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STREETCARS OF DESIRE: Fort Worth volunteers working to restore vintage electric rail vehicles

FORT WORTH - Stepping into the abandoned electric rail car, Bob Dove was bathed in a dusty shaft of light breaking through the arched curve of what once was an intricate stained-glass window.

"My father worked on these old street cars," Mr. Dove, 69, said last week as he surveyed the sturdy maple floors and fraying electrical wires of the Crimson Limited motor car No. 25. "He would've loved this. I sure wish he were here to see us bring it back to life."

Mr. Dove's father, who died three years ago, was a mechanic on the Northern Texas Traction Co.'s Interurban electric train line that ran between Dallas and Fort Worth between 1902 and 1934. The line stopped operating on Christmas Eve 1934 as people became more reliant on their own automobiles.

Mr. Dove and a dozen or so volunteers have worked since 1995 to restore the unique cars to their former glory. A private collector donated the motor car that pulls the train, built in 1913, and its shorter companion trailer car, built in 1919, to the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, which is supervising the project.

Officials say they plan to have the cars ready for the rails again by fall 2000. They will be used in ceremonial events such as the opening of the Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth.

"What's so ironic is that the automobile is the culprit in the demise and the resurgence of the commuter train," said Lee Lavell, the trolley restoration supervisor. "People wanted the freedom of their own private transportation back in the 1930s; now we're losing that freedom to gridlock.

"We've gotten out of the habit of public transportation."

The 34-mile line of the Trinity Railway Express eventually will run from Union Station in Dallas to the old Texas and Pacific Passenger Station in Fort Worth.

In its heyday, the Interurban express train ran eight motor cars and five trailers between stations at Third and Main streets in Fort Worth and Commerce and St. Paul streets in Dallas. The company's other electric trains ran into outlying areas such as Burleson, Cleburne, Corsicana, Denton and Waco.

The electric rail line grew out of the Fort Worth Trolley System that began service in 1890. The old electric cars look more like traditional train cars but are powered by an electrical motor like a trolley.

The express train between Dallas and Fort Worth was upgraded in 1924 when more comfortable seating and new upholstery were installed and the cars were painted bright red. Volunteers restored the cars to their trademark crimson long before they began extensive internal repairs on windows and flooring.

"A streetcar named desire," whispered volunteer Buddy Carlile, 67, as he and other volunteers removed a weatherproof tarp from the front of the train car sitting on wood and concrete blocks behind the old T&P Building in downtown Fort Worth. "I feel like we're re-creating history."

A $220,000 matching grant from the Department of Transportation provided money for the project, but that's the easy part, say volunteers.

Finding old photographs and schematics of the old cars plus hunting down the unusual parts for the undercarriage have proved the biggest challenges.

Mr. Lavell said he eagerly awaits the January arrival of an electric rail car from Indiana that will provide the wheels and other needed mechanical parts and a good look at the windows, lights and seating.

Not only are the cars old, but the Fort Worth pair and others like them have also been used as mobile homes or even as roadside hamburger stands, and the years of remodeling have taken their toll.

"We're trying to get everything as close to original as we know how," said Dick Blair, 82, who said he grew up riding an Interurban system in Ohio. "It will be nice when we get it done, but we've got a long way to go."

On sunny Tuesday morning, volunteers brought a mixed bag of skills to the project.

Mr. Blair sawed and stained the specially cut pieces of mahogany to run beneath the windows. Mr. Dove and Mr. Carlile worked to repair the wood on the back steps of the main car, and Pat Cahill, a retired electrical engineer, paced up and down the trailer car, trying to figure out how the electrical systems once worked.

"There seems to be a real trend in society right now toward getting back to the old way of doing things," Mr. Lavell said. "We like to think we're a part of that movement."

Mr. Lavell said the project is moving slowly because he needs more volunteers and would like to talk with anyone who may have photographs of the old electric trains.

For more information, call (817) 820-0247.

The Dallas Morning News
Laurie Fox