Conn. could further capitalize on its gem of a trolley museum

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, July 28, 2017

There are many streetcar and trolley museums in the US that have unique equipment collections and scenic rights of way. The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Conn. offers a superb combination of both, and has benefitted from public and private grants that have allowed it to build new, more flood-resistant storage barns and maintenance facilities. The only thing lacking is a longer right-of-way, ideally taking historic trolleys down East Haven’s Main Street.

Perley Thomas-built car no. 850, from New Orleans, receives museum passengers at Sprague station in East Haven, Conn. All photos by Malcolm Kenton. Click on any photo to enlarge.
The SLTM is one of the oldest operating electric street railway museums in the U.S. (Maine's Seashore Trolley Museum being the oldest). Its property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, represents a better state of preservation of original electric interurban property than most on the East Coast. This is because the Branford Electric Railway Association, the nonprofit that runs the museum, formed in 1945, just in time to acquire a 1.5-mile section of track and a maintenance facility from the Connecticut Company, which ended revenue operations that year. The museum’s line represents the easternmost segment of ConnCo’s trackage along the shore of the Long Island Sound, which originally connected Branford with New Haven and points north and west.

Since then, while continuing to operate its line (which it reduced to single track in order to sell the second track for scrap), it has preserved several original ConnCo cars that have remained on the property and has acquired and restored  other streetcars and heavy rail rapid transit cars, particularly from the New York City area, along with specimens from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Johnstown Penn. and Georgia. It has many configurations of passenger trolley car along with all types of operating work cars (including two snow plows) and operating trolleybuses. But the museum’s setting is as much a gem as its collection. The track runs on an embankment in the middle of East Haven Marsh, an open tidal wetland, surrounded by herons, ospreys and other wildlife, high grasses, rocky outcroppings, and stately New England homes. It also cuts through the thick woods of the Beacon Hill Preserve and even passes by a small farm with geese, chickens and sheep.

The tour of the car barns offered as part of the standard ride on the line only covers a small portion of the collection, but if you are a member of or volunteer for the SLTM or another streetcar or transit museum with a reciprocal arrangement, you can ask for a more extensive tour (and your ride will be free). Here are some pieces you won’t want to miss:

  • Interior of ConnCo inspection car no. 500.
    ConnCo Inspection Car No. 500: Though not listed on the museum’s website, this is likely the best preserved example of an electric traction company business car, similar to a railroad president’s private car with an open rear platform. This Brill-built beauty was used by Connecticut Company management, board members and invited guests to inspect the company’s 100-plus interurban track miles. It features detailed interior woodwork with Corinthian column capitals, 20 original wicker chairs, ivory porter call buttons, a toilet cabinet with Tiffany glass windows, and a porter’s cabinet which still houses the company’s china. It remains in unrestored but well-preserved state.
  • Several very early cars from the late 1800s, some of which were initially built as either horse-drawn or cable cars and converted to electric traction. One in particular, Rhode Island 61, is believed to be the oldest purpose-built streetcar in North America, dating to 1883. There is also one of the earliest electric locomotives, the 1888-built, four-wheeled Derby.
  • Union Street Railway RPO No. 302: This is one of only three remaining traction-powered Railway Post Office cars used on an electric interurban, and may be the only one still in operating condition. Built in 1907, it carried mail between Providence, R.I. and New Bedford, Mass., and has lived at the museum since 1948. It has been restored to showcase how an RPO car worked, with bags and slots for on-board sorting.
  • PATH car 745: This car, which is included on the standard tour, was retired after leading the last train from Hoboken to arrive at World Trade Center station on Sept. 11, 2001, before the station was shut down after the second hijacked jet slammed into one of the towers above the station. Its interior has not been changed since that tragic day, when many of the workers who rode it to their jobs perished.

Section of the SLTM right of way crossing East Haven Marsh, seen from the rear of Perley Thomas car no. 850.
The town of East Haven pays homage to the long-standing presence of the Trolley Museum, one of its main tourist attractions, by naming several other locales (e.g. Trolley Square Shopping Center, Trolley Park Apartments) which have no historic connection to streetcars. There are also stationary replica streetcars stationed at various points as visitor information booths. If the town were interested in becoming an even more unique trolley-themed destination, there is a lot more that could be done in partnership with the museum and with financial help from state and federal governments and the business community. 

It’s no real stretch of the imagination to picture the museum’s 1.5-mile line being extended westward down Main Street to become part of the town’s everyday public transportation system. Heritage streetcars serve this role in San Francisco, New Orleans, Kenosha Wis. and (soon to be revived) Memphis. Streetcars and other historic transit contribute immeasurably to the essence of these places — imagine San Francisco without the cable cars of the F line, or New Orleans without the St. Charles Avenue line. The Northeast, however, lacks any operation akin to these. No new maintenance or layover facility would need to be built and no additional equipment would need to be acquired — perhaps only some existing pieces in the museum’s collection would need to be brought back to operating condition. 

The Shore Line Trolley Museum is certainly worth a visit in its current state, and is doing a remarkable job with the property and resources it has. But if expanded, the foresight that a small group of preservationists had in the mid-1940s could turn into a true present-day boon to economic development and tourism — not just in the town of East Haven, but for the entire New Haven area and even the whole state.

Click here to view my Flickr photo album from my visit to the SLTM on July 23.

Corrected on August 15, 2017.

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