, if you know where to look.)
The streetcar story touches on dozens of other important and interesting themes in Phoenix history. How did Winnie Ruth Judd get to the train station with her bloody suitcase? Why are there old grocery buildings in the middle of neighborhoods, away from the main streets? Why did the state fairgrounds get its own trolley line, and why is Grand Avenue at that angle?
Historic streetcars are under attack once again, this time being pushed aside for redevelopment of Hance Park. The museum was not included in the Hance Park Master Plan, because it was deemed insufficiently “active” to anchor the important node where Central Avenue crosses over the park. As of January, 2016, the museum has been told by city officials (who hold the land lease) to start making plans to clear out. They suggested September 2017 as being a good date to plan for.
So the Trolley Museum must move. While this puts PTM in peril, it is also an opportunity to make something great for downtown Phoenix. The Trolley Museum and Car 116 is an incredible untapped asset. With an overhaul of the electric motors, the trolley car can run again. We just have to find the right place to put the museum and some tracks, and raise the money to do it.
In response to the city pressure, PTM has adopted a three-year relocation plan. No word yet from the city as to whether they will be given the additional two years. There is a path to salvation, although rutted and potholed. But the process is beyond what the museum of today can achieve without help.
You see, PTM has never really been organizationally functional since the departure of its founder, Larry Fleming, some years ago. The long-time members of the Board of Directors are mostly retirees, as are most of the 30-person general membership. They have little experience in, or energy for, actually running a small museum and in all that should come with it – organizing regular activities, volunteer docents, fundraising, publicity, etc.
What is really needed now is a groundswell of support. The residents and proponents of downtown Phoenix should adopt the Trolley Museum. It needs to be their museum. It needs to have a broader spectrum of members, young to old, united by their excitement in bringing a working historic trolley car to their streets, and in creating a new vision for a museum that celebrates the history of Phoenix and its streetcar system.
The Phoenix Trolley Museum is just kicking off the relocation effort. The first steps are to increase their membership, involve the downtown community in the plan, and reinvigorate the Board of Directors. This will start with the election of new Directors at their annual meeting on March 5. (Interested parties should contact the museum.)
In March and April, the Museum plans a series of public planning workshops to envision what, and where, the new museum can be. Participation of the community will be crucial to breaking out of a 40-year-old shell and emerging as a fledgling, but active, part of the downtown scene.
The author is a Board Member of the Phoenix Trolley Museum and the Grand Avenue Rail Project.