Tram-endous! Warsaw’s forgotten tramlines are the gem of a bygone era
Though it is hardly rare to hear of construction workers unearthing archaeological treasures in Warsaw, the discovery of pre-war paving and post-war tramlines in the city centre has caused more headlines than most.
Unearthed in September, laborers digging up Plac Trzech Krzyży were surprised to find a perfectly preserved section of cobbles underneath the asphalt they had removed, as well as a stretch of tram rails.
Running in front of the Institute of the Deaf, the find prompted the intervention of the city’s Conservator, Professor Jakub Lewicki. Working with City Hall, the parties have since come to an agreement as to the next course of action.
As it stands, sections will be left on display under protective covering, while the rest will be placed under special mesh before being again concealed.
The move has been welcomed by city activists who have seen it as a delicate compromise between the desire to save Warsaw’s historical fragments and the need to continuously modernise the city.
City Hall also praised the compromise, with the Deputy Mayor, Tomasz Bratek, citing it as an example of “substantive dialogue and great cooperation” between the Mayor’s office and Lewicki.
Demonstrating an appreciation of history, and also possibly aware of the public backlash that erupted when the revamped, concrete-heavy Plac Pięciu Rogów debuted over summer, the square will also regain its former green look.
Turned into a parking lot during WWII, the future will also see the addition of twenty-eight trees and low-lying greenery such as shrubs and hedges.
However, it is the protection of the delicate tram lines that has arguably been greeted with the loudest applause. Premiering on October 18th, 1881, the first trams that ran down this route were drawn by horses; electrified in 1908, the lines that ribboned through the square were seen as crucial to the city’s infrastructure.
First ceasing in 1939 during the bombardment of Warsaw, by 1940 trams again began running the course, passing directly outside the so-called Soldatenheim, a German R&R centre housing hotel-style facilities, an eatery, casino and brothel.
With service again disrupted in 1944, this time due to the Warsaw Uprising, service did not resume until 1946. Using new tracks, the Plac Trzech Krzyży loop did not boast the same prominence and in 1959 was cancelled altogether.
The following year, on October 25th, it was reportedly dismantled – now, though, it has been proved that this was not entirely the case.
As prosaic as they might sound to some, these old tramlines have increasingly become the subject of civic appreciation. Much like the wartime bullet wounds that scar the city’s buildings, calls to cherish and save these historic leftovers have grown louder with time.
In many instances, they have now become integral features of the city’s streets, lending a much-needed sense of bygone atmosphere to a capital that was largely rebuilt after being razed by the Germans.
Arguably, this rings loudest on Chłodna, a street that has been resurrected in recent times. Established in 1882, the tram that ran this street for years presented the shortest way in which the city’s residents could reach what was then the village of Wola.
As Wola’s population swelled due to its rapid industrialisation, Chłodna’s reputation as one of the city’s principal arteries also grew in tandem. Without doubt though, its most profound moment came with the creation of the Jewish Ghetto.
Wola remained a factory hub and massive population centre, so rather than closing the line entirely, the occupying Germans instead chose to carve the Ghetto into two areas – ‘the Small Ghetto’ and ‘the Big Ghetto’, thereby enabling trams to still run down Chłodna and connect Wola to the centre.
Framed by walls on either side, a wooden footbridge was then constructed allowing for Jews to pass overhead to get from the ghetto-to-ghetto. The teasing sight of trams running below must have been a particularly cruel reminder of the world that they were now excluded from.
In 1946, the tram track was re-laid with new gauges, but it wasn’t long until Chłodna lost its distinction. Within months, the Capital Reconstruction Office published plans for the creation of the W-Z highway running parallel and the last tram rolled down Chłodna on November 22nd, 1948.
Still, a long swathe of this line has survived, and today acts as a reminder of the past.
Neither has its role in history been forgotten, either, and this street has long been seen as an essential stop on any Holocaust tour of Warsaw – a point underscored by the addition of markers outlining the boundaries of the Ghetto, as well as an installation showing where the Ghetto bridge once stood.
The same can be said of the area around Arsenał, a stone’s throw from Plac Bankowy. Warsaw’s post-war remapping has a tendency to confuse newcomers seeking out history, especially where Nalewki street is involved.
The original Nalewki street ran past Arsenał and in the pre-war years was the centre of Warsaw’s Jewish life. Unique on a global scale, it was home to over 1,000 flourishing businesses, and a commercial hub where each and every courtyard seemed like its own different world.
It was said that “if you could not find what you wanted for sale on Nalewki, you would not find it anywhere in the world.” Cramped, noisy, chaotic and overcrowded, the sense of din was compounded by the constant clatter of passing trams.
Impossible to imagine now, today the area is notable for its sense of peace, with the only indication of its former life being the curving tram tracks that have been preserved.
Running up to Krasiński Gardens (a park particularly popular with the local Jewish residents – not least for its resident band and the presence of an elephant that could be viewed for a fee), these leftovers have an almost haunting quality that is compounded when viewed in the melancholic half-light of Warsaw’s autumn.
Likewise, outside peak travel hours, Śniadeckich too can feel like a trip back in time. Lined with occasionally sumptuous pre-war tenements, their timeless elegance is amplified by the tracks embedded in the cobbles.
Opened almost 103-years ago to the day, these remnants were rediscovered in 2005 and have become symbolic of this street’s mood. As dusk settles, and halos of light glow from the streetlamps up above, it’s impossible not to feel seduced by this street’s specific mood.
The same sentiments can equally be applied to Plac Grzybowski and Ząbkowska where former tracks have enriched the atmosphere.
It’s a point on which to dwell. Where Warsaw’s meteoric regeneration is concerned, the resurrection and / or protection of such lines has served to provide an authenticity and historical context to a capital that can sometimes be accused of plunging a little too haphazardly towards the future.
For all that, it is perhaps the lesser-known survivors that should be hailed the loudest – the small segments restored not to provide gloss to a gentrifying area, but revived out of nothing more than a tender sense of historical obligation.
In this respect, the 60-metre stretch of track on Wysockiego in Targówek is possibly the best example. Once serving tram No. 21, and dating from 1924, these tracks appear almost at random on a street whose relevance has largely been forgotten.
A strange and almost surreal interruption, this portion of roadway is something of a gem – featuring also a 1925 monument erected by locals to honour the 1920 Miracle on the Vistula, this portion of the street features, too, preserved shrapnel marks pitting the electricity poles that once powered the trams.
Born from the combined efforts of the Bródno Lovers' Association, the Targówek council and the municipal tram authorities, it is an extraordinary nugget to find hidden in the rough.