Facebook Page

The National Streetcar Museum at Lowell Trip 6/25/2015

by Chris Guenzler

Robin and I drove into Lowell, took a wrong turn and got lost, but soon found the trolley tracks then parked in a parking garage and walked back to the trolley stop at the west end of this railroad.

The Upper Pawtucket Canal Reservoir is located along most of the trolley run.

National Streetcar Museum at Lowell

The National Streetcar Museum at Lowell is a satellite exhibit of the Seashore Trolley Museum located in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, mixed in with the Lowell National Historical Park. The National Streetcar Museum presents a special exhibit to explore the history of urban rail transportation and how its rebirth is helping to revitalize American cities. The exhibit, contributed in a large part by the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., presents the history of public transit in Lowell within the context of the broader story of American transit history.

In addition to the exhibit, rides are available on our fully restored New Orleans Public Service streetcar 966 in conjunction with the trolley service provided by the National Park Service. No. 966 operates weekends, May through October.

Lowell National Historical Parkline

Established in 1978, Lowell National Historical Park preserves the American Industrial Revolution in Lowell in a unique fashion. The park offers visitors an in-depth look into the textile industry that was the heart of the city with a working cotton mill exhibit, canal boat tours and trolley rides to move you around the city.

The trolley rides are a free service provided by the National Park Service with replica streetcars based off ones once built by the J. G. Brill Company and operated by the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company, successor to the Bay State Street Railway Company. Built by the Gamaco Trolley Company, were the first accurate replica streetcars built in the United States.

History of Streetcars in Lowell

The history of streetcars in Lowell is an interesting evolution. Like other urban areas in early 19th-century America, Lowell was a "walking city". Residents used their feet for all inner-city travel. Beginning in the 1840s, omnibuses appeared in larger cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, but Lowell remained a walking city. Rapid growth in the decades before the Civil War, however, prompted Lowell's landowners and real estate speculators to build houses in new neighborhoods away from the downtown. While many working-class residents remained in or near the congested city center, which contained factories and boarding houses, the burgeoning middle class and wealthier citizens settled in outlying neighborhoods.

To link the city center with Lowell's growing neighborhoods, the Lowell Horse Railroad Company established the city's first horse-powered streetcar. Completed in 1864, the company's line extended from Belvidere, on the east side of Lowell, into the downtown then westward to Pawtucket Falls. This venture proved quite profitable. The continued growth of Lowell and its environs in the decades following the Civil War fostered the development of Lowell's early suburbs. Real estate boomed in Lowell and in other American cities, aided by a proliferation of streetcar lines. By the late 1880's, many transport companies began investing in the latest technology, the electric streetcar.

Lowell's first electric streetcar began operation in 1889. Owned by the Lowell & Dracut Street Railway Company, the line ran from downtown across the Merrimack River into Dracut. Over the next decade, additional electric lines extended through the downtown and into suburban neighborhoods. The Lowell & Suburban Street Railway Company carried out much of this expansion after it merged the old Horse Railroad Company with the Lowell & Dracut line in 1891.

At the turn of the century, Lowell's downtown bustled with activity. Horses, wagons and pedestrians shared city streets with electrically-powered trolleys. A maze of overhead wires extended above the steel rails of the trolley tracks that were built in the middle of stone-paved streets.

Despite resistance from their employers, Lowell's streetcar workers pushed for higher wages and better working conditions. In 1903 they joined with the Amalgamated Association of Streetcar Employees to form a trade union. The streetcar workforce and the union were composed entirely of men, many of whom were Irish.

In the summertime, they ran open-air trolleys that transported people out of the city and into the countryside. One popular destination, Canobie Lake in Southern New Hampshire, was built by streetcar company interests, which profited from the resort and the fares collected. Accompanying the growth of inner-city trolley lines were interurban street railways that ran from city to city. Many transport companies, however, lacked sufficient capital to operate and maintain their lines. Large firms frequently absorbed smaller companies, discontinuing service to some areas, while expanding it in others. To maintain profits, streetcar managers cut labor as well as operating costs. Strikes by trolley workers, as well as public dissatisfaction with streetcar companies, intensified in the early 1900's.

Reflecting the "merger-mania" in the transport industry, Lowell's streetcar lines were acquired in 1901 by the Lynn & Boston Railroad Company, which was reorganized as the Boston & Northern Street Railway Company. This firm, headed by Patrick F. Sullivan of Lowell, was the largest transport company north of Boston. A second and even larger merger under the aegis of the Bay State Street Railway Company failed to improve the region's streetcar system. The Bay State firm declared bankruptcy in 1918.

The decade of the 1920's marked the decline of New England's street railways. By 1935 electric trolleys made their last run in Lowell - that is until the National Park brought them back in 1984 bringing the History of Streetcars in Lowell back to life. Trolley 966 in the Lowell operation is on long-term loan from the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Our Visit

We waited for the next trolley to arrive.

The trolley stopped and I told the operator that I was writing a story and asked if I could ride up front with him and he said "Yes". I climbed in for another new piece of rail mileage on this 1982 Gomaco-built trolley which is an authentic reproduction of the 1597-1600 series cars manufactured by J.G. Brill Company. Now sit back, relax and take a trip on the National Streetcar Museum Trolley.

I hope you enjoyed you eastbound trip on the Lowell Trolley. We had five minutes while the crew changed the trolley poles.

The train display in Lowell.

Boston & Maine Railroad 0-6-0 410 built by Manchester Locomotive Works in 1911. The engine worked at Lowell and elsewhere on the B&M until 1950, when it was sold to the H.E. Fletcher Granite Company in Westford, Masschusetts. In 1981, Fletcher Granite donated 410 to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for preservation at the Museum of Transportation in Boston. It was moved to the B&M Shops at North Billerica, Maine but the planned museum never got off the ground. For twelve years, it remained in storage until donated to the Lowell Historic Park in 1993. It is on display with combination car 1224 adjacent to the site of the original Boston & Lowell passenger station at the corner of Merrimack and Dutton streets.

Boston & Maine Railroad combine 1244 built by the Pullman Company in 1907 as a passenger coach. It was re-numbered 244 in 1930 and rebuilt as maintenance-of-way car M3031 in 1946..

Open air trolley 1602 built by the Gomaco Trolley Company and were the first accurate replica streetcars built in the United States. I rode back with the crew on our return trip. So sit back, relax and enjoy the return trip.

That was your westbound trip on the Lowell Trolley. While this ride was free, I would like to thank the National Streetcar Museum at Lowell for having us here today. Now let us watch some trolley action at the west end of the line.

New Orleans Public Service pre-payment streetcar 966 came down the tracks from the west. This was built by Perley-Thomas in 1924 and is one of a fleet of 173, numbers 800 to 972 built for New Orleans Public Service. Perley Thomas, located in High Point, North Carolina, built cars for many southern systems. It is the only traditional U.S. streetcar builder still in business, now renamed Thomas Built Buses and building school buses.

New Orleans Public Service, Inc. was formed in 1922 to acquire the bankrupt New Orleans Railway & Light Company as well as other gas and electric utilities in New Orleans. In 1925, NOPSI began converting streetcar lines to bus operation. 966 was assigned to the Canal Street line when it was converted to buses in 1964. 966 became surplus and only one New Orleans streetcar line in operation: St. Charles Avenue. The St. Charles Avenue line continues to operate using the traditional 900 series streetcars and began operating in 1835, making it the oldest continuing operating streetcar line in the world (except for a period of reconstruction after 2005's Hurricane Katrina).

The St. Charles line first used steam locomotives and then horse cars before converting to electric power in 1893. To comply with segregation laws, New Orleans streetcars had signs to fit on a seat back dividing the car between white and "colored" seating. In 1964, NOPSI donated 966 to the Heart of Dixie Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and also offered to donate a streetcar to Seashore, but the museum was fully occupied with other acquisitions and had to decline the New Orleans offer.

In 1982, the NRHS group decided that 966 did not fit with their collection and donated it to Seashore. Though essentially complete and sound, car 966 required extensive cosmetic and mechanical work to bring it back to first class condition. It also needed to be regauged from five foot two-and-a-half inch to standard gauge. In 1984, the Regional Transit Authority, which had taken over NOPSI's transit operations, offered to purchase 966 from Seashore and place it back in operation on the St. Charles line, but Seashore turned down this