Why the trolley tracks on the North Side's Chestnut Street are still visible
For a few blocks on Chestnut Street in Pittsburgh’s East Allegheny neighborhood, two sets of trolley tracks peek out from the red brick road.
On a sunny summer day, Good Question! asker Ellen Gaus stood at the corner of Chestnut Street and East North Avenue and watched traffic roll over the steel tracks.
“I want to know why the trolley tracks are still visible on Chestnut Street because there is no trolley that runs this way, obviously,” Gaus said. “I don’t find it pleasant to drive on because your tires kind of align with the track and you get jostled around.”
Gaus is right. Unlike in Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhoods, where the Red and Blue T lines still transport residents, there is no trolley or light rail system that still uses these tracks.
Chestnut Street has long served as a gateway to hilly North Side neighborhoods like Spring Garden and Spring Hill. In the early 20th century, the residents likely worked at specialty mills along the North Shore, across the river in the Strip District rail yards, or in the slaughterhouses on what was then known as Herr’s Island. Today it’s better known as Washington’s Landing.
“It was a very urban neighborhood, you wouldn’t recognize it today,” said Chuck Rompala, manager of special services, events and detours with the Port Authority of Allegheny County. “[Herr’s Island], disgusting as it may sound, was actually at the time where most of our meats were processed.”
Pittsburgh’s first transit system dates back to 1859, when a mule-drawn carriage took passengers from Downtown to 34th Street and Penn Avenue. Over time, electric streetcars became the norm and allowed the city to expand.
“It was hugely popular and efficient, especially considering the tricky topography,” Rompala said. “It allowed people to move out of down by the rivers, where they probably worked.”
He said the trolley system served the region well for decades, but that changed in the mid-20th century.
“It was just a time where the trolley systems had, no pun intended, soldiered on very, very well, very diligently during World War II,” Rompala said. “But the system, be it a streetcar, be it the passenger train, even the early buses, were tired. They had really fought the fight.”
People wanted to live in the suburbs, they wanted their own cars, and they had little use for the rickety trolleys.
Port Authority was created in 1956 to combine the dozens of bus, rail, and incline companies into one entity. The next year, the new agency stopped the three trolley routes that served the North Side neighborhoods, including the 5 Spring Hill, 4 Troy Hill and 1 Spring Garden. Port Authority then created a new bus route that ran a street away from Chestnut.
“Ironically, the first bus we actually operated was the 54C North Side, Oakland, South Side,” Rompala said. “Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
As for the tracks? Rompala says some were physically removed, but others were just paved over.“There a lot still in the asphalt through Allegheny County.”
Tearing out the tracks was a gradual process, Rompala said, and not a strategic neighborhood-by-neighborhood change.
Still, their presence continues to “come up every few years,” according to Mark Fatla, former head of the North Side Leadership Conference. Many people tell him they’d prefer the tracks go away because cars have traction trouble driving on top of the tracks. But Fatla warns them: “If you pave over it, you’ve turned Chestnut Street into a drag strip.”
Chestnut, after all, is sandwiched between Route 28, the Sixteenth Street Bridge and not far from Interstate 279.
“When [people] think about it, they’re sitting there going, ‘Yeah, smoother means faster.And we don’t want faster,’” Fatla said.
While Chestnut Street calms traffic, there are other visible trolley tracks in the region. The obvious tracks are in the southern neighborhoods that are still used by the “T,” and some in Allentown as the system’s back-up route.
But in Regent Square, there’s a short chunk of old track still embedded in the bricks on Allenby Avenue next to South Braddock Avenue. Homestead also has a span of visible track, as does Wilmerding.
They’re a visible reminder of the region’s transit history and a quirky feature of our city.