Streetcar played vital role for Yalies past

Noisy, hot and packed to the brim. Such were New Haven’s streetcars on autumn Saturdays of the 1930s and ’40s, when Yale students would pile in for a journey down Chapel Street to watch the football team at the Yale Bowl.

“Each of the cars would just be jammed to the roof,” Colman Ives ’39 said. “I can remember several of our classmates getting up on the roof of the car.”

For Yale students from 70 years ago, the trolley was a small but indelible part of the Yale experience until the system closed in 1948. Now, as New Haven residents debate whether to reintroduce streetcars, it remains unclear whether the trolley will be able to recapture its place in the lives of Yale students, eight alumni said.

Last Thursday, city officials announced plans, still to be finalized, for a streetcar that would run from Union Station onto Science Hill via Church Street, turning around near Bishop Street and following Temple Street back to the station.

For most Yale men who remember the Chapel Street line, game days were the only occasions to use public transportation, the alumni said. Though trolley tracks lay on every major thoroughfare, Yale had yet to develop much of Science Hill at the time, so nearly all classrooms were within walking distance.

For football games, though, the de facto Saturday activity, thousands upon thousands of students would make the trolley trip out to the stadium to cheer on their beloved Bulldogs.

For instance, Wayne Wall ’47 recalled that many students would hang off the sides of the cars as they rode down Chapel Street. And Robert Fullman ’44 said students would play a game in which they tried to ride for free by avoiding the conductor as long as possible.

The New Haven trolley, which city officials may now revive, was an idelible part of the Yale College experience until 1948.
The New Haven trolley, which city officials may now revive, was an idelible part of the Yale College experience until 1948.

“You jumped on and then somebody came along to collect the fare, and you’d jump off and catch the next one,” he said.

Such larks often worried the University. Officials at the time issued several warnings imploring students to be more respectful. For instance, the deans of the University signed an October 1935 letter calling disturbances on the trolley “extremely annoying.”

During the ride, groups of neighborhood children, called “scramblers,” would often run alongside the moving trolley, competing for nickels and dimes Yale students would throw, Ives said. Certain “scrambling strategies” developed, including the “Sniper Stab,” in which one boy would toss the change backward to a teammate waiting outside the melee.

Although the eight alumni said the rides were memorable, Charles Wakeman ’47 said they were a “miniscule” element of the much larger experience of Yale football Saturdays.

“[Students] didn’t have the occasion to use the trolley for anything else — period,” Robert Rosenbaum ’36 added.

Ives added that he is not sure whether the trolley would be “viable” in the age of cars — and the Yale bus.

The new streetcar line is still in the early planning stages, and funding for the project has yet to be resolved. Regardless, the city has no plans to recreate the Chapel Street line, so students traveling to the Yale Bowl will still have to rely on the bus shuttles provided by the University.

Still, Holly Parker, Yale’s director of sustainable transportation, noted that the initial line would provide Yale with a new mode of travel from the New Haven Green to the School of Medicine campus and Union Station. Michael Piscitelli, New Haven’s director of transportation, traffic and parking, said he thinks the tram would be more reliable than the current buses and friendlier to travelers with large suitcases. Piscitelli added that he hopes to work with Yale to establish a student program similar to the U-Pass, which currently allows students at Gateway Community College, the University of New Haven and other area universities to ride CT Transit buses for free. Officials at the Yale Transportation Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday.

Six current students said they had never had problems with Yale’s current bus system and do not see the need for another transportation option.

“The buses run every 15 minutes … and they run pretty regular, so I don’t get how this streetcar would be any different,” said Kristin Darwin ’11, a biomedical engineering major who performs research at the School of Medicine campus.

The streetcar originally shut down because of low ridership.

Comments

  • Streetcars1

    In response to Kristin Darwin’s comment at the end of this article that questions the need for a streetcar system because the Yale shuttle already operates efficiently and frequently –> The point of the streetcar system is not just to move the Yalies around. There are other people in this city that would benefit from an improved transportation system. In addition to that, the Yale Shuttle has not spurred economic development and strengthened the community in the way that streetcar systems all over the country (and in Canada) recently have (i.e. Seattle, Toronto, Charlotte, Portland, etc).