“Over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” or so the song went. But as an urban child growing up in Kansas City during the 1930s and 1940s, my travel was by trolley bus and a street car called the “Dinky.”
The route was a two-block walk to the Prospect Avenue trolley bus, a transfer at 15th Street (now Truman Road) to the north Prospect “Dinky” and then the Independence Avenue trolley bus to my grandparent’s neighborhood. Trolley buses had overhead power wires but ran on rubber tires. The street cars also had overhead wires but ran on tracks. The origin of this nickname “Dinky” is lost in the past, but you can guess it was a reference to its small size. In reality, it was a Birney, a short, four-wheeled streetcar, approximately 20 feet long and used on several lines in the city.
When I was first allowed to make this journey alone at the age of ten or eleven, I felt I had reached adult status, but my true pleasure in making the trip was a ride on the “Dinky.” The wait at the transfer point was frequently lengthy as there was only one car on the line. Evidentially, it would come into sight, swaying from side to side, riding the rails down the middle of the street. There would be a loud clanging of the bell and the screech of metal on metal as the motorman brought the car to a stop. Then came the ritual for reversing direction. There was no turn-around area, just a procedure that transformed the rear end into the front of the car and the front into the rear.
When the car was empty the motorman would step out carrying his stool and place it inside the end that would become the front. There was a metal arm that ran from the car to the overhead wires supplying the power. The motorman would pull the arm down a short distance by an attached rope, swiveling the arm to the opposite end. This changed the electric current and sent the little car in the opposite direction. For me this was the exciting part of the trip because when the rollers on the end of the electric arm reengaged with the power wire, brilliant sparks of multiple colors would reign down. It was a mini Fourth of July. With this simple procedure the rear of the car had become the front and was headed back in the opposite direction without having turned around.
Passengers boarded amid the clunk of nickels in the glass fare box or the changing hands of a paper transfer pass. Seat backs were changed to face in the appropriate direction. With a repeat of the clanging bell and screeching wheels, the transformed “Dinky” labored off to the north. A sense of satisfaction accompanied me on this swaying ride. It seemed that by watching this metamorphosis I had contributed to the accomplishment and aided the jaunty little street car on its way.
May 11, 2008