Trackless trolleys, sometimes known as trolleybuses, have been an integral part of public transit throughout North America and the world. Cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, Vancouver, Dayton, Ohio, and Boston have all developed successful trackless trolley lines that survive to this day. But before Boston began its trackless trolley operations, the twin cities of Fitchburg and Leominster would jump on the technology to save their streetcar lines from extinction.

Trackless Trolley at Monument Square, Leominster (Dave's Trolleybus)

In the 1930s, the Fitchburg & Leominster Street Railway Company began to seriously consider the conversion of its remaining streetcar lines to trackless trolley lines, something that would prove both economical and practical compared to both streetcars and traditional buses. In terms of finances, the estimated cost of upgrading the Fitchburg & Leominster's streetcar lines for continued streetcar operation was $170,000, while the cost of complete conversion to trackless trolley operation, including new vehicles and overhead wire, came to about $190,000, with the added reduction of yearly operating costs by nearly $9,000 compared to operation of streetcars. The struggling Fitchburg & Leominster jumped at the opportunity, and in doing so became the first trackless trolley operator in the state.

In addition to the cost benefits, trackless trolleys offered operational bonuses. For example, while streetcars experienced delays due to long stretches of single-track operation (not to mention deteriorating track conditions), trackless trolleys could pass in both directions due to easier mobility and dual overhead wires. The hilly terrain of Fitchburg was also challenging to gas buses, while trackless trolleys could negotiate Cleghorn's slopes with relative ease. Also, compared to streetcars, trackless trolleys used considerably less voltage of electricity per car, freeing up power, increasing vehicle performance, and reducing power related issues.

F&L Trackless Trolley, Brill 101 (Dave's Trolleybus Pix)

In 1932, trackless trolley service was launched on the Fitchburg & Leominster. Riders immediately noticed the calmer, more relaxing ride of the trackless trolleys versus the old streetcars - there were now no wheel clatter or track inconsistencies to rough up the ride, and the lack of a gas engine made it infinitely more enjoyable than a traditional bus. Less than a week after service began, the Fitchburg Sentinel declared the trackless trolleys a publicly-decided success, noting all the positive aspects of the new vehicles. The Fitchburg & Leominster trackless trolley system consisted, generally, of several routes that serviced locations across its service area. A main line ran from Waites Corner in Fitchburg to Leominster, with another from Cleghorn in Fitchburg to Whalom Park in Lunenburg. Service to Monument Square in Leominster was also provided, all of which gave access to many of the most populated and important parts of the cities. The system provided access to the major business districts of the day, downtown, and the train depot, as well as Whalom Park for those seeking weekend amusement.

Further Reading:

Ingenious Use of Men and Vehicles is Made to Meet Demands of Two Small Massachusetts Communities, Transport the Military, and Satisfy the Needs of Seekers of Recreation


Article by G.J. Mac Murray; Hosted by Dave's Trolleybus Pix

The Fitchburg & Leominster would enjoy relative success for about a decade, with trackless service running solidly through the end of the 1930's. By this time, trackless trolleys had arrived in Boston, but in that city, would wait until the 1950's to steal the streetcar's thunder. In Fitchburg, though, the trackless would face some problems it could not overcome. Operating costs had skyrocketed, especially in 1943 after storms damaged the Fitchburg & Leominster's infrastructure. Bus routes had grabbed a hold of the area, and as they expanded, the viability of the trackless trolley became weaker and weaker. New buses were delivered through the decade, and as traffic and demand warranted, trackless trolley runs were made with regular buses, leaving the tracklesses to Whalom Park runs. Almost sixty years after the beginning of horsecar operations in Fitchburg, a notice of final abandonment was made for the trackless lines, and buses would carry the area through the rest of the 1900s.

NEXT: A Whale of a Time

Trackless Trolleys of the Fitchburg & Leominster Street Railway Co., Clarke (BSRA)
Streetcar Lines of the Hub: The 1940s, Clarke (BSRA)

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