Volume 97 Issue 4 News

Huntingdon’s Own Trolley Line

by Stephen D. Lane

Imagine yourself 100 years ago as a freshman student. You have just taken a long train ride from home on a warm, fall September day. You hear the conductor call out, “Discharge for Huntingdon Station!” As you step off of the train, you are greeted by a friendly “watch your step” from the conductor in a black uniform with a shiny hat badge. You are now walking on ground that is the farthest you’ve ever been from home.

You grab your luggage from the porter and hear a whistle in the distance; another steam locomotive pulling a freight train is rumbling through town at 50 miles per hour. You look around – this is Huntingdon? Only a few automobiles and some horses are still trotting around.

A trolley, wheels screeching around a tight turn, pulls up to the station. The first glimpses of  Huntingdon are given to you from a trolley with no walls. Soon you go up a hill and arrive at the sides of Founders and Carnegie – you have just started your journey as a Juniata College student.

It has been 85 years since one of the most unique, and now forgotten, features of Huntingdon ceased operation. This small trolley line connected Juniata College to the Pennsylvania Railroad station in downtown Huntingdon. It was just over 1.5 miles long.

For 23 years the little four-wheeled trolley cars motored around Huntingdon, serving as a convenient way for campus-housed students to navigate the town. This is the story of the Juniata Valley Electric Street Railway: Huntingdon’s own electric public transit system.  

The trolley line was chartered on Aug. 8, 1906 and began operation in 1907. They operated four trolley cars, two of which were regular enclosed cars and the other two were open air cars. The open cars were used mainly during the hot summer months and during fair weather. 

The schedule was like clockwork; at either terminal, a trolley car could be expected at a ten-minute interval. Two cars were run on any given day, and they would pass each other at a double-track section on Washington Street. 

The trolleys operated in this fashion until 1928 when the old wooden trolleys were replaced. Later that year the line went bankrupt. It reorganized as the Huntingdon Street Railway, but with the Great Depression taking hold of the nation, the little railway gave up the ghost in 1930 and the line was abandoned. The tracks, however, were not removed completely until the post-World War II era.

During the time of the trolley’s operation, the expansion of the line was taken into consideration. It was planned that ridership could be increased if they marketed a better commuting service to Juniata College students from Mount Union, splitting off at Mill Creek, through the Kishacoquillas Valley to Lewistown.

The trolley service would enable a more convenient and cheaper way for the Mount Union area students to commute to the College while avoiding the costly train fares. It would also open up a new, feasible way to obtain a convenient college education for the area residents.

Unfortunately, due to some corruption within the company, the money was never raised for the expansion. The plan was soon abandoned, and the trolley line was never able to bring the student-minded plans to fruition.

Symbols represent many things in life; even the smallest, insignificant things hold value in some way. The trolley line in Huntingdon is no exception. James Tuten, associate professor of history at Juniata College, explained that during the 1890s and 1910s, America was an industrial country. Towns expanded and became modernized. Cities and towns all across the country built streetcar systems – a system that can link your home to employers, to grocery stores, to practically anywhere you needed or wanted to go.

The trolley was a system that improved the quality of life for your area. To have a streetcar was like a status symbol for your town. To others, it said, “We want to be known as an industrious town. We want to show America that we are a modern town.”

Even today, it is worth thinking about what it would be like if the trolley had survived the Great Depression. “Today, it’s worth remembering for what it tells us of how people travelled back then. Even in a small community, citizens and travelers pushed for and used a public transportation service, and didn’t dismiss transit as the last resort of the disabled. If the trolley were here today, students and locals would be able to walk and ride to anywhere in town with ease. No driving, no parking tickets and no significant environmental impacts,” said Steven Goehring, a Juniata College alumnus and Rockhill Trolley Museum volunteer.

With each passing year, we become a little more removed from previous generations. Remembering what life was like is not something people tend to focus on. The next time you drive down Moore Street, ride down Washington Street or sit by the Amtrak Depot, remember students in years past had many of the same worries and troubles as you, they just got there in a different way.

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