Building History: A father-and-son team puts heritage trolleys back on city streets

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is second of a two-part series on Tom and Vince Mendenhall -- the father-and-son team that...

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is second of a two-part series on Tom and Vince Mendenhall — the father-and-son team that owns Historic Railway Restoration. The Mendenhalls also own a 1908 Turtleback streetcar that once operated in Tacoma, and now sits in storage on a field in Rockport, Wash. They have restored heritage streetcars and locomotives in Detroit, Kansas City, Ottumwa (Iowa), South Carolina, Quebec, and Whitehorse (Yukon Territory of Canada). Yesterday, the Tacoma Daily Index published a feature article about the Mendenhalls and a recent trek out to Rockport to inspect the old Tacoma car. Today, we catch up with the Mendenhalls in a Q & A interview.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you get started in the business of restoring streetcars?

VINCE MENDENHALL: Walter — my grandfather, Tom’s father — was a train nut all his life. He passed away in 1965. He had sent information and books to different museums around the country. We were going to Oregon in 1978 on a family trip, and we stopped into a trolley museum. The people there said, ‘Yeah, we knew your grandfather, and we have a few of his books still.’ We just started hanging out at the museum. In 1983 or 1984, the museum leased some of their cars from San Francisco for the trolley festival. Tom had a tractor-trailer Class A license. They needed to get the car from downtown San Francisco to Oregon. So my dad started hauling cars for them. Then we ended up rebuilding some of those cars. Tom retired in 1989, and decided to go off and do it as a sole proprietor. We got a [contract with] SCANA Corporation — South Carolina Electric and Gas — [to restore a Fort Collins Birney Safety Car]. They hired us specifically to come down to do the work. They were just really happy with it. We did little jobs here and there. We installed a streetcar up in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory. We worked with the City of Detroit, Kansas City. Tom did a lot of roaming between 1989 and 1995.

INDEX: Where do you find the parts for the streetcars?

VINCE MENDENHALL: Either at museums or we build them from scratch, unless the car actually still has the parts on it.

TOM MENDENHALL: It’s actually a network. Everybody who works in this business, or works in museums, knows each other. You can call anybody and say, ‘I need this. Who has one we could borrow and make a copy?’ They’ll say, ‘Well, go call Danny or Carl or John.’ Also, I was in South Dakota once, and this guy said, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a bunch of streetcar bodies out in the field out there.’ And that’s how you find them. People are fascinated by what we do. And they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen some out here.’

INDEX: How much does it typically cost to restore a streetcar?

VINCE MENDENHALL: It depends on if you have everything on it. The cars from Detroit averaged about $350,000 to $375,000. Those were vehicles that were operational, but they just needed to be rebuilt. Cars like [those formerly in Tacoma], we actually almost sold [one of the cars] and rebuilt it for a development firm in the southeast two-and-a-half to three years ago, and I think I quoted them about $625,000. That’s for a complete rebuild, creating trucks, redoing the body, brand-new propulsion system. You have to go through everything.

INDEX: What’s the history behind the Tacoma streetcars you own, and how did they wind up with you?

VINCE MENDENHALL: The Turtleback was sitting in a guy’s backyard in Auburn. We knew about it. We went down there one day and said, ‘We can’t do it right now, but sometime in the next six months we’d like to stop in and [see about buying the body].’ He said, ‘OK.’ The neighbors heard about it and they came running and screaming and said, ‘Take it away now!’ It was in that bad of shape.

INDEX: How did they wind up in people’s backyards?

TOM MENDENHALL: Well, back in the 1930s, for a dollar you could buy the body and for 50 dollars you could ship them on the railroad to wherever you wanted.

VINCE MENDENHALL: When you hear the term ‘chicken coop,’ they were literally turned into chicken coops. And storage shelters. Anything like that. The transit agencies back in the 1930s and 1940s, the cars were at the end of their lives, as far as they were concerned. They were scrapping them. If you go to some of the museums, they will have pictures of car bodies stacked up on fire. They would take all the metal, scoop it up, and make money off that.

TOM MENDENHALL: And even then, it was costing them money to scrap them. They had all the glass and wood you had to clean up and get rid of. Selling the metal did not make the amount you needed to cover the costs of labor and everything. That’s why they sold a lot of them.

INDEX: Do you have a sense of how many streetcars are out there in operation, or sitting in someone’s yard?

