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San Jose - The Kelly Park Trolley

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Winter 1993

The Kelley Park Trolley

Alvin Spivak and Fred Bennett

Tucked away in a corner of Silicon Valley is a harkening hack to the past that nonetheless plays an important role in the daily life of a modern city. Two persons with a sense of the past’s relationship to the present and future take us on a tour of an interesting museum.

San Jose, California abandoned its extensive city and suburban electric railway network in the 1930s. But recently it has again turned to the trolley to act in three roles. First and perhaps most important is the modern, efficient and well-patronized light rail cars by which San Jose entered a new transport era. Second are the heritage trolleys that share trackage with the LRT downtown. Both have been written about at length in The New Electric Railway Journal it is the third San Jose line that is the subject of this essay.

The Kelley Park trolley, a mile southeast of downtown, came into being as the result of needs generated by the downtown heritage trolley project, with which it remains closely allied. That operation required a trolley barn and test track for the reconstruction and acceptance testing of cars.

Enter Kelley Park

It happened that the city of San Jose was planning to build, in Kelley Park, a full-scale reconstruction of its turn-of-the-century downtown. A trolley barn would be an appropriate part of that proposal, as would an actual line running along the main street. With those facilities in place, the park was a natural setting for the heritage project-and an actual operating line.

Today, the reconstructed downtown boasts an authentic operating heritage trolley line in a near-perfect atmosphere. The as-yet-unpaved street is lined with buildings that duplicate many structures of by-gone day—a fire house, hotel, bank, several dwellings, and even a lovingly restored Chinese temple that graced the city years ago. The old historic electric tower that was intended to light downtown San Jose years ago is reproduced in half-scale as well.

Star of the Show

Trolley service in the park is provided on weekend afternoons by a beautifully refurbished single-truck, turn-of-the-century design car. Car 168 came from Porto, Portugal, where it was built in 1934 to a U.S. Brill circa-1900 design.

Ex-Porto 168 provides a lesson in living history for the many visitors to Kelley Park.


When brought to its new home after fifty years of service overseas, the body was fully reworked by volunteers under the direction of Master Car Builder Fred Bennett. The slatted ceiling was replaced with beautifully decorated headlining following Brill designs of the period, and braking resistors on the bonnet roofs were relocated under the floor. Seats freshly upholstered in deep maroon were installed, and all interior woodwork was stripped of old finish and restored with new varnish.

Today, car 168 is a major attraction at Kelley Park. Although the ride is very short, it provides old-timers with vivid memories of the days of their youth—as well as a chance to point out to their grandchildren how the trolley pole is swung around at the end of the line. Car operation is by two-man volunteer crews.

The venerable Brill is equipped with two 65-horsepower motors, which might be considered excessive for a single-truck unit. By contrast, standard Birney cars had two 25-HP motors. However, the Porto units climbed steep hills and pulled trailers, so the larger motors were a necessity. In Kelley Park, the controller is never moved beyond full series, but ample speeds are maintained for the short line.

Another unique feature of the Porto car is the electric brake that is actuated by the controller. Moving the handle to the “off” position and beyond brings this device into play with a powerful-and abrupt deceleration. However, the dynamic brake is used only as a standby, regular braking being by means of air brakes.

Track and Power

The track consists of about 1000 feet of used rail acquired from the Western Pacific Rail-road. It isn’t perfectly aligned, and there are low joints, the effects of which are exaggerated by the long overhang of the single-truck car. Plans are in place for an early extension that will about double the line length. Other, longer-term projects will enable park patrons to access remote parking lots by trolley Power for the line is provided by a static-state rectified station located at one end of the line. Here, 480-volt AC power off the utility grid is converted to 600-volt DC and applied to the overhead wire.

The Kelley Park operation is conducted in accordance with a detailed rulebook and managed by Operations Supervisor Alvin Spivak. The service is provided on a fare-free basis, with rides included in the price of park admission. There is also a donation box on board the car, and money collected is used to provide supplies for ongoing work in the trolley barn.

The car has tremendous appeal and is a major adjunct to the historical park. Youngsters want to ride the trolley and some stay on board for much of an afternoon, while their parents enjoy other park activities. The staff tries especially hard to nurture children’s interest in trolleys and run special classes for them, keeping in mind the many people that have risen in transit ranks around the country through careers that were first sparked at a railroad or trolley museum.

Fleet Expansion

Time between operating days is spent checking car 168 out in the historic trolley barn. Body upgrading is never fully complete, and programmed improvements and normal maintenance are done during off hours. The Brill never had a thorough running-gear check-an operation requiring full removal of the body from the truck.

Right now, arrival is eagerly awaited of a Russian car that has been promised to the project. Once on site and refurbished, this new acquisition will allow 168 to be sidelined long enough to enable the running-gear check to be performed. But readying the Russian car is, in itself, no small task. The unit in question has been used in work service and will have to be reconverted to passenger use. Also, it is a single-ender and will have to be arranged for double-end operation. Wheels will also have to be reset to fit San Jose’s standard gauge.

The carbarn volunteer crew is poised for its next big challenge—refurbishing a Milan Peter Witt car that has been undergoing steel repair and conversion to double-end operation at the LRT barn in town. When that is completed, the car is to be moved down to Kelley Park, where woodwork, doors, a pantograph and other items will be installed. It is scheduled to go back to the LRT line late in the year for regular service.

As if that were not enough to keep the crew busy; time must also be found to reconstruct a century-old horsecar that once ran on the streets of San Francisco. The horsecar lay in disuse and neglect for many years, and came to Kelley Park with very little of its original wood intact. Today, after a great deal of tender, loving care and rebuilding, it is beginning to resemble its old self. With completion of end platforms and dashes, installation of a suitable undercarriage, and procurement of a pair of cooperative horses, it will soon be ready to join 168 on the Kelley Park track.

 Authors Avin Spivak and Fred Bennett are long-time volunteers at Kelley Park


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