Mar 13, 2016

Benito Stops the Streetcar

For youngsters in 1929 in any city or large town anywhere in the world, a few cents in your pocket was your ticket to adventure. That was how much a ride on an electric streetcar cost. Every town had one. The streetcar (also called a trolley) took you far from home, and back again in time for supper. In the Camagüey of the ’10s, ’20s, ’30s and ’40s this was no different. A ride cost you five cents. On a hot summer day the breeze coming in the open windows of the yellow or orange-painted trolley as it rumbled down the street and out to the suburbs was refreshing; and the noise, the clanging of the bell, the bustle of passengers getting on and off, and the passing view added to the excitement, especially for a young child out for a ride.

Streetcar No. 21 in 1951 on the Libertad-Martires Line
This story takes place in 1929 but it could still be about this particular
streetcar. The owner of Camaguey’s streetcar system, Havana Electric,
never upgraded their fleet. 
Once the sign of progress and prosperity, the streetcars got
shabbier and shabbier until  buses replaced them in 1952.
This photo was taken by Frank Goldsmith, Jr. downtown on 
Avellaneda Street near the train station.
Like most street­cars back then, the trolleys in Cama­güey were operated by two man crews—the motorman (the driver) and the conductor. The conductor not only collected the fare, but asked gentle­men to give up their seats to the ladies and otherwise main­tained order on board. Like the captain of a ship, he was the final authority on his streetcar — and therefore the perfect butt for pranks.

This is the story of a prank Benito H. Prats and his friends played on a streetcar crew one hot lazy summer day in 1929. Their plan required a hill, and a secluded section of track.

Cuba is a big country with tall mountains at one end, not-so tall mountains elsewhere, and plenty of hills. But hills are a rarity in Camagüey, which is situated in the center of one of the largest and flattest plains on the island. The Church of our Lady of Charity was built on perhaps the only hill in the city, in the center of a large open plaza called Plaza de la Caridad (caridad means charity in Spanish).  Avenida de la Libertad (Liberty Avenue) runs from the plaza to the bridge and into downtown. (For obvious reasons you would often hear this avenue called Caridad Avenue, even though it has never officially had that name.)

The Church of our Lady of Charity, Camaguey
Modern-day photo. The streetcar tracks are gone. 
Libertad is a wide, straight avenue that runs a mile or two to the church in the plaza. The trolley tracks ran down the center of the street, set into the pavement. The same tracks were used by northbound and southbound streetcars. The trolley went up Libertad to the church, looped around the church and came back down. At that time the area near the bottom of the hill on Libertad Avenue was not built up as much as it is today. There were still some empty lots. And at 1 PM on a hot day there was hardly anyone around.  It was siesta time.

It was the perfect spot for the prank: at a hill, and nobody on the street.

 This was not going to be an simple prank.  This one, if they pulled it off, would be the talk of the town, they reasoned. Or certainly the talk of the schoolyard. A simple prank was like the trolley pole prank that was often repeated. The trolley pole was the sprung metal rod that connected the streetcar to the overhead electric line that followed the tracks all over town. Unless the little trolley wheel at the end of the pole was touching the wire, the car had no power. A rope dangled from the top of the pole to be used to pull the trolley on and off the wire.

To pull this prank, the prankster would wait until the crew was distracted, or he would have an accomplice create a distraction. At that split second when nobody was looking, the prankster, on the street behind the car, would grab the rope and flick the trolley off the wire. Then he would get on the streetcar with the other passengers. After the last passenger was on, the conductor would pull the bell cord to signal the motorman to close the doors and proceed and . . . nothing happened!

Putting the trolley back on the wire
It's not easy, even in modern-day China.
Rubber-tired buses use two trolley poles.
Streetcars only one.
“Which one of you juvenile delinquents disengaged the trolley?”  the conductor would bellow between muttered curses as he got off the car, walked around to the rear end and pulled on the rope to get the trolley wheel back on the wire. Think about it: it’s a lot easier to pull the little grooved wheel off the wire than it is to put it back on by pulling a rope against a springy pole swinging and wobbling 14 feet above your head.

No, this was not going to be the usual prank. This prank was going to be special. The gang arrived at the perfect spot on Libertad Avenue at the bottom of the only grade of any significance on the Camaguey streetcar system.