TOM MENDENHALL: Most of the museums get the bodies. The Seashore Trolley Museum [in Kennebunkport, Maine] has fifty-something bodies without wheels, which they have other cars they have picked up over the years. They have been collecting most of the stuff on the East Coast, when cities shut their systems down. And they didn’t collect just one. They collected as many as they could because they wanted the parts for the future.

INDEX: Have you thought about how Tacoma could restore its streetcar system? What would be cost-effective? What should it aim for in terms of routes and service?

VINCE MENDENHALL: The perfect scenario for Tacoma is, Number One, you have to have high-density. You want to hit the apartment complexes and the condos where there are a lot of urbanites that want to get places without getting in their cars. Number Two, it has to go by or into some of the shopping complexes. Downtown should be the nexus of where you want to go on the weekend. On the weekday, you have to make sure the system is built so people can literally go from their work to their homes to the Safeway or Thriftway. And it sounds like there are a lot of places in Tacoma building up like that now. One of the things Tacoma could do is talk to some of [the developers of] these complexes that are being built, and say, ‘Hey, maybe you should engineer in streetcar tracks or a streetcar stop now because this is coming.’

INDEX: The streetcars you own and now store in Rockport — one is a Turtleback, and the other is a Birney. What’s the difference between the two?

TOM MENDENHALL: A Birney is a single-truck, one-man safety car. It has four wheels. The Turtleback is a double-truck car, which has eight wheels. The Cincinnati Car Company built several of the Turtlebacks. American Car Company built the Birney 326 and 324. They were built in 1919, and they were called “Birneys,” or one-man safety cars. Stone and Webster had American Car Company build the cars. Most of them boarded a certain amount of cars, and as the train went along, it would drop a flatcar loaded with a streetcar off from one city to another. They all had a basic undercoating — orange. It was the primary paint. When they arrived in a city, they got painted the color the city wanted. I did research on the Birney car because I like them, and I like to rebuild them.

VINCE MENDENHALL: The Turtleback literally looks like a turtle — the body with the head stuck out.

INDEX: You own a number of streetcars in various locations. Where are they stored?

TOM MENDENHALL: We have them in Oregon, California, Washington. There are a couple streetcar bodies in Fresno that I’m going to take and make one body out of.

INDEX: I imagine some of these streetcars you hear about and interested in wind up destroyed, right?

TOM MENDENHALL: There was one body that I went and talked to the owner about. I said, ‘Don’t do anything with the car. Call me, I’ll come up and give you a hand.’ The next thing I heard was, ‘Oh, by the way, the guy you talked to a year ago, he wanted to move the body so he wrapped a cable around it, pulled on it, and then ran his bulldozer over it.’

INDEX: And there are probably interesting stories about transporting these old streetcars.

TOM MENDENHALL: I talked to a fellow up in Sedro-Wooley. He bought a Bellingham car. He went up there with his Model T truck. The streetcar body weighed 7,000 pounds — it still had its glass and everything. He put it behind his Model T truck that weighed 4,000 pounds. There were no brakes on the trailer. He drove from Bellingham to Sedro-Wooley.

VINCE MENDENHALL: He took Chuckanut Drive, too. His Model T only had brakes on the rear wheels.

INDEX: Have other things, such as old boats or buses, received the attention that streetcars have in terms or restoration? It seems streetcars have a certain draw.

VINCE MENDENHALL: They do have nostalgia. Some employees at King County Metro have historical buses. Metro still owns the buses, but employees have actually rebuilt them. They’ve got a couple of 1940 Pullman trolley buses that they pull out for Christmas runs. And they have some original 1930s to 1950s gasoline buses they still operate. But it’s not on the grand scale of what people are trying to do with trolleys. For some reason, a bus doesn’t grab people the way trolley cars can.

INDEX: What’s next for Historic Railway Restoration?

VINCE MENDENHALL: We’ve basically been to all four corners of North America. We’ve been everywhere. We haven’t turned into a big company. We’re still a little company just plugging along. But we met a lot of people and have been to a lot of places, and has a lot of value in itself. Just being able to have that experience. We feel like we’re on the lower end of the hill climbing up. Hopefully, in the next few years, there will be a big explosion of cities wanting these streetcars, and we can supply them.

To learn more about Historic Railway Restoration, visit historicrailway.com.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, LynnwoodMountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.

Vince and Tom Mendenhall, son-and-father owners of Arlington, Wash.-based Historic Railway Restoration, outside a 1908 Turtleback streetcar that once operated on Tacoma streets. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
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