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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Full Text of the Restoration of the Public Museum's Horsedrawn Streetcar

The horse-drawn streetcar that graces the front entrance to “The Streets of Old Grand Rapids” exhibit was given to the Public Museum in 1948 by Louis J. DeLamarter, owner of the Grand Rapids Motor Coach Company. During the late 19th century, the car had been used by the Grand Rapids Railway Co., the predecessor to the Motor Coach Co. It was retired and stored at the company’s Wealthy Street barns until it was presented to the museum. The information the Motor Coach Company provided to the Museum indicated that the car was “in use from 1870 to 1890.”  

According to a letter written by Mr. T. Michael Jackson in 1997 to Museum Director Timothy Chester, it was his father, Ira W. Jackson, “who had the foresight to save the old horse-drawn car and have it refurbished for the ‘old’ museum.”  Ira Jackson had started working for the Railway Co. as a teenager and stayed with them for 54 years. Mr. Jackson goes on in his letter to say “they were going to take it to the dump, but he made sure that didn’t happen – and had it restored to the point it could be given to the museum.” 

Because there was no room to store the streetcar inside, it stood in the Museum’s backyard surrounded by a fence under a shed-roof.  When the Museum acquired the East building in 1959, the streetcar was moved inside. In a note written by Director Frank DuMond to museum employee Evelyn Grabel in 1972,  Mr. DuMond stated that “while setting outside for several years, it (the streetcar) was repainted several times to prevent deterioration.”  

 The car stayed in the East Building until the “Gaslight Village” annex building and exhibit were created in 1964. Many Museum visitors enjoyed the streetcar and horse from 1965 until July of 1992 when it was removed in preparation for exhibit in the new Van Andel Museum Center. Twenty-seven years of constant use by visitors had paid their toll.

Exhibit Curator Carl Ulanowicz performed a preliminary examination of the streetcar in August 1991 while it was still on exhibit in the “Gaslight Village.”  His report of August 14, 1991 states that “the wooden side walls are cracking and bowing out. The platform is falling apart. Several pieces of molding are in bad shape or missing. The platform railings are loose, causing the end walls to create a safety concern… As the trolley now stands, all the problems are not readily visible, because of lighting conditions. Whereas in the new museum, where the trolley will be in daylight, a new situation exists.” 

Mr. Ralph Kennedy of Kennedy Furniture & Decorative Arts Conservation was contracted to perform a more thorough examination of the car and provide a written treatment and cost proposal for restoration.  In January 1992 Mr. Kennedy submitted an 18 page examination and treatment report with a preliminary cost estimate of $45,600 to $60,800, not including the cost of materials or reproductions of original equipment. The exhibit’s budget could not cover these costs and it was decided that the Museum’s exhibits staff would perform the restoration.   Mr. Kennedy graciously offered to give assistance to the Museum’s exhibit staff via phone or fax and to consult on problems, as they were uncovered. He also recommended that we examine his treatment proposal to develop an in-house preliminary work plan. 

On July 17, 1992 the streetcar and horse were removed from the Gaslight Village building by West Shore Services of Allendale, Michigan. They were moved to Fire House #6 on Grandville Avenue for treatment.

A treatment work plan, based on Ralph Kennedy’s proposal, was develop by a team of Museum personnel. Following this plan the Exhibit staff commenced work in the fall of 1992. Their first step was through photographic documentation of the streetcar in its present state. The next step was the removal of one side panel to determine the difficulty of removal, any potential negative impact to the car, and the degree of structural work required to stabilize the car.   This was found to be quite easy with little or no damage to either the car or the panel itself. A proposal from the Exhibit staff to the team included a request to remove all the panels from each side to tighten and clean the structural ribs and treat any metal with a rust preventative.

Once all the side panels were removed it was discovered that it appeared as though the car had been pieced together from two separate cars at one time.  The report from exhibit staff members Mary Wisnewski and Cynthia Perry dated Fe. 26, 1993 states “There is an obvious seam that runs the entire girth of the car. The seam is very apparent on the left outside, between the 8th and 9th window. It runs through the windowsill, window ledge, and the letterboard. …there is a distinct difference in the style of decoration on the ceiling panels, with a division at the 3rd and 4th, and 8th and 9th windows.”  There was also a 2” x 5” reinforcing board running the entire length of the car and a piece of angle iron beneath the seats. The report continues for another two paragraphs describing other indications of the car being pieced together.

During this work the exhibit staff found the name of the streetcar’s manufacturer, Brownell and Wight Car Company, in several places. A ribbon with the name was found above both interior doors, on metal plaques on the doors themselves, and in the etched ruby glass in the roof. Hardware on the interior doors was marked “Brownell & White St. Louis Missouri.” They also located a patent date of 1881 on the wheel bearing inspection plates. 

Concurrent to the structural restoration work, the staff also conducted historical research to find information on the construction and appearance of the car.  The St. Louis County Museum of Transportation sent a copy of two primary source references. The first was  a book titled the “Car Builders Dictionary” published by the Railroad Gazette of New York in 1881. The second was  “The Car-Buyer’s Helper,” published by the Brownell Car company in 1891. The Missouri Historical Society sent copies of company descriptions that appeared in the book “The City of St. Louis and Its Resources’” published in 1893. The exhibit staff also visited the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield to examine, photograph, and document their two ca. 1885 streetcars and talk with the Museum’s Curator and Conservation staff.

According to these sources, the Brownell and Wight Car Company was first incorporated under the name of Andrew Wight prior to 1875 and in that year became the Andrew Wight Company. In 1881 the name changed to Brownell and Wight Car Company, and finally to Brownell Car Company in 1891. Based on both the physical and historical evidence, we determined that our streetcar must have been made between 1881 and 1891.

Curious about the idea that our car was actually two cars joined together, the staff spoke to Mr. Randy Nimicht of the Museum of South Florida on February 17, 1992. Mr. Nimnicht had done extensive research on streetcars while restoring the one in his museum’s collection.  He indicated that it was a very common practice to “cannibalize” streetcars over and over. It could have happened either when the car was in service or when the company was restoring it “to the point where it could be given to the Museum.”  (Quote from the letter of T. Michael Jackson to Museum Director Timothy Chester, 1997)

The selection of paint colors was based several factors. The first was analysis of the paint layers found on several spots of the car. During Mr. Kennedy’s examination he found “many paint layers still exist on the car in many places...There are numerous places where an older orange colored paint is visible.” He took samples of paint layers from 12 separate areas of the car and performed microscopic analysis of each sample. His written report of January 1992 included an addendum with a paint colors.

The second source for determining color choice was the written description of the finishing process and the paint colors, which appeared in the 1891 Brownell Company book “The Car-Buyer’s Helper.” The paint colors Mr. Kennedy identified in his microscopic analysis and the written descriptions found in the booked matched. The major body color was cadmium yellow, with Paris green, vermilion glazed with number 49 carmine and ultramarine blue. The exact chemical composition of these pigments was verified using the ASTM Standards guide.

The appearance of the decorations were based on remnants of the original designs which were found on the surface of the car under layers of paint, combined with descriptions of the decorations on Brownell cars from  “The Car-Buyer’s Helper” and historical photographs of other streetcars from that same time period.

Prepared by Veronica L. Kandl, Curator, December 2003

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