They waited until the coast was clear. Then using a big pot of “borrowed” axle grease, the perpetrators liberally applied the grease to both rails with a big brush. When they were finished, the grease slick was maybe five yards long.

Then they hid in the bushes to watch.  It wasn’t long before the trolley car came up the avenue and ran through the grease with hardly a stumble. Shucks! It didn’t work!  A few minutes later the car returned after looping around the church. It certainly wasn’t going to have any trouble going downhill.

The prank failed! Time to trudge back to town for a Coca Cola from the grocery store my grandfather ran at the the Plaza de San Francisco.

“Wait,” Benito piped up, “I have an idea!”

Time for Plan B.  My dad, who remembered something about the Law of Inertia from a recent science class, realized that the grease could not stop the streetcar if the car was already moving at speed unless they greased the entire hill. There was not enough time or grease. There was only one way for this prank to work. The streetcar had to come to a complete stop just before the grease slick and then start up again. Only one problem: The car was not likely to stop at such a desolate place to pick up or discharge a passenger. What to do?

Somebody suggested that one of the boys stand on the sidewalk and signal the streetcar that he wanted to get on. The car would stop, he would get on, the car would start up, hit the grease and hilarity would ensue. But then somebody else noted that the conductor was not stupid, and if the car slipped, he would throttle the boy who just got on.  So much for Plan B.

Liberty Avenue in today’s Camaguey
There were unbuilt  city blocks back in 1929.
Tracks ran down the middle of the street.
More deliberation and they hit on the answer. Everybody chipped in a penny or two and soon one of the accomplices was walking down the street four or five blocks with five cents to get on the next trolley. His job was to signal for a stop at the foot of the hill and get off.  The car would then have to start the climb from a full stop, hitting the grease while accelerating. The plan was brilliant!  While they waited for the trolley the others snuck back to the street and added more grease.

From the bushes they watched the next streetcar come up the street. It stopped on the incline, maybe a twenty yards from the grease, and the accomplice got off. The boy walked away nonchalantly, whistling a tune and stealing glances back at the trolley.

Would it work this time?

The streetcar started up the hill and hit the grease. The wheels started spinning and the car stopped its advance and slowly began to slide backwards! The motorman applied the brakes but the car continued to slide downhill until it hit clean track where it shuddered to a stop.  It was difficult, but the boys hiding in the bushes managed to stay quiet.

The motorman scratched his head for a minute, released the brakes and started back up the hill, this time with more power.  He hit the slick again and the wheels spun faster. He cranked his controller to the maximum power, to no avail. Back down it slid. When the car stopped again both he and the conductor got off to investigate.

The problem was obvious. Looking around and cursing loudly, they walked to the curb to get some dirt to toss on the grease to get traction.  By then the kids could not suppress their laughter and the conductor spotted them. They turned and ran, with the conductor after them in hot pursuit.

The story was the talk of the schoolyard for weeks!  My dad says nobody got caught.

This was not the only prank he masterminded or participated in. Ask him about the time he fired the ceremonial cannons in the plaza in the middle of the night. In spite of all this delinquency, he got excellent grades in school, went on to university, became a medical doctor — first in Cuba, then in the U.S. 

Post Script.  No bad deed goes unpunished. The streetcar system got its revenge on Dr. Prats.
Apartment with Corner Balcony
This one is not the one
at Avellaneda and San Esteban
In June of 1951, the good doctor and his new bride, Mariana Martinez, moved into a second floor apartment at the corner of San Esteban (today Oscar Primelles) and Avellaneda streets that had a small balcony overlooking the intersection. The Bembeta-Garrido streetcar line made a tight turn from San Esteban to Avellaneda at that intersection. When a streetcar took that corner too fast, the trolley pole would come off the wire and swing into their living room through the balcony doors, banging loudly against the door frame. Good thing the doors were almost always open! The landlord never mentioned it when he showed them the apartment!  It did not happen often, but nobody lingered on that balcony when they heard the streetcar coming up the street.

More on Camaguey’s streetcars. You can see more photos of Camaguey’s streetcars, and find out how they were used in 1894 to smuggle arms for the Cuban revolutionary struggle against Spain on Allan Morrison’s website “The Tramways of Camaguey” at