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All Aboard!Streetcars in Kenosha!All Aboard!

- June 29, 2001 -

If you live in the Chicago area, and you have a jones to ride one of the Windy City's dear, departed Green Hornet streetcars, you have 3 choices. You can visit the Illinois Railway Museum, where the only genuine surviving example of a Hornet fleet that once numbered 600-plus trundles around a short loop. You can travel two thousand miles to San Francisco, whose fleet of brightly painted antique streetcars includes a replica clad in the classic Mercury Green, Croydon Cream and Swamp Holly Orange. Or you can hop a Metra commuter train and head sixty miles north to the end of the line in Kenosha.

Yes, that's right, Kenosha. Former home to the Nash Car Company and its successor, American Motors, maker of the Rambler, Hornet, Gremlin and Pacer. Present home to Jockey Underwear, Snap-On Tools, Jelly Belly jelly beans and two of the largest outlet malls in the Chicago area. And since June of 2000, the repository of a downtown trolley line.

Not those rubber-tired, gas-engined trolleys with their fake arched-Victorian windows that seem to be a fixture in newly-revived downtowns all over America. These are a quintet of real, clanging, rails-in-the-street, trolley-poles-in-the-air streetcars.

The five came to Kenosha from Toronto, along whose lakefront they ran until 1995. They are the remnant of over 700 maroon-and-cream cars that once plied Toronto's avenues (the largest fleet of its kind in North America). When Kenosha Transit took delivery, they left one car in Toronto's colors. The other four were painted in the colors of various cities: Chicago (cream over green with an orange stripe at the beltline), Cincinnati (yellow with green pinstripes), Pittsburgh (red and white), and Johnstown, PA (orange and cream with a white roof, the approximate colors of Kenosha's original streetcars, which stopped running in 1932). If you don't know the significance of the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh color schemes, just think football.

I had gone up on Metra, our commuter rail line, to ride and videotape them a week after the line opened last June. At the time, only the Cincinnati car was taking passengers. The Toronto car was running, but was being used for training. The Chicago car was still in the barn being prepped for service with a wheelchair lift built into the rear entrance. The other two had yet to be delivered. (Yes, all five cars are handicapped-accessible.)

Kenosha's streetcar route is actually a circulator, running from the Metra station south, turning east along the northern edge of downtown, past the newly built HarborPark housing development and Kenosha Public Museum out to the edge of Lake Michigan before turning around and heading west along a marina past the carbarn and back to the Metra station.

The skies threatened for most of that day, but the rain held off until I was safely back at the station and on my way back home.

Original Green HornetKenosha's Green Hornet
The only surviving original Green Hornet, at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. The others were scrapped or rebuilt into el-train cars. Chicago streetcars of this type from the 1930's and '40's, known as PCC's, had three sets of doors. Passengers entered and paid at the rear, exited at the middle and front.Former Toronto streetcar, painted to look like a Green Hornet. The San Francisco car is similar. Notice the subtle equipment differences between this one and the one at left. What you can't see from this side is that, like its four ex-Toronto siblings and most other non-Chicago PCC's, it has only two sets of doors.

By contrast, Friday, June 29 of this year dawned clear and blue, a perfect day to take Mom up to ride them. She had seen the videotape and was interested in seeing them in the flesh. We had both settled on Friday as the day because we had visions of hordes of Chicagoans descending on Kenosha to ride them on the weekends.

Mom has never been one to wallow in nostalgia, but she has fond memories of the State Street and Cottage Grove Green Hornets and the earlier red-and-white pre-WWII Chicago Surface Line streetcars with their wicker seats. I hope I didn't give away too much information, Mom. ;-)

The traffic on I-94 north of Chicago is a Gordian Knot at most times of the day, so we went up on Metra. Its North Line commuter train climbs through a curious mix of wealthy lakefront suburbs and blue-collar towns before crossing the Illinois-Wisconsin border and arriving just west of downtown Kenosha.

This is a route Mom had ridden in the 70's to get to her job at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. This former military installation has since been absorbed into the town of Highland Park and turned into condos, but from the train we could still see the Fort's landmark yellow-brick tower soaring above the peaked-roofed two-story buildings where she used to work.

From the Kenosha Metra station, it's a short walk to the nearest streetcar stop, but we got ambitious and walked another two blocks to the carbarn. It's very old-looking, but it was built in 1999 especially for this new car line. It also doubles as the downtown bus depot, and it was startling to see buses from all of Kenosha's routes suddenly descend on the lot around the carbarn at the same time, and ten minutes later disappear as suddenly as they had come.

Just as last year, the Cincinnati car was the only one that was running; the Pittsburgh, Toronto and Kenosha cars were parked around the barn entrance, as if on display. The Green Hornet, which we had come to ride, was actually inside the barn. I decided to track down an employee to find out what the story was, when we heard a familiar clanging.

