- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Partially uncovered tracks around Des Moines can appear to be the last remnants of the city’s streetcar era, but for some enthusiasts the link lies in a group of former conductors.

A few times a year, three or four of them gather to swap stories about their long-ago jobs. Most are in their 90s now, and of the 400 or so former Des Moines operators, only about six are still alive.

They join with younger rail enthusiasts at a suburban restaurant at the urging of Earl Short, a Waukee man whose father was a streetcar operator and who has formed a group called Des Moines Streetcar Friends.

At a crowded meeting last week, Short donned an old black and white operator hat and offered comments as videos showed streetcars in motion.

“Watch the sway back and forth of this streetcar coming up in the next little bit here,” Short told the crowd. “Isn’t that fun?”

Howard McDonald, who operated streetcars from 1945 to 1947, later quipped, “It was as good a pay as you could get those days.”

It’s the kind of chatter that Short, 76, was looking for when he formed the streetcar group a few years ago. He had begun collecting streetcar photos, and that led him to a community of enthusiasts, including the former operators.

“One thing led to another,” he said. “I started finding people who operated the streetcars … I started getting phone calls from all over the country. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get these people together.’”

Short remembers riding streetcars around the city until he was 13 years old. That was in 1951, when buses replaced streetcars, ending more than 60 years of the rail cars on Des Moines streets.

In the five or so years since the group began meeting, Short has led dozens of presentations highlighting the streetcar routes that zigzagged around the city, with an emphasis on operations from the 1930s to the 1950s.

During that period, the Des Moines Railway Company was the dominant operator. Before that, the Des Moines City Railway had consolidated several railway companies in the 1880s to form one.

“It’s a passion,” Short said of learning about different streetcar models and routes. “I enjoy it because of the people I meet. And yes, when I get a new streetcar picture that I have not seen before, I’m like a little kid in a candy store. So this drives me.”

Short hopes to one day open a streetcar museum in Des Moines.

Ernie Gruwell, 94, who operated both streetcars and buses for about 30 years, said he likes to reminisce about a time when public transportation cost about a dime.

“The people in transportation were really wonderful. They appreciated it,” he said. “Today, people are so spoiled that you have to have something special to really impress them. But back then, they would take any old streetcar any way to get transportation because there were no cars.”

Bill Wilson, an operator for nine years, said he started the job after serving in World War II. He said he was only 20 when he applied, not quite the required age of 21.

“I figured if I was old enough to serve, I was old enough to operate a streetcar,” the 89-year-old said with a smile, noting he was allowed to operate after stating his case.

Decades after most cities removed their streetcars, urban rail systems are returning to many large cities. Short is confident streetcars could run again in Des Moines, but he knows it won’t happen soon.

“I think it’s going to happen, I just am not sure here in Des Moines whether it’s going to happen in my lifetime,” he said. “Electricity is making a real comeback due to the fuel problems that we have and the emissions that come from it. It’s a no brainer. My hats are off to these cities that never got rid of them.”


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