Wildwood's new trams' mission

A little less bumping and grinding on the boardwalk.

Posted: July 16, 2007

WILDWOOD - The motherly tone is somewhere between "Eat your peas" and "Take a jacket." Lois Stangel's recorded voice, imploring riders to "Watch the tram car, please," has become almost as synonymous with the Wildwood boardwalk experience as the blue-and-yellow sightseer trams themselves.

In a few weeks, though, officials here might boastfully ask riders to "watch this tram car, please" as they unveil four spiffy new ones, the first cars added to the fleet in more than 40 years.

Besides the requisite publicity and fanfare, though, boardwalk visitors might not even notice anything different about the cars.

They're not supposed to.

Down to the glossy "Happy Blue" and "Sunburst Yellow," Sherwin-Williams paint colors, the canvas surrey roofs, and the wide, lumbering presence of the trams themselves, great pains have been taken to retain the original look of the little trains that move some 500,000 people a year from one end of the boardwalk to the other for $2 a ride.

"When we started this project it was very important to us that the tram cars continue to have the look that they have always had since the beginning," said Patrick Rosenello, executive director of the Wildwood Special Improvement District. The district has operated the fleet since 2004 after buying it from a private owner.

The cars weren't built for comfort or speed when they were assembled for the 1939 New York World's Fair. But commissioning the four new cars, which will cost $35,000 each, Rosenello said, brought an opportunity to modify them to provide a better ride.

Bob Brown, owner of Rampage Trailer Co., a South Carolina-based manufacturer contracted to build the new trams, began refining the comfort level of the bench seating-style cars from the ground up.

He modified the suspension, gears and tires on the trailers and added a solid steel roof instead of one made of metal pieces.

All are improvements not noticeable to the casual eye, but will be obvious once the trains hit the boardwalk, he said.

"Now when they move down the boardwalk, the ride will be smoother and the sound of hitting each bump won't resonate as loudly as it used to," Brown said. "It'll be like a Cadillac riding down the boardwalk instead of a hay wagon."

The seats also have been given an extra layer of cushioning - yellow seat pads - and the canvas surrey top has been replaced with a synthetic fabric called Sunbrella that is made to endure sunlight and withstand harsh salt-air conditions.

Adding the four trams is part of a multi-year plan, Rosenello said, to add eight new cars to the fleet. There are eight four-car trams in service. One new car will be added to each.

It's a credit to fleet maintenance over seven decades - in a place rife with corrosive salt and flood waters - that the original battery motors still are pulling the trams that arrived in Wildwood in 1949.

"It really is amazing to think about the fact that these same motors are still pulling these trams after all these years," said Kevin Lare, general manager of the SID's tram operations.

S.B. Ramagosa, an amusements operator on the Wildwood Boardwalk, bought the trams in 1949 after they were taken out service when the World's Fair closed. He created the Tram Car Amusement Company and hired 18 young women to drive them and collect the 10-cent fare.

The last cars were added in 1963, when three new ones were brought on, Rosenello said. That was the last time any were added to the fleet, he said.

"Other than that, all the others are original," Rosenello said.

Today, the operation runs pretty much the same as always.

The trams ply the boardwalk, stopping and starting every few hundred feet to allow passengers to get on and off and give the driver a chance to collect the fare.

The SID employs about 60 people to operate the trams and grosses about $850,000 a year.

"Just as they were back then, they are today like a camel in the desert when people see them," Rosenello said. "They get carried away walking the boardwalk and then think about that walk all the way back to the car and they hop right on."

The tram operation has changed hands a couple of times over the years, but ended up being bought by the city's public/private SID when the previous owner struggled to keep it afloat, Rosenello said.

"I don't think there is anything more iconic to Wildwood then the sight and sound of the tram car," Rosenello said. "No place else along the Jersey Shore has the tram cars and this was something that as a city, we could not allow to just fall by the wayside."

Blake and Mary Barry, of Glenolden, Pa., say they might vacation in Cape May every summer, but they come to the Wildwood boardwalk and take a tram ride when they "really want to have some fun."

"Both of us have been coming here since we were kids and riding the tram cars," said Mary Barry, 57. "Hearing that woman's voice say 'Watch the tram car, please' is one of the pleasures of summer. For us, it wouldn't be the Shore without it."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com

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