On videotape, the sight of an honest-to-goodness streetcar rumbling through the streets of downtown Kenosha seems like a digitally altered image. To see it in the flesh and feel the vibration as it squeals to a stop in front of you -- even after having done it two years in a row, it still seems like a mirage. I'm still amazed that Kenosha was able to pull it off, especially after Chicago spent $15 million just to do the research for a much-needed streetcar line for its downtown and then dropped the idea like a hot potato.

We got on, paid our fares (fifty cents, I believe) and settled in behind the driver. From her, we found out what had happened. After an initial surge in ridership last summer, business slacked off to the point where only one of the five cars runs on weekdays, and two to three of them on the weekends.

How could this be, with several million people living within a relatively short drive or trainride of Kenosha? Mom was dumbstruck, but I had a pretty good idea. Except for a brief article in the Chicago Tribune the week after it opened and a short piece in our PBS newsletter that fall, I had seen absolutely nothing in print promoting this attraction. The only way I knew about them was logging on to Kenosha Transit's website from a streetcar site entirely by accident two years ago. I have never seen any ads for them in either the Tribune's or the Sun Times' Friday leisure sections or any of our endless local news and entertainment TV shows. And has anyone in Kenosha's Visitors Bureau ever thought of promoting it at those aformentioned outlet malls, to bring people from the outskirts of Kenosha to give a big shot in the arm to its downtown? How about getting the word out to Chicago-area schools? Think of it. Millions of schoolkids making a yearly fieldtrip to Kenosha to ride a Green Hornet streetcar similar to the ones their grandparents probably rode, followed by a few hours at Kenosha's lakefront museum (the builders of the car line built a siding near the museum for just that purpose). Younger kids would be fascinated by a short additional walk to visit Kenosha's two almost-adjacent lighthouses.

I couldn't possibly be the first one to make these suggestions. If I am, Kenosha can use them for free. If they do feel like paying me, how about a lifetime pass to ride the streetcars? ;-)

We rode around a few times, feeling the lake breeze on our faces on this high 80-ish day, and got off at the carbarn so I could get some pictures. The three cars parked outside were a snap, but I had to stand just outside the open overhead door and crank the zoom lens to get a good rear-view picture of the Green Hornet, which was parked at the far end of the barn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Transit employee striding toward me, and steeled myself for a good safety tongue-lashing.

"Wanna go inside?"

My jaw must have dropped to the floor. Would Tiger Woods like to play St. Andrew's?

After promising my first-born son to him, I took him up on his very generous offer, and the result is the picture that you see here, as well as several other gems. After coming back outside, I spied another photo opportunity. The Cincinnati car was parked at the carbarn stop, in front of a green-and yellow sweep of daylilies. Sometimes you have to work to get a good picture; sometimes it just drops into your lap.

Toronto Streetcar3 Streetcars

We got on and rode around and along 56th St. to 6th Avenue, the spine of Kenosha's downtown. Walking south past the antique shops, Mom spied a tuxedo store called Mike Bjorn's Fine Clothing and Museum. She had been looking for a patent-leather belt and had not been able to find one in Chicago, so we went in.

This place was amazing. Testimonials from show-business and political giants who had visited here lined the walls, and on the tables were well-thumbed copies of Lifeand Lookmagazines from the 50's and 60's. While Mom searched for the perfect belt, I immersed myself in the latest news circa 1959, when only a woman's hairdresser knew for sure and a 25" RCA color TV cost a thousand bucks. "The most trusted name in electronics."

Success! Mom found the belt she was looking for. While we were at the counter, we had a chance to talk with Mike Bjorn and his wife. They both agreed that Kenosha needs to do a much better job of promoting its assets. I'll give you their address below, but even if I didn't, you couldn't miss them; this store's got the wildest facade on 6th Avenue. UPDATE: As of July 2007, Mike's still there, and his store is still a treasure trove of Americana.

As we were walking back north on 6th, we saw an ice cream shop on the first floor of an old three-story building sporting a giant yellow-neon Rexall sign on top. We hadn't eaten since breakfast; how could we resist? Even though it was 3:00 in the afternoon, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I had a huge sundae; Mom, a dish of mint ice cream. We had the best seats in the house, right by the door where we could sun ourselves, look out over the grassy median of 56th St. and watch the streetcar go by. When downtown Kenosha comes back, the owner of this place will be sitting on a goldmine. UPDATE: As of July 2007, still there, and they've changed hands; but now they serve food, including the best grilled-cheese sandwich I've ever had.

Well, it was time to head back home. We caught the streetcar back around to the Metra station with its bright-eyed mosaic-tile conductor wishing us "All Aboard", and headed for home.

A thoroughly enjoyable time, except that I don't have any videotape of that day:-( And that night, I wrote one hundred times, "I will keep my camcorder battery on the charger when it is not being used."

If you want more information about Kenosha's streetcars and to see some fantastic pictures of their Green Hornet in action, visit Kenosha's Streetcar Website. Clang, clang, clang!

Mike Bjorn's Fine Clothing & Museum
5614 6th Ave.
Kenosha, WI 53140

Pittsburgh carCincinnati Car w/Daylilies