Man Proud of Streetcar Work

WHEELING – When Wheeling resident Jack Syphers worked as an electric streetcar operator during the 1940s, it cost 5 cents to take a trip from downtown Wheeling to Wheeling Island.

A roundtrip ticket cost 15 cents and if one wanted to travel from Wheeling to Steubenville, the trip was $1. Syphers earned 60 cents per hour.

Every trip, his car would fill up with 50 to 100 people traveling anywhere from Steubenville to Moundsville. While the streetcars fizzled out in 1948, public transit changed over to buses, which Syphers also operated. Eventually, he served as a charter bus driver, traveling across the United States and Canada.

But it’s the streetcars he misses most.

“I’m proud I did that work,” Syphers, 92, said. “I’m proud I served the public and helped all those people get back and forth to work. I hauled people to the Marx Toy factory, Bloch Brothers, Marsh Stogies, the Steubenville mill, the Follansbee and Beech Bottom mills. And I made friends amongst them and we would talk. And I just enjoyed the work.”

Syphers believes he is the last living local streetcar operator. All of his fellow operators he worked with have passed away, he said.

He joined the transit company in 1942 and worked for two years until he served with the Navy in 1944 during World War II as a radar operator.

He came back to work in 1946. The Wheeling Traction Co. employees eventually purchased the company and renamed it the Co-operative Transit Co.

“I enjoyed seeing people every day and making a lot friends. I’m not the type to want to sit at a desk. But during the Depression, I had to take a job where I could get it,” Syphers said.

For example, before getting the transit job, Syphers drove a truck delivering 350-pound blocks of ice for too little pay. Seeking a better job with better pay, Syphers on a frequent basis would stop at the transit company office and ask for an operator job.

“After four years I finally got it,” he said.

When he asked his boss why he was hired, the man told him it was because he turned 21 years old – the legal age allowed to operate passenger cars.

“I was the baby of the outfit,” Syphers said, noting his fellow operators and passengers teased him about being young.

Syphers said he never had a major accident while operating a streetcar, and just a handful of fender benders while driving the buses. However, one Halloween, some tricksters greased a section of track in Rayland, causing his car to slide off the end of the tracks. No one was injured, but his lone passenger got quite a scare.

He noted in town, the streetcars usually traveled at speeds of 20-25 mph or less. But in rural areas of track between cities a top speed of 60 mph could be reached. Riding the open rail, he said, was the most fun time to be a streetcar operator.

While the streetcars haven’t been in use for many years, the old rail lines periodically appear in downtown Wheeling when waterline breaks force workers to dig up the pavement. Sometimes the old tracks have to be cut to allow workers to reach the pipes.