1926 Streetcar
1926 Streetcar

Historical Sites

 

1926 Streetcar

In the center of Chatham’s historic district is a reconditioned double-truck Birney streetcar. As streetcars were replaced with buses between 1930 and 1950, it left a large number of trolleys available for the streetcar diner business.

The Streetcar Diner was originally Burnett’s Diner, but has also been known as Main Street Lunch, S & K Diner, Chatham Cafe and Garner’s Diner. The Streetcar Diner was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Registry and the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1996.

“Burnett's Diner is one of the finest surviving examples of the streetcar diner in Virginia and possibly in the eastern United States,” according to the summary description in the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service National Register of Historic Places. It was submitted as part of a multiple property listing entitled Diners of Virginia. Described as “a rare surviving example of a converted streetcar restaurant,” it is one of two former early 20th century streetcars in town which were once operated as eateries.*

In the early 1900s, trolleys ran all over Danville. The ticket fare was a nickel. County native Roy T. “Buddy” Martin operated the #66 streetcar that ran the Schoolfield-North Danville route. After its retirement, the #66 eventually found a home in Chatham.

The #66 was purchased by Danville Traction and Power Company along with four other double-truck closed cars in 1923 from the Perley A. Thomas Car Company of High Point, N.C.. It operated as a streetcar in the City of Danville using overhead power lines from 1926 until 1938.

The double-truck car was the largest most modern streetcar to travel Danville’s streets. It carried about 30 people and could be entered from four doors. The interior included wooden benches and trim. The original color scheme of the Danville Traction and Power Company cars was dark green with cream trim. There were operating levers at both ends of the cars. The conductor could drive the car from either end. When the trolley reached the end of its designated route, it did not turn around. Rather, the operator flipped the backs of the seats so passengers were always facing the front and drove from the opposite end. Two of these seats are in Chatham’s restored streetcar.

Three brothers, Henry, Frank and Jessie Burnett rescued car #66 from the scrappers when it was retired from Danville Traction and Power Company around 1939. It was hauled 20 miles north to Chatham on Booker Stone’s flat bed truck. The heavy wheel assemblies were more than likely removed before transporting the car. Henry Burnett maneuvered it into place beside the gas station on the corner of Main and Pruden streets.

The Burnett family had already been running the service station for several years before the diner was situated on the same parcel. Henry Burnett Sr. ran the service station and also ran a bicycle repair business. Dr. Randall O. Reynolds, the owner of the property, eventually sold the corner lot to Jessie Burnett in 1946 for $8,000. Henry’s wife, Irma, a Chatham school dietician, was also part of the group who helped keep the diner operating long hours, sometimes offering service well into the evening.

The tranformation from trolley to diner has been accomplished without completely covering up reminders of the diner's original design. In addition to keeping some of the original trolley benches, a variety of dine-in seating, a custom built counter, and 1930s era bar stools were installed. The benches, counter and stools are still present. A wood stove originally sat at the rear, serviced from wood stacks in the backyard.

In addition to the dine-in crowd, the diner maintained a brisk take-out service for its customers through the conductor’s window at the front of the car. This was especially significant before desegregation because blacks and whites were not allowed to eat together at lunch counters.

Externally, the trolley’s original headlight was re-electrified and the structure was given a bright red coat of paint. A 1941 National Clock Company clock is perched on top of the roof.

The car is owned by Allan Easley of Chatham who operates an insurance business next door.

* The second was Bill’s Diner, a smaller streetcar which is located at the corner of Main and Depot streets. It was run by William Lewis Fretwell of Chatham whose business predates Burnett’s Diner by a few years. Upon Bill’s death in 1983, the diner was sold to Walter Whittle. His business became the only African-American owned and operated streetcar diner in the Commonwealth. It is closed now.