Historic Phoenix streetcar thought to be in 1947 barn fire resurfaces

Donna Reiner  |  Special for The Republic The symbol of the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes&n

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Donna Reiner  |  Special for The Republic

The symbol of the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes has been quite vivid as wildfires char the West Coast. 

No one knows whether the towns will rise again or if the forests will return. Even years later, sometimes there are surprises.

That was recently the case with a missing Phoenix streetcar thought to be in a trolley car barn fire in 1947. 

The Phoenix Trolley Museum received a remarkable tip. Mike Bystrom of Restaurant Equipment Hunter explained that he had Streetcar No. 509. And, he wanted to know if the museum was interested in it.

The museum was shocked to discover its existence, but even more surprised that Bystrom offered to donate it and pay to transport it to the Grand Avenue site. Of course, the museum accepted the generous offer and a part of Phoenix’s history “arose.”

Just like San Francisco, minus the hills

Unless you have ridden on San Francisco’s cable cars, you might not understand the intrigue and enchantment of leisurely riding on a streetcar with the windows down, at least when it’s cool.

Although Phoenix streetcars had no steep hills to surmount, they were still involved in vehicle and pedestrian accidents and even a minor fire or two inside an operating car.

Unlike the light rail of today, there were no platforms or specific stops in the original Phoenix trolley system. If you wanted to get on, you stood in the street waving down the operator. Unfortunately, many streetcar riders had a terrible time in the transition to buses in 1948, because they needed to be on the curb and at a specific site.

According to newspaper accounts, seven cars were destroyed and another badly damaged in the mysterious trolley car barn fire in 1947.

The men who started the Phoenix Trolley Museum, and particularly Larry Fleming, had pieced together, as best they could, what had happened to the remaining cars when the city discontinued the service in February 1948.

The streetcars still in use when the service ceased were originally saved for “emergencies.” But by September of that year, the city sold all seven. Several are still unaccounted for. Fleming suspected that Car No. 509 could have been in the car barn fire, but no one knew for sure.

New location, new life

Over the years, those trolley guys managed to acquire two cars plus additional parts and open a museum in 1977, by the Ellis-Shackelford House. Today, we might consider that the museum and Car No. 509 have multiple lives — and the organizers are certain it still has lives left.

The museum has nearly reached its fundraising goal to purchase the land it has been leasing since it was forced to move from Hance Park in 2017, so officials are certain it still has lives left.

Yes, Car No. 509 arose from the ashes. Its actual use for the museum has not been determined, but what luck to find the car after it was seemingly lost 73 years ago!

To learn more about Car No. 509 and the museum along with this unique part of Phoenix history, check out phoenixtrolley.org.

Donna Reiner is the co-author of three books on Phoenix history.

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