SPANISH LAKE — Kenneth Pitts remembers the day in May 1966 when the city’s last streetcar line shut down. He was there, in the driver’s seat of one of the last streetcars to traverse the Hodiamont line.
“There was no hoopla,” Pitts said. “I think most of the hoopla took place in the morning, when the streetcars were going out. And I was not part of that. During the day, I don’t remember anybody getting that excited about it or whatever, but that’s the way it was.”
Pitts, 81, is one of the last living streetcar operators in a city that depended on them for a century.
He had the 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. shift on the Hodiamont line, the only streetcar line left operating before Bi-State Transit Authority (now Metro) ended the service on May 21, 1966. It was a job he had only for about two years, just as the St. Louis streetcar era was nearing a close. He’s had lots of jobs since then — school bus driver, wholesale liquor salesman, security supervisor at the Hazelwood School District — but the streetcar gig is one he remembers fondly.
“The biggest mistake they made was not leaving a streetcar line on,” he said Friday from his kitchen in Spanish Lake. “At least one.”
Pitts unearthed his old scrapbook after a story in the Post-Dispatch about plans to rehabilitate the historic Wellston Station, a waiting station in the then-thriving Wellston Loop that is now one of the last remaining pieces of St. Louis’ old streetcar architecture.
He still has an old route map of the Hodiamont line, which ran from downtown, past the Wellston Loop station to Kennerly Avenue a few blocks north of the old waiting station. And he has the watch he used to time his stops so he wouldn’t get too close to the next streetcar on the line. There was no speedometer.
Pitts moved to St. Louis as a teenager from Springfield, Massachusetts. He played football for Sumner High School and graduated in 1959. Then, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Thailand, during the early stage of the Vietnam War when most of the American public was largely unaware of the conflict.
When he got out of the military, Pitts applied for a job at Bi-State. They finally hired him and trained him to be a bus driver. He’s still not quite sure why, but management opted to make him a streetcar driver in 1964, just as Bi-State winnowed the last three lines to one, the Hodiamont. Turns out a special streetcar license wasn’t necessary.
He got the hang of it pretty quick, despite a streetcar’s quirks. The pedals were reversed, with the accelerator on the left and the brake on the right.
“You really didn’t need a whole lot of training,” he said. “You were on a track. All you had to do was control the streetcar.”
But that could be difficult at times. The brakes were mechanical.
“No airbrakes whatsoever,” Pitts recalled. “Which would have been nice.”
To supplement the mechanical brakes, streetcars also could drop sand, like trains, to increase the friction and slow down the trolley. There was an emergency brake, too, but “most of the time it wasn’t worth two dead flies,” Pitts said.
The worst time of the year to drive was the fall. Other than the overhead power lines freezing up, which a streetcar “trouble” crew would come scrape off, snow and winter never gave Pitts much issue. But in the fall, the tree-lined Hodiamont tracks right-of-way through north St. Louis would get covered in leaves, making it even harder for the streetcar wheels to grip the tracks and slow down. He slid past passengers a few times.
“I used to hate to see the fall come,” Pitts said.
Good and bad memories
Working the late shift, he was held up a couple of times, though his wallet was spared. The robbers were after the coin change dispenser they knew the trolley carried.
Sometimes, kids would throw rocks at the streetcar along the right-of-way. Unlike buses, the streetcar didn’t have safety glass in all of its windows. Once, his window shattered and he had to pick glass out of his hair. Sometimes they’d put debris on the track to block the streetcar.
“Just to be messing with you,” he said. “These kids.”
But there were joyous moments, too. He remembers working the night Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1964 World Series. On his way through Gaslight Square, the former entertainment district in what’s now the Central West End, throngs of revelers celebrating the victory blocked the streets and the track. A group of them began rocking the streetcar back and forth, almost off the tracks.
“They were just happy,” he said. “There was joy everywhere. Everybody was happy. It was a scene to behold, I’m telling you.”
When the streetcar line was discontinued, Pitts moved to driving buses for Bi-State, but it wasn’t quite the same. He often drove different routes with different riders. When he was a streetcar operator, Pitts remembers once waiting at a bus transfer station because he knew he was the last streetcar for the night and his regulars weren’t there. The bus arrived late, and the grateful riders thanked him for waiting.
“I knew those people,” Pitts said. “I didn’t know them by name, but I knew them by face.”
Pitts met his wife, Bural, on the streetcar. She was a regular passenger, taking the Hodiamont line back home from her job at Anheuser-Busch.
He won’t admit how many times, but Pitts asked her out more than once.
“I was a fast young man,” he said chuckling. “I guess she just got tired of me and said OK, and I’ve been in trouble ever since.”
They’ll be married 56 years in August.
About 2,500 men of the upper and professional classes formed a posse to keep the streetcars moving.
CEO Taulby Roach says he won’t do any more on his plan to reopen and operate the trolley for four years, leaving unclear the future of the 2.2-mile line.