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Thomas Mitten’s 5200 Trolleys

The intersection of 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue, with two 5200 trolleys. Photo dated April 20, 1955.

In 1923, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) placed an order for 135 double-end passenger cars and 385 single-end passenger cars from the J.G. Brill Company for their extensive web of trolley lines throughout the city.  According to the Electric City Trolley Museum Association, the PRT’s purchase represented the largest single order for surface passenger equipment in American history of that time.  What the Baldwin Locomotive Company was to steam engines, J.G. Brill was to trolley cars. These 5200 series steel trolley cars were a vast improvement over their wooden predecessors. They were equipped with two Brill 39E2 trucks, two General Electric (GE) #275 motors, and General Electric K68 controllers. Despite their modern engineering, they still bore a strong resemblance to the old horse-drawn streetcars of only a few decades earlier. An additional series of updated 5200 trolleys, known as 8000s, arrived a few years later.

The president of the PRT from 1911 to 1929 was a British immigrant named Thomas H. Mitten, who oversaw the vast expansion of Philadelphia’s public transportation system after the Widener family turned its attention to other enterprises. Mitten’s renewal of Philadelphia’s aging Victorian-era trolley fleet might have been part of his desire to improve labor relations: the PRT had long been plagued by strikes and other forms of labor unrest.  To make the PRT workers happier, Mitten organized employee outings to Willow Grove Park, started a formal worker education program (with the goal of improving trolley operations), as well as sick, death, and pension benefits.  Mitten also announced that workers would draw their wages from a pool of 22 percent of gross passenger revenues.  Some heralded the Mitten Plan as a new era of harmony between capital and labor. Others saw it as merely another form of “welfare capitalism.”

On October 1, 1929, Thomas Mitten was found dead in a lake near his summer home in the Poconos.  It remains unclear whether his death was an accident, suicide, or foul play. Regardless, the city had launched an investigation into Mitten’s personal finances.  In 1927, Mitten had purchased a bankrupt bank and resurrected it as the Mitten Bank Securities Corporation. He then gave the PRT workers the opportunity to put their holdings of PRT stock into accounts at MBSC. Mitten then swapped out his workers’ stock holdings for $18 million worth of MBSC stock. Within a few weeks after Mitten’s death, the stock market crashed, and both the MBSC and the PRT spiraled into bankruptcy, destroying the life savings of 26,000 deposit holders.  Financier Albert Greenfield oversaw the reorganization of the PRT, which would finally emerge in 1940 as the Philadelphia Transit Company.

In the late 1930s, the first of the Art Deco “Streamliner” trolleys appeared on Philadelphia’s streets.  However, scores of Thomas Mitten’s updated and overhauled 5200s and 8000s remained in operation well into the 1950s.

James Wolfinger, Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp.95-97, 119.

“Trolley Tracks: Trolley Beginnings,” Philadelphia Trolley Tracks,  http://www.phillytrolley.org/Phila_trolley_history_1924/Phila_trolley_history_1924.html, accessed February 14, 2020.

“The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, December 7, 2012, https://hsp.org/blogs/fondly-pennsylvania/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-philadelphia-rapid-transit-company, accessed February 14, 2020.

“5205 – Historic Background,” Electric Trolley Museum Association, http://www.ectma.org/5205html.html, accessed February 14, 2020.

One reply on “Thomas Mitten’s 5200 Trolleys”

Hello, Steven!

FYI, streamlined PCC trolleys actually debuted in Philadelphia in 1938 under PRT auspicies.

Best,
Roger DuPuis

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