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Three Years After Fire, Trolley Museum Is Finding New Steam

January 29, 2006|Stephen Manning | Associated Press Writer

COLESVILLE, Md. — Wearing a pillbox conductor cap, William Blackburn eases the dark yellow Dutch street car into the wooden barn at the National Capital Trolley Museum, pulling it up next to a turquoise and pastel green car, one of the last trolleys that plied the streets of Washington until the 1960s.

Parked tightly on the three parallel tracks of the large barn are streetcars from throughout the world -- a 1930s New York car with rattan seats, a Washington trolley under repair that dates to the late 1890s and a Toronto streetcar that still has the ads from when it was retired in 1995.

But the collection has some gaps. In 2003, a fire tore through a garage next door, destroying eight cars, much of the building and what museum officials say was an important record of the history of public transportation in Washington.

"We lost some unique cars," Blackburn said.

The museum, located on Montgomery County parkland about 15 miles outside Washington, was able to acquire some replacement cars through an unofficial network of streetcar buffs and collectors. A major expansion, including construction of a new museum and larger storage barn, is expected to begin soon.

But the fire has had a lingering effect beyond the burnt barn. Museum officials say attendance has dropped 25% since the fire, a trend they attribute to a belief by the public that the fire caused the museum to shut down. In fact, it reopened six weeks after the Sept. 28, 2003, blaze.

It's not hard to understand why the misconception developed that the museum was closed. The early morning fire ate the roof off the barn and consumed the cars inside. Damage at the time was estimated at $8 million, although museum officials say some of the cars were priceless and irreplaceable. The cause was never determined, but Wesley Paulson, the museum's volunteer director of development, said it might have been linked to an electric system that powered the cars.

Among the cars lost was an 1898 car that swept snow from the tracks in Washington with large brooms made of bamboo reeds. An experimental car from the 1940s and 1950s was destroyed, as was a car that once ferried passengers from Washington to the Great Falls tourist spot on the Potomac River.

The museum has since obtained three cars to help rebuild, working through unofficial national and global networks of trolley buffs and collectors. The damaged barn was not repaired.

The fire also was a financial blow for the museum, which has an annual operating budget of about $60,000. The building was insured but the cars were not, Paulson said.

Founded in 1959 to preserve the history of Washington's trolley system, the museum is small, consisting of the storage garage, a track that loops a mile through the woods, and a shop and exhibition in a building that looks like a train depot. It is open only on weekends and some Thursdays and Fridays, depending on the season.

Almost all the staff are volunteers. That includes a core group of about 15 people, mostly retirees, who run the cars for visitors and tinker with them on weekends. They include Bill Shartzer, who remembers watching trolley cars from the window of his family's apartment on Capitol Hill in Washington. "I used to watch the old double-end trolleys go by all the time. I'd get very excited," he said.

The new museum, which had been planned before the fire, will include a $1.2-million car barn that will more than double the storage space. Visitors will be able to walk around the trolleys in the new display -- currently people can only peek through the front doors of the barn.

It will be made of steel instead of the wood and masonry of the current building. And while it's under construction, the museum is taking no chances on what's left of its collection.

"We just paid for an extremely expensive sprinkler system," Joanie Pinson, the museum's education director, said as she walked through the wooden barn.

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