Back on Track

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E ast Haven’s Shore Line Trolley Museum is an especially fascinating place to go if you were the kind of kid who went to local air shows or read obsessively about the newest supercars or spent countless hours with model trains.

I did all three, so it was thrilling to arrive at the museum on a blindingly blue summer Monday to take a tour with the museum’s young curator, Nathan Nietering. Nietering’s background is in history, and like me he’s been interested in trains since childhood. What better place is there for such a man to work than what the museum’s website says is “the oldest continuously operating suburban trolley line in the United States”?

Electric trolleys, otherwise known as streetcars, descended from the technologically humbler horse-drawn carriage and were America’s preferred method of transportation just over a hundred years ago. They roamed and rumbled over distances long and short, running from New Haven along the shoreline, stopping at small towns. Trolleys made commuting for work economically and temporally feasible.

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The Branford Electric Railway Association founded the museum in 1945, at a time when the future of trolleys was uncertain. Since then the museum has collected nearly 100 vintage vehicles, 45,000 photographs, 5,000 books, and 2,000 “small artifacts,” managing in the process to preserve a considerable slice of Connecticut’s history.

“The museum has 1,000 members and roughly four employees. Everybody else”—over 100 additional staff—“is a volunteer. They’re here because they love being here,” Nietering told me inside a canary yellow trolley that used to run in New Haven. He’s energetic, knowledgeable and given to digression; in the few hours we spent together, we rode the remnants of the original Shore Line East rails as he regaled me with tidbits of trolley history and information.

Yes, that’s right: some of the trolleys still work. Ours had seats made from rattan, a hard, exotic, wicker-esque material derived from the eponymous vine-like plant. Perched above windows and below light bulbs, period advertisements for organizations like the New Haven Savings Club and the Branford Theater decorate the interior. It was like stepping into a bygone age, and yet it wasn’t fundamentally different from riding a Metro North train, ads and all.

The museum occupies 30 or 40 acres of land on a nature preserve, and as we moved down the track, our volunteer conductor pointed out osprey nests and crabs exposed by low tide, scurrying between little pools of water. But it wasn’t so idyllic during Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), which wreaked havoc on the museum’s vehicle collection.

“Out of our 100 cars, up until a couple of years ago, about 60 of them could operate,” Nietering said as we stood on the ground next to a trolley. “Then Hurricane Irene came, and where you’re standing right now there were about two feet of water.” Gesturing to one end of the trolley, he continued, “You see this apparatus here on the other side of the car? The electric motors that take the electricity from the wire and turn it into physical motion sit right on top of the axles,” low enough to be submerged.

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Of course, electrical components and water don’t mix. Flooded by saltwater from the nearby Long Island Sound and the marsh on which the Museum rests, 57 of the working cars were taken out of commission, leaving only three that could still run. “That many got damaged,” Nietering marveled in his matter-of-fact way. “We learned a lot from Irene, and during Sandy we parked cars in different places,” which managed to save 13 cars from further damage. But with Long Island Sound so close and the museum’s situation on tidal marshland, the danger persists. Most of the time, the tide goes in and out as you’d expect. But, as Nietering put it, “when a hurricane comes, the tide comes in, and it keeps going up and up.”

Though the museum’s day-to-day operation is funded entirely by ticket sales and donations, with no state funding, the destruction caused by the hurricanes was too much for it to handle alone. They applied for and received recovery funding from FEMA. But funds alone aren’t enough; the task is a lot more complicated than calling up a mechanic and ordering parts and labor. The museum’s vehicles are long out of production, after all.

“We have a limited supply of volunteers,” Nietering noted, “and since they don’t run a lot of this stuff anywhere else in the country, you gotta go to other museums and say, ‘Hey, will you volunteer to come and help us fix our stuff,’ and then trade with them.”

Funding is still critical, though. To protect against future inclement weather, the Museum has broken ground on a $2 million project to build two new trolley car storage buildings at 13 feet above sea level, which would be a 7-foot increase from where the Museum currently sits and would put it “above the 500-year flood stage. So when the next hurricane comes, the roof might blow off, but nothing should flood because it’ll be high enough that the water can’t get to it!” Nietering said triumphantly.

Even record-setting hurricanes aren’t enough to push the Shore Line Trolley Museum off the rails.

Shore Line Trolley Museum
17 River St, East Haven (map)
Mon-Sun 10am-5pm through September 2. After that, hours are Sat-Sun 10am-5pm through the end of October, when the visiting season ends.
(203) 467-6927

Written and photographed by Bijan Stephen.

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Bijan wears round glasses. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Quartz, VICE, and Kill Screen; if you do some creative googling, you're bound to find more elsewhere. He gives great tweet at @bijanstephen.

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