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October 31, 2010

Trolleys: Riding Back in Time

What was commuting like back in the “good old days”? Well, cheaper, slower and with fewer options. Still, we have nostalgia for our grandparents’ travel methods long before families owned cars. Back then, it was all about trolleys!

It’s been 200 years since trolleys first plied city streets. Initially pulled by horses they were eventually electrified, adding speed and dependability. While we think of streetcars mostly for in-city service, trolleys criss-crossed our state, supplementing the railroads for longer distance travel.

It is true that you could travel all the way from New York to Boston by connecting trolley lines, a nickel a ride. (Click here for a fabulous 1916 timetable showing four routes from NY to Boston complete with descriptions of the towns).

The trolley companies were often owned by power utilities, giving themselves a steady client for their electricity. To generate even more weekend business, trolley lines would often run to amusement parks which they also owned, like Roton Point in Norwalk.

The expansion of the trolley lines had a profound effect on housing, allowing city dwellers to live further than walking distance from their factories. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Boston as detailed in “Streetcar Suburbs”, a classic sociology text. This was truly the first “Transit Oriented Development”.

But the story of New England’s trolleys is not limited to the history books. Fortunately, we are blessed with two excellent trolley museums just a short drive away.

The Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection. It still runs excursion trolleys for a short run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can walk thru the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars. There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US. It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour the collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

Both museums also offer you the chance to “drive” a streetcar… under supervision and after a little training. Passengers are not allowed, but your friends can join you if they are brave. If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either museum. But check ahead for hours, especially off-season.

Being born and raised in Toronto, streetcars were always a part of my life. Long before Toronto had a subway or commuter rail service, citizens would go shopping, go to church or an evening at the movies by streetcar. Even today that city of 2.5 million is served by new, Canadian-built streetcars. You can still ride trolleys, both old and new, in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston and Newark NJ. There’s even talk of returning streetcars to Stamford.

When it comes to getting around by means other than the auto, everything old is new again.

CT Trolley Museum

New Orleans trolley on St Charles Ave

PCC Car - CT Trolley Museum

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