Harold Burleson Shares Memories of Johnson City's Streetcars
In early 2006, Alan Bridwell introduced me to Harold Burleson, which culminated into a pleasant scheduled meeting at the latter's church, Munsey Memorial Methodist Church. While we sat in the lobby and "returned to those golden days of yesteryear," the historian shared vivid memories of Johnson City with me, which included a taped interview plus some of his favorite newspaper clippings from the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.
Harold is a wealth of information. One such subject was the streetcars that once ran in Johnson City, operated by the Johnson City Traction Company. He was acquainted with Dee Cash, a conductor and "Uncle John" Lust, a motorman.
Dee Cash at His Home / Dee Cash and John Lusk Pose by Their Streetcar
Harold recounted how the streetcar had to reverse direction when it got at the end of the route. That meant the motorman had to connect what was the backend with the overhead power wire to drive it in the opposite direction. Cash, the conductor and "Uncle John" Lust, the motorman, maintained their same duties but exchanged places. They then flipped the seats so passengers would face the direction they were traveling.
One stop the streetcar always made was at Horace Miller Drugstore (later became People's Drug Store) at 216 E. Main Street.
At each end of the four roughly 30-minute routes, they stopped long enough to allow loading and unloading of passengers. Harold recalled that the fare was a nickel. Cash stood in the vestibule of the car at the opposite end from the motorman collecting the fare. He wore a money changer on his belt, but passengers with the correct fare simply dropped it in a metal box next to his driver's seat.
When Cash started his route, his hours were 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Another shift handled the night runs. When he was asked how much money earned, his response was "$.45 an hour."
Motormen and Conductors at the Trolley Barn on N. Roan Street
In those days there were no paved roads outside of town. Southwest Avenue and Pine Street were merely dirt roads with only a few houses located in what was called Carter Addition, named after George L. Carter, who lived in the big white house at the end of Locust Street. Beyond the 700 block of Pine, Cash recalled, the streetcar swished through fields to the Normal campus, observing corn being raised beside the rails.
In due time, Cash knew everybody on his route and they were definitely acquainted with him. He acquired the nickname, "Spot."
During each school year, the conductor became acquainted with students, some of whom would occasionally divulge that they had no money to pay to fare. Cash would let them ride anyway. Later, when a teachers' training school was built on the campus, people put their children in Dee's car, paid their fare and relied on him to get them off at the correct places.
There were specified stops for taking on riders and letting others off, which usually were at corners or the middle along blocks. However, the streetcar crew was very accommodating and would let someone off about anywhere he or she desired. Most people were very nice," said Cash, "and I can't recall having to put anybody off the car. "Oh, some people would try to get by without paying." He recalled one incident when a prominent businessman indicated he left his money behind and would pay his fare on the way back. Cash obliged and ended up not being paid for his ride.
In the early days, the Post Office was located in the building that later became the Ash Street Courthouse. One professor's wife would have the driver wait there each weekday while she ran in and picked up her mail. On the front of the cars, there were advertising signs announcing lectures or other offerings that were open to the public at the Normal School.
Cash indicated that a car jumping the track was not an unusual occurrence. When this happened, the crew had to go to the nearest houses and find someone who owned a phone so he could report the accident.
Dee remembered when a man started to step off the car, fell backward and then rolled under the car causing him to lose his life. Another time on a summer open car, it was so crowded that Cash had to carefully step around people standing on the running board. He fell off as the streetcar rounded a curve. Although it jarred him a little bit, he was able to get back on the vehicle and assume his duties.
Cash's recalled a week in 1919 when there was a heavy snowfall followed by a hard freeze. Every day, the crew had to chop ice to clear the track. Sometimes they still couldn't get through. Another problem was when the trolley froze tight to the wire that powered it and broke. When that happened, there was no "juice" to power the vehicle.
Streetcar at Fountain Square in Downtown Johnson City
Cash further recalled another instance when a sizable number of people came from Black Mountain, NC on a train excursion. They disembarked the train and boarded streetcars to take a tour of the city. By mistake, the conductors received railroad tickets instead of streetcar tickets held by the excursion members. It caused a big mix-up at the station. The streetcar superintendent sent all the conductors to the station where they hunted the owners of the railroad tickets.
According to Cash, in spite of a few unpleasant situations, streetcar days were pleasurable ones. He recalled that in 1930, buses replaced streetcars. He was the last person to drive a streetcar to the N. Roan Street trolley barn and the first man on the new bus, which also traveled to the college. In 1936, Cash went into the insurance business and remained there until his retirement in 1959. But even after he retired, he made himself available to work part-time when needed.
Mr. Cash's trailer home was on Route 2 near Milligan College. He cooked, swept, washed dishes, cleaned clothes and ironed them until he finally found an easier way - drip-dry fabrics. Cash was hardy, healthy, alert and traveled about as he pleased. But he was always ready to sit down and talk over old times, like he did with Harold Burleson. His depictions of that era made area history come alive again.
I treasure my scheduled interview with Harold at Munsey Memorial Church in 2006. He left me with some copious notes to take home with me and cherish.