I grew up just outside of Portland, Maine. About 45 minutes south of there is the Seashore Trolley Museum. I went several times as a kid, having been quite the little rail fan. But it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I really picked up my love for rails again with all the historic transit here in the city. With my new love for San Francisco streetcars, I made plans during our last trip back to make to visit the beloved trolley museum of my youth.
I’ll pause for a moment now to talk about terminology. Here in San Francisco we call that colorful fleet of cars that ride down Market and long the Embarcadero “streetcars” but in Maine, and in various other parts of the world, they’re known as “trolleys” instead. I don’t know why this distinction exists, and both terms are pretty broad so a dictionary is no help here. Since I was visiting the trolley museum, I’ll be referring to the ones I saw there as trolleys.
Before my trip I became a member of the museum, which gave us free entrance to the museum and a discount at the gift shop. We had originally intended to go to the museum upon arrival in Maine on the 26th of May, but learned when we showed up that they hadn’t opened on weekdays yet since it was still before Memorial Day. Whoops! We adjusted our plans and went back on Saturday.
Saturday was a hot day, but not intolerable. We had a little time to kill before the next trolley was leaving, so we made our way over to the Burton B Shaw South Boston Car House to start checking out some of the trolleys they had on display. These ones were pretty far into the rust territory and it was the smallest barn of them all, but I was delighted to find one of their double deckers inside. The streetcar lines in San Francisco don’t have the electric overhead infrastructure to support these cars, so it was a real treat for me. Later in the day we also saw another double decker that I was actually able to go up inside!
It was then time to board! With the windows open on the Boston 5821 trolley we enjoyed a nice loop around the property. The car itself was unfamiliar to me, but here in San Francisco we have the 1059, a PCC that is painted in honor of the Boston Elevated Railway so I was familiar with the transit company and livery. During the ride around the loop we had a pair of very New England tour guides who enjoyed bantering (think Car Talk). I caught a video of a segment of our trolley car ride. Riding through the beautiful green woods of Maine is certainly a different experience than the downtown streets of San Francisco that I’m used to!
On this ride I learned that many of the early amusement parks were created by the rail companies in an effort to increase ridership on Sundays, and transit companies in Maine were no exception. They also stopped by a rock formation that had evidence of how they would split rocks using water that froze and expanded in the winter to make way for the railroad tracks during building. The rocks were then crushed and used to help build the foundation of the tracks. The route from Biddeford to Kennebunkport, which the tracks we rode on was part of, is slanted downhill in the southern direction, so we also heard tales of the electricity being shut off at midnight and the last train of the day sometimes relying upon speeding up near midnight and coasting the rest of the way to the final station. I think the jury is out about how much exaggeration is to be expected in stories like this.
After the loop, we were met by a tour guide who took us around the other two transit barns that they have on the property. For most of the tour I popped ahead of the tour group to take photos, while staying within auditory range to hear what he had to say. I think this explains the 250+ pictures I took throughout the day. The barns had trolleys going at least 4 deep, in 3-4 rows. They had cars from all over the world, ranging from a stunning open top car from Montreal to that double decker from Glasgow that I got to go up to the top of. Some of the trolleys had really stunning interiors, like the Liberty Bell Limited from Philadelphia, I wouldn’t mind riding in one of those! They also had a handful of other trains that weren’t passenger trolleys, like a snow sweeper from Ottawa and a very familiar cable car from San Francisco.
Our walk around the property concluded with a visit to the restoration shop where they do work on the trolleys. Inside we saw some of the trolley skeletons and a bunch of the tools and machines they use to do work on the cars.
As you may expect, had a blast. They have an impressive assortment of trolleys, and I enjoyed learning about them and taking pictures. The museum also has a small assortment of vintage buses and train cars from various transit agencies, with a strong bias toward Boston. It was fun to see some trains that looked eerily similar to the BART trains that we still run here in the bay area, along with some of Philadelphia’s SEPTA trains. I even caught a glimpse of a SEPTA PCC trolley with livery that was somewhat modern, but it was under a cover and likely not yet restored.
The icing on the cake was their gift shop. I picked up a book for my nephew, along with my standard “tourist stuff” shot glass and magnet. The real gems were the model trains. I selected a couple toys that will accompany the others that I have from Philadelphia and San Francisco that will go on the standard wooden track that many children have. The adult model trains are where my heart was, I was able to get one of the F-Line train models (1063 Baltimore) that I didn’t have yet, along with a much larger (1:48 scale) and more impressive 2352 Connecticut Company, Destination Middletwon Birney Safety Car. I’ll be happy when I finally have a place to display all of these, but for now my little F-Line cars are hanging out on top of my second monitor.
As I mentioned, I took a lot of photos during our adventure, a whole bunch more can be browsed in an album on Flickr, and I do recommend it if you’re interested! https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157669023849545
My visit to Maine was also to visit family and as I was making plans I tried to figure out things that would be fun, but not too tiring for my nearly four year old nephew. The Seashore Trolley Museum will be great when he’s a bit older, but could I sneak in a different train trip that would be more his speed? Absolutely! The Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Portland, Maine was perfect.
The train ride itself takes about 40 minutes total, and takes you on a 1.5 mile (3 miles round trip) voyage along Portland Harbor. This meant it was about 15 minutes each way, with a stop at the end of the line for about 10 minutes for the engine to detatch and re-attach to the other side of the train, I took a video of the reattachment, which took a few tries that day. The timing was perfect for someone so young, and I was delighted to see how much he enjoyed the ride.
I enjoyed it too, it was a beautiful spring day and Portland Harbor is a lovely place to ride a train along.
We spent about a half hour in the small accompanying museum. Narrow gauge is a broad term for a variety of gauges, and I learned the one that ran there in Portland had a 2 foot gauge. As I understand it, wider gauges tend to make for a smoother ride, and though these trains were very clearly passenger trains (and vintage ones at that), the ride was a bumpy one. They had a couple other passenger and freight cars in the museum, and my nephew enjoyed playing with some of the train toys.
I hadn’t really intended for this trip to Maine to be so train-heavy, but I’m glad we were able to take advantage of the stunning weather and make it so! More photos from the Narrow Gauge Railroad, including things like the telegraph and inside of the cars they had on display are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/sets/72157669122685275