Retired streetcar driver tells what was

By Joe Lambe

City streetcars operated by 2,000 drivers once connected the area like a tight spider web.

Only about four of those drivers are still alive, and Harold Ambroius, 88, says he is the oldest of them.

His house in Waldo, where he and his late wife raised three children, brims with streetcar memorabilia.

Car models top his TV. Photo albums of streetcar pictures and newspaper clips fill his drawers.

A framed picture on the wall: He and his father, also a driver, standing in front of a streetcar. And his grandfather drove the cars.

“I’m just a streetcar man at heart.” Ambroius said. “I always wanted to run one since I was a little kid.”

As a child, he drove toy streetcars he made out of crates, even painted numbers on them. In his stories of real streetcars now, he recites their car numbers.

The last one he ran was the 780. He also drove the 551, and he was there when it was first displayed in its home now outside Union Station.

He was just 22 when he got out of the Navy in 1946 and got a streetcar driver job. There were 32 lines then, almost 2,000 drivers. The metro area – the cars ran in Johnson County and KCK then – had among the most miles of line in the nation.

“I never dreamed as a young buck that they would do away with the streetcars in 11 years,” he said.

But they did in 1957. He spent 33 more years driving buses, but said they were not as satisfying for him or his passengers. Why?

“The clickedly-clack of the tracks or what,” he said, “I don’t know.”

He remembers the sad experiment with cars numbered from 701 to 724. The doors on them opened out instead of in, which was unfortunate on busy streets.

“It didn’t take hardly any time at all and the doors would get torn off,” he said.

Driving streetcars could get hairy in other ways, he said. “You can’t dodge things on a streetcar.”

A big coal truck mangled another driver’s car, he said, and his father once hit a horse. Big trucks would also park on the tracks to unload, delaying the streetcars.

But the worst for him was young men in fast cars, he said. “They used to play chicken, driving the car right up to the streetcar like they were going to hit it.”

In 1990, when he retired, his bosses tried to convince him to stay because they wanted him to train people on streetcars. They thought then the cars would be coming back soon.

This week, he looked at a 1989 picture of himself, his bosses and peers.  “Them fellows there,” he said, “there’s not too many of them left.”

And still no streetcars, but with them set to return downtown in fall of 2015, Ambroius is becoming a bridge to the past. City officials had him at a recent ceremony, and he was on the front page of the Kansas City Star.

If he is alive when streetcars are reborn, he said, he will ride them and there might be ceremonial duties to perform.

He’s ready. He still goes to the gym five times a week.

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