James Smart's Philadelphia

​Of All Things 

November 22, 2017

by James Smart

The new electric trolleys were on the ball
SEPTA is going all 21st century on us, with the Key card, which the electronical folks call a reloadable contactless chip card, to pay fares I don’t have to worry about because I am what is called a Senior Citizen and they let me ride free if I behave myself.
          When I first was old enough to ride a trolley car alone, tokens were two for 15 cents. I think they’re two bucks now, if anybody buys one. They are not reloadable or contactless.
           I often wonder what my grandfathers would think of today’s public transportation. They were 30 years old when the first electric street cars, with the trolley wire overhead providing power through a long pole, replaced the horse-drawn cars.
An old friend of mine, now deceased, told the story that her grandmother, as a young woman, liked to sit on the front steps of her house (I forget what street) on nice evenings. Horse cars passed by regularly.
          One driver, in his open-air front platform, began to wave to her as he passed by. She would wave back.
          Then, one evening, he tossed something to her. It was a large smooth stone, with a note wrapped around it. The note asked if he could call upon her some evening. Her parents were doubtful, but said yes.
           Romance blossomed, the pair married, and years later, on their daughter’s wedding day, the woman presented the bride with a little box that contained the stone and note that started it all. The daughter passed the stone on to her daughter, my friend, on her wedding day, and she in turn did the same for her daughter.
          Another transit tale from my grandfathers’ days was the life of On-the-Ball Dougherty.
          Hugh J. Dougherty was born in Ireland. When he came to Philly is not known; he may have served in the Civil War. He worked as a city street cleaner when he was young, hoisting a 28-gallon water can to sprinkle streets.
          But Hugh developed psychiatric problems, and spent a long time in the mental ward at Blockley, the 19th century municipal hospital in West Philly. When he was released, he lived in a boarding house at Fifth and Callowhill, and began collecting badges and buttons, which covered his coat.
          And for years he stood daily on busy street corners, timing the street cars. He knew the interval they were supposed to keep, and when a car was right on time, he would look at his big pocket watch and holler, “On the ball!”
          He was some days on Market St., some on Chestnut, and became well known to down town pedestrians. The trolley motormen all knew him, and responded to his familiar shout.
          When On-the-Ball Dougherty was found dead on a bench in his boarding house garden on Sept. 4, 1904, at age 66, the newspapers ran long obituaries.
          One more thing comes to mind when writing about the days when electricity replaced horses as power for street cars. Vaudeville comedians of the day told the story of the little old woman who asked the street car conductor, “Will I get electrocuted if I step on one of these rails?”
          “No, lady,” he replied, “not unless you throw your other leg over that wire up above.”