top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The US Bicentennial 1976

With the visit this week of President Obama to London and now forty years on it is worth recalling the events of the Bicentennial of the United States of America in 1976. A Tall Ships event in New York City Harbour was one of many spectacular scenes to commemorate the country's two hundredth birthday and Independence.

The Declaration of Independence was debated and approved in Philadelphia - with the thirteen Colonies represented and coming to agreement on this momentous decision to break with rule from the Crown and Westminster Parliament.

Philadelphia had at the time still an extensive, if very tired, streetcar system of wide gauge and considerable on street routes operated by equally tired PCC cars of varying vintages. Three suburban routes were operated by a seperate division of the SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Agency) set up to take over from Philadelphia Transit Authority a few years previously. The three suburban routes to Norristown, Sharon Hill and Media used an even greater diversity of cars from Brilliners to centre entrance fifty year old units.

It was decided given the important role the city played in US history that SEPTA would operate a tourist trolleycar service in 1976 and accordingly plans to revive a small number of old types from area museums and a solitary car still held by SEPTA were agreed on. The Author was then working in New York and had links to SEPTA management who thought it would be a good idea to bring over a trolleycar from the 'old country' to complete the roster of vintage cars on the special service. I was invited to arrange for a Blackpool 'boat' car to be made available as a fraternal gesture from Blackpool's Council and the Transport Department. Number 603 was selected and ran briefly for publicity purposes on the promenade with a special destination screen 'Independence Hall' and 'Philadelphia' before shipment to the States. It was taken directly to a small town in Pennsylvania - Dushore. Here the trucks were regauged and bodywork adjusted to allow greater tolerances on curves. Folding steps were fitted onto the centre entrance given the increased height from street level for passenger boarding. The gantry tower was removed given the lower height of wiring and also the fact that the route would negotiate an underpass with more limited height tolerance. Above : a very good friend Joe Saitta of Traction Slides International poses with 603 at Port Elizabeth, NJ after the tram had been unloaded. Joe sadly died a few years ago. Below : Dushore, Pennsylvania where the tram was delivered from New Jersey to be worked on by Bruce Thain (who also worked on the Burton & Ashby 14 project - a future blog). I am 'inspecting' 603 in this very rural out of the way locale - in a hilly part of the State.

Sponsorship for the entire project was secured from Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG Industries) who designed a striking colour scheme for the tram with their name discretely inserted into the four canopy destination apertures. In this new form 603 was formally launched at a small ceremony just a few yards from Independence Hall where I handed over an airbrake handle and controller key to the Chairman of SEPTA in return for a silver dollar (the agreed rental charge). Ron DeGraw, who at this time was in charge of SEPTA's publicity office was responsible for coordinating arrangements in Philadelphia and securing PPG Industries sponsorship; while I was responsible for organising the loan of the tram from Blackpool and its shipment to Newark, New Jersey from Liverpool. Bruce Thain handled the regauging and other preliminary work on the tram at Dushore before it then was transferred to a SEPTA car barn ahead of the launch. This was the very first occasion a British tram had operated on the streets of any US city. Of course San Francisco's Market Street Railway would follow on with another loaned 'boat' car and subsequently acquiring two further examples from Blackpool for permanent service in that city. Nonetheless it was an exciting time in 1976 seeing Blackpool Corporation Transport on the side of 603 as it passed by Independence Hall on its journeys that summer. A special kiosk was built at the start of the tour from which souvenirs and tickets were sold. Special pin buttons and postcards were produced to commemorate the 'English trolley' tour. Its nice to 'fill in the blanks' - the story behind the story. Below : 603 passing near to Independence Hall, Philadelphia where the 'Declaration of Independence' was debated and signed. Not bad for a Blackpool tram's location in 1976. Images Copyright : John Woodman

Featured Posts
bottom of page