Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Feb. 23, 1969.
A young employe at Watkins Products, Inc., back in the 1920s, H. Glen Berry frequently would look out a window at the plant, watch the electric streetcars rumbling along the East Third Street tracks and think to himself, “Running one of those things looks like it would be a pretty good job.”
Today, as the senior bus driver for Winona Transit Co., Berry is the only Winonan actively engaged in public transportation whose career spans two eras of transit operations.
He’s the only member of that corps of streetcar motormen who in the late 1930s left the wicker seats of the old “rattlers” to climb behind the steering wheel of one of the new buses that were making their first appearance on Winona streets, who is still regularly engaged in transportation service.
In the going on 43 years since Berry walked into the office of the old Winona Railway and Light Company to apply for placement on the firm’s list of extra motormen for call-up duty, he’s probably carried some 4 million or more people — on streetcars and buses — to and from work in Winona, on shopping trips to school and to various entertainment activities.
It’s almost a certainty that since public transit was introduced in Winona no one has been employed continuously in transportation longer than Berry whose career covers roughly half the total period of the city’s transit service history.
And, nearly a half a century after he watched the streetcars go by the Watkins plant he still feels employment in the transit service is “a good job; it’s interesting and the best part of it is in the number of people you come in contact with every day.”
Winona’s transit system was 43 years old when Berry signed on as an extra streetcar motorman in October of 1926. The first street railway system had been established on Christmas Day in 1883 when a horse-drawn car made its inaugural run from the Winona Street Railway Company stables at East Third Street and Mankato Avenue to the Winona Wagon Works on West Fifth Street.
The system’s facilities then included stables to accommodate 36 horses and an adjacent carhouse for 14 cars. Operations were started with eight new carriages manufactured in St. Louis and some iron scrapers devised to clear the path for the cars during the winter months. Horsecars were used here for about a decade until modernization prompted construction of a power system and trackage for an electric street railway that began service in the winter of 1892.
When Berry donned his motorman’s hat there were two lines in Winona. The Main Line ran from Lee Street, near the present location of Jefferson School, east on Fifth Street to Johnson, up Johnson to Third Street and east on Third Street to High Forest, south on High Forest to East Sanborn Street and then west on Sanborn to Center.
The Lake Line extended from West Howard and Dacota streets east to Center, north on Center to Third Street. At the Center Street terminating points, return trips were then made along the same routes.
For the return run the motorman simply reversed the position of the trolley by swinging it around, using a rope hanging from the trolley pole, removed his controls and fare box from one end of the car and installed them in the other and reversed the position of the passenger seat backs.
At one time the west line had an extension across Lake Winona at Dacota Street with a wooden bridge carrying cars across the lake to a point near Woodlawn Cemetery. During the years the trip across the lake was being made the company for a period showed free outdoor movies at the terminal across the lake as a device to stimulate patronage.
There usually was a lineup of youngsters waiting at the north end of the lake as the streetcar approached and if the motorman was in a good mood and there were few passengers on the car he’d often provide the children with a free ride across the lake.
There were a series of accidents involving the young free riders and when a streetcar was struck by a train at the Dacota Street crossing, resulting in the deaths of three persons, service across the lake was discontinued.
When Berry was accepted as a prospective motorman he was given four hours of training in the operation of the streetcar and for familiarization with the routes, then was signed on as an extra employee to be called in when a regular motorman was unable to report for duty.
“I think I started out at 48 cents an hour,” he says, “but the pay was raised a couple of cents a year or so later.”
At that time the fare was 6 cents for adults and 3 cents for children with tokens for adult fares available at 16 for a dollar.
Some of the more difficult days experienced by bus drivers today are during periods of heavy winter snow and icing, just as they were during the era of the streetcars, Berry observes.
“We had one trolley unit equipped with a big revolving brush that was operated by one man over the entire route to remove snow from the tracks after a snowstorm,” he recalls. “Sometimes, especially in the outlying areas, the snow would blow back in drifts and then we’d just have to try to punch our way through. We’d back up a short distance, then go ahead, back up again and go ahead and try to break through the drifts. If we really got hung up then the only thing to do was call in for help.”
Ice was a serious and more frequently encountered problem. A sand spreading device was installed on all streetcars to drop sand on the tracks when traction, on the steel rails became difficult and other devices had to be developed to cope with the icing problem.
For the streetcar motorman cold weather brought an extra duty — providing’-heat for the passengers.
Each streetcar had a coke-burning stove at the rear with a blower fan assembly attached to circulate the heat through the car.
“Every morning during the winter before you started out,” Berry recalls, “you had to get a fire going in the heater and then it had to be kept fired up during the rest of the day.
“Sometimes you’d be busy and forget the fire for a time and it would go out. Then you’d really have a job on your hands when you reached the end of the line and in the couple of minutes before heading back you’d have to scratch up some kindling and get that fire going again.”
“I remember one time when I was put on duty all night at a time when water had collected in the streets and was freezing,” Berry says. “It was my job to run the car back and forth over the entire system through the night to keep thick ice from forming. The wheels would break up the ice on the tracks before it got a chance to get really solid and that way we were able to keep the lines open for the next day’s runs.”
In addition to providing transportation for Winona residents, the streetcars were a constant source of entertainment for enterprising youths who sought out different methods of disengaging the trolley from the overhead line which provided the electric power necessary for the car’s operation. Another favorite practice was for boys to crowd into the rear end of the car en masse so that their weight would lift the front wheels of the streetcar off the tracks.
Motormen, Berry recalls, more or less resigned themselves to these stratagems but not infrequently a motorman whose patience was wearing a little thin would bring the car to an abrupt halt, leap from his seat and give chase down the street to a group of miscreants who had been trying to snap the trolley off the wire or who had been shagging rides on the rear of the car.
Halloween, of course, was looked forward to by streetcar operators with something less than enthusiasm.
“On Halloween,” Berry remembers, “an off-duty man was assigned to each car to take a spot at the rear and act as a guard. There was one Halloween when I was out near the end of the line and the trolley was pulled loose. The rope hanging from the pole snapped up and twisted around the wire so I had to climb up on top of the car and try to unwind the rope.
‘I was up there unwinding the rope and trying to keep from coming in contact with the power line when this bunch of kids came out and started pelting me with eggs.”
The motormen had their moments, too, though, according Id Berry. He recalls one Halloween when a fellow motorman was driving along the street and a youth dashed out with a fire extinguisher filled with water and scored a direct hit oh the operator’s face.
“The motorman happened to live right on the streetcar line on East Sanborn Street,” Berry continues, “so he continued his run but when they got to his house he told the man riding guard, with him to watch the car a minute while he went into his house. He came back with a pail of water, they continued on down the line arid when they reached the spot where he’d been squirted the same kid came out again with the fire extinguisher. This time, before the kid had a chance to squirt him, the motorman reached out and let him have the whole pail of water. He didn’t have any more trouble with that kid that night.”
In those years when every family didn’t have one or more cars the public depended to a great extent on the transit system for transportation and Berry remembers “we really used to pack them in in those days.”
During the peak rush hours when people were going to and from work, extra cars were placed in operation and “double-headers” — one car following immediately behind another — were common.
“The big rush was for the North Western Railway shops,” Berry says, “and when the men were going to work we’d probably be carrying 80 or 90 in a car. A lot of them would get off the streetcar at West Fifth Street and then walk up the tracks to where they were working.”
In the early days a circus, baseball game or some other community event would tax the transit system to its limit.
On those occasions special open trailers were attached to the streetcars and towed along behind to accommodate the surge of passengers.
From time to time the trailers would jump the tracks at a twitching point and then the passengers would all climb off, lift the trailer back on the tracks and then resume the trip.
The streetcar era came to an end in 1938 when Mississippi Valley Public Service Company — which earlier had absorbed Winona Railway arid Light Company — replaced the electric trolleys with motor buses. The transition from trolley to bus operation, Berry says, wasn’t too difficult for those motormen who owned cars.
“Each of us was given some instruction in how to operate” the bus and then we drove it up and down Broadway until we had the feel of it,” he explains. “There was one of the men who didn’t own a car and just couldn’t get the hang of it and the company let him retire.”
Constant contacts with the public for nearly 43 years have convinced Berry that, by arid large, people haven’t changed too much over the past four decades.
“As a whole the public always has been pretty good to deal with,” he observes. “Oh, once in a while you run into a grouch but usually people are good to get along with.
“I guess maybe you’d have to say that people seem to be a little more in a rush these days than they used to be; there seems to be more of a ‘hurry-hurry’ attitude now than there was.”
Berry, who lives with his wife at 465½ E. King St.; is planning on retirement from the transit company in the summer of 1970.
After putting in as many as 12 hours a day or more driving buses on city routes what do he and his wife do on weekends and days off? Go for a ride out of town.
And plans for retirement? “Probably do a little traveling.”