The wooden leg

El Gamba de Legn': ‘the wooden leg’ is an unusual name for a means of transport. It was the nickname that the people of Milan gave to the first steam-powered tram which started running on 9 September 1878, connecting Milan and Magenta over a distance of about 23 kilometres. They applied the same name to all the other lines that were later built between Milan and the surrounding towns.

Why wooden leg? Apparently the tram, running slowly along the tracks on Milan’s cobbled streets, made a syncopated To-Toc To-Toc sound, like a person walking with a wooden leg.

The 17 trams had from 10 to 12 carriages, without doors or heating, and there were wooden benches for the passengers who got very cold in winter. But even so, in those days the Gamba de Legn’ was advanced technology, far more efficient than the horse-drawn trams that could carry only a dozen people and that operated from Milan to Monza right up until 1900.

The 17 locomotives were manufactured by Lokomotivenfabrik Krauß in Munich, and they had a structure totally different from railway locos. For safety, the boiler and engine were completely enclosed by a steel screening structure, and the driver’s cabin was at the front for better visibility.

The maximum speed of the steam tram was specified by Milan’s provincial administration: 15 kilometres per hour in the countryside, along roads lined by mulberries used for silkworm raising, and 10 km/h in the city. When it was foggy, speed was reduced to 5 km/h. In this case, at every village and in Milan, an employee wrapped in a cloak and equipped with a lantern, bell and whistle waited for the tram and then walked in front of it to warn pedestrians of the oncoming danger. Before the First War, the tram ran five times a day. During the Second World War, many people were forced to live outside the city because of air-raid damage, and so all the goods trucks available were pressed into service, and even so, many passengers were forced to ride on the roofs of the normal carriages.

After the War, things returned to normal, and the last tram every day left Milan at 0.40 a.m., taking people back home after their evening out at the cinema or theatre.

The Gamba de Leg’ ran until 1954, and even though the residents of the villages and towns through which the slow and shuddering tram ran would have preferred to have kept the steam-powered version rather than the new electric trams, it finally went out of service in 1957. The last journey of the Gamba de Legn’ was accompanied by huge crowds of people, who put flowers on the locomotive.

The eighty-year history of the steam tram, which became one of the symbols of old Milan, was accompanied by another historic tramway, from Milan to Limbiate. It was also nicknamed Gamba de Legn’ by the people, and it carried the name right up into relatively recent history.

When the route started operating in 1882, its carriages, marked SAO, Società anonima degli omnibus, were horse-drawn, and they ran to Affori, which at that time was a village to the north of the city. It is now a district of Milan.

On 5 July 1900, the service was transferred to the Edison company, because the provincial authorities wanted to convert the horse-drawn trams into electric versions, and Edison had the technology to install 600-volt overhead cables. A Royal Decree on 4 April 1912 authorized Edison to extend the route to Varedo, and again to reach Limbiate from 1 February 1920.

Edison was supplanted by STEL, Società Trazione Elettrica Lombarda, and 15 years later, in 1939, the line was taken over by ATM, Azienda Trasporti Milanesi, the Municipal public transport company that is still operating today. ATM introduced the ‘OMS’ tram which could carry 103 passengers at a maximum speed of 65 km/h.

Further improvements were made in the 1950s, but in April 1999, even this modern version of the Gamba de Legn’ went out of service, because the M3 Metro line was being built in Piazzale Maciachini.

But the tram made an unexpected return on Monday 22 October this year, following an investment of 3.8 million euro by the Municipality. Further work will be carried out in the future, at a total cost of 100 million euro, for new trams, new tramlines, platforms and signals.

While awaiting the latest version of the Gamba de Legn’, you can see the original steam locomotive at the Science Museum, Museo della Scienza e della Tecnica Leonardo da Vinci, in the Land Transport section, where it has been placed in a period reconstruction of the city streets. Some people still leave little bunches of flowers on the front.

Henry Neuteboom

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