James Rada, Jr.
During the 1980s, Ed Metka lived in Thurmont and made the long daily commute to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. At the time, he would have appreciated a quick form of transportation to work, but the Frederick station on the MARC line hadn’t opened yet.
Ed would have used it because he has been fascinated with streetcars since he was a child. He grew up in Chicago in the 1940s. Trolleys were starting to lose ridership to cars, but they saw a temporary resurgence during WWII. The large vehicles running along streets, powered by a thin pole connected to a wire, caught Ed’s attention.
“I was five years old, and it always fascinated me to see these things come down the street on a track,” he said.
Ed would ride on the streetcars with his mother and stand next to the motorman, pretending to be driving the trolley.
As a teenager living near San Francisco, he discovered that trolley museums existed, and he joined one in the Bay Area.
“I had thought I must be the only one who liked that stuff,” Ed said.
Like other trolley museum members, he started taking pictures of streetcars and collecting books and magazines about streetcar systems.
Trolleys were a slower form of transportation, primarily designed for urban areas that provided mass transportation around a city. However, they fell victim to the same problems as trains. After WWII gas rationing had ended, people began purchasing and using automobiles, and trolley ridership declined.
Thus, by the 1950s, most of the trolley systems in the United States had gone out of business, including the old Thurmont and Frederick trolley. The cars had been junked, sent off to museums, or abandoned.
Ed worked with the City of Frederick in a failed bid to bring a streetcar line back to the city. It was around this time that he had the opportunity to purchase ten streetcars from the Philadelphia Transit System (SEPTA). He decided that he needed to buy them to help keep that vanishing era of history from disappearing entirely. He rented a railroad siding from the Maryland Midland Railroad in Union Bridge and stored his streetcars there. Then, the opportunity came to buy even more streetcars.
“Well, I couldn’t fit them all in my driveway, but by then I was retired and flexible about where I lived.”
He began searching for a suitable and affordable piece of property, and found an old coal company storage yard in Windber, Pennsylvania.
“It’s kind of amusing,” Ed recalled. “The railyard was all covered over with trees and bush, and several local Windber residents didn’t even realize there was a railyard back there.”
He had the streetcars transported on flatbed trucks to Windber to create what most people call the Windber Trolley Graveyard. Although the site has no official name, trolley graveyard seems appropriate.
The 20-acre property is filled with forty streetcars that are shells of their former selves, skeletons if you will. Some lay on their roofs, others on their sides, a few still sit upright. Indeed, most are sitting on the mile of rail track that crosses the property, although some list to the side, seemingly ready to topple over.
You can climb on the cars to explore, but you need to be careful. (You also need to have permission, because the trolley graveyard is private property.) Some of the floors are missing, and most of the windows have been broken, so there is a lot of glass on the floor.
The site is not advertised as a tourist attraction, but word of mouth has spread its reputation. Visitors come from all over the Eastern United States. They come to photograph the trolley cars and explore what is left of them.
A dozen trolleys that are in decent shape—and Ed hopes to see restored—are kept in the repair building, out of the elements. However, such a restoration project is a massive undertaking and impossible for one man. So, Ed keeps those trolleys protected in the hopes that one day they will once again run on the outdoor track.
His “hobby” of collecting streetcars is now a business. He restores the best of the trolleys, sells parts from the ones that are beyond hope, and lobbies cities to include trolley lines in their tourism and economic development plans.
The streetcars, which date from 1912 to the 1950s, come from places like Philadelphia, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, and Cleveland. They are spread throughout the property, along more than a mile of rail track. Their windows are busted. Leaves and debris litter the interiors. Many of the cars are covered in graffiti. “Mother Nature has taken its toll, as you can well imagine, because some of these cars have been here since the mid-90s,” Ed said.
The cars sit there, seemingly forgotten, but Ed remembers. He can tell you the story behind just about every streetcar on the property. The streetcars from Boston used to run on a suburban trolley line. The ones from Chicago were part of the L-system, the elevated tracks that run through the city. Two 1912 streetcars from Grand Rapids, Michigan, had previously been used for a lakefront cabin.
Ed can tell you about the parts of some of his streetcars that wound up in trolleys in places like Dubai, Aruba, and San Francisco. He has even sold entire streetcars to a small trolley system in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Some day, he hopes to see those trolleys running again in American cities.