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A streetcar named expire: the last ride of the Liberty Bell line

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Aug 19 2011 09:10:57 AM CDT

A streetcar named expire: the last ride of the Liberty Bell line

The late Gerhard Salomon was a trolley guy. But how could he not be? From the time he was 3 1/2 years old, which would have been in 1928, when his family moved into the watch and clock repair shop that is today Salomon Jewelers, he had a front row seat at watching the handsome monarchs of the street piloted by the crews of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company glide past. He wanted to be at the helm of one of them one day. And by the early 1950s he had already done so, thanks to a motorman who allowed Salomon on occasion to drive the trolley while he kept a watchful eye.

But on September 6, 1951, 60 years ago next month, that dream began to die for Salomon and the other trolley buffs of that generation. That date marked the last run of the Liberty Bell line, the trolley link between Allentown and Philadelphia that had been the pride of the LVT since 1912. And a few years later, all local trolleys would follow its path to Bethlehem Steel's scrapyard.

Salomon would often recount the evening that the Liberty Bell died. "It was a time full of excitement and sadness," he would recall in 1986.

The LVT did not publish the Liberty Bell's demise. "We thought they had to give 90 days notice before service was stopped," he remembered. "But in this case that certainly was not done." The trolley's work crew only found out about it the afternoon before it was to happen. They quickly sent word along the grapevine that the Liberty Bell Line would have its last run.

Salomon's friend, the late Randy Kulp was the first to hear that this would be the Liberty Bell's last day. "I was walking home from shopping on Thursday night about 7'oclock and I just happened to head south," he recalled. Finding himself at 8th and Hamilton, the Liberty Bell's departure point, Kulp heard someone call his name. It was the operator of Liberty Bell car #1005 about to start his 7 p.m. run to Philadelphia. "Come on, you're coming with me." An excited Kulp quickly boarded the Liberty Bell.

Salmon and another group of friends heard about the last trip of the Liberty Bell at around 5:30. But they had missed its departure from Allentown and so took a local trolley down to Center Valley, hoping to catch up with it there. "We saw the 1005 pulling out southbound from the Lehigh siding next to the Carmelite monastery," Salomon recalled.

Horrified that they had missed the last Liberty Bell, Salomon and his friends quickly returned to Allentown. The informal fraternity among trolley buffs took them right to Fred Enters, the LVT's dispatcher. After a little prodding, they managed to get him to agree to replace the 11 p.m. bus to Philadelphia with a trolley. It pulled out of the Fairview car barns as # 1006.

Salomon and Kulp recalled later the meeting between the 1005 heading north from Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell car headed south. As they both recalled it was at the Aineyville Junction, east of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church on Allentown's Woodward St. "Gerhard wanted me and my brother-in-law to get on the last train and go down with them, but it was already after 11'o'clock and I had to get up for work the next day," recalled Kulp who in the 1950s worked in the office at Bethlehem Steel.

Salomon was to later recall that most of the ride was uneventful. It was after all dark and the sleepy little towns that the last Liberty Bell train passed through were long since quiet. But Salomon could not help feeling that the strong sense of nostalgia and hurt. In 1912 there had been huge newspaper headlines hailing the start of the Liberty Bell line tying Allentown with Philadelphia. Two cartoon figures in 18th century dress, one labeled "Father Allen," the other "Father Penn," were shown greeting each other with a hardy handshake. In 1915 no less a figure than former U.S. president William Howard Taft took the Liberty Bell up from Philadelphia to give the opening address at the Allentown Hospital's new School of Nursing.

In the late 1930s, the old 1912 cars were removed, ironically sold on the eve of World War II to some Japanese scrap yards, and replaced with sleek new modern cars. Now all that history was ending in the dark of night with no ceremony or even announcement of its passing.

Salomon saw at least part of his task was to take pictures and this he did throughout the trip. He was not alone. Mostly they were pictures of the friends inside the Liberty Bell's last trip.

Since 1949, as Salomon and his friends knew, the Liberty Bell no longer stopped at its original destination of Philadelphia's 63rd Street station but in Norristown. There it turned around and headed north. By the time the last Liberty Bell train reached Lehigh Station in Center Valley, only the trolley buffs were aboard.

As there was no need for it to return to Allentown's 8th and Hamilton Sts #1006 glided into the Fairview car barns. It was 3:a.m. Many years later Salomon admitted that he was the one that launched at that point what he called a "Roman candle" along the tracks as a memorial to the last ride of the Liberty Bell.

Not everyone in the Lehigh Valley shared Salomon nostalgia. The next day's editorial in local morning newspaper, under the headline "Buses to Philadelphia," hailed the end of the Liberty Bell line and looked forward to the final phase out of the trolley. And many drivers at the time, tired of having to avoid the streetcars were pleased. By 1954 the Lehigh Valley's trolley era was over. Gerhard Salomon died in December 2002.