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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Detroit Heritage Line revisited

Incongruous sights in the heart of the US automotive capital - now a memory

Brand new depot to house four cars for the short vintage line. Other cars were kept at the City of Detroit's diverse municipal properties.

All Images Copyright : John Woodman

Long before it became fashionable to recreate old style tramway heritage lines in downtown areas of US cities - the city of Detroit pioneered a remarkable project in the centre of the motor city. Thanks to the vision and persistence of a key aide to Mayor Coleman the city's planning office (and its financial chiefs) approved construction of a short vintage 'trolley line' complete with genuine old cars imported from Lisbon.

The project was deemed to be important to revitalisation of the city's commercial centre which at the time (1970s) was benefitting from a landmark high rise office development by the automotive industry, among other urban renewal schemes. At the time I was myself involved with a not dissimilar proposal to reintroduce streetcars in New York along 42nd Street from the Hudson River (and ocean liner terminals) to the East River (and the UN Building). This was being promoted by the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation which had initial backing from City Hall in those days.

In any event Detroit was already ahead of the game having built a new glass sided trolleycar depot and imported several old style two axle trams of US design (Brill Company) to run on segregated right of way. One terminus was very close to the new office development on Detroit's waterfront. The concept of bringing a typical old English tramcar to the operation was entirely that of Alex Pollock who had attention of the city's Mayor. Having heard about the success of Blackpool boat car 603 in Philadelphia for the US Bicentennial and my own role in arranging that initiative jointly with Ron DeGraw, SEPTA's pr officer at the time (and author of the 'Red Arrow Lines' a classic book on the suburban trolley services running west from 69th Street Terminal in the city) Alex contacted me as the resident UK trolleycar expert in the US; or at least that's how it was put, with the modest request of 'find me an old English double deck tram, and also one able to run on narrow gauge tracks'! Identifying the Burton & Ashby lower deck saloon wasn't too difficult given that it had been the subject of a write up in 'Modern Tramway' magazine a year or so previously by John Price. So joined up interest led to a remarkably quick project being agreed and implemented. A few images of those other trams on the Detroit line are worth posting to fill this story for the record. Where the Lisbon cars are now is not certain, but I'm sure they have all found caring homes elsewhere in the States. Ironically Detroit is now actively pursuing a new light rail line on one of its main highways leading into the centre - with construction either commenced or imminent.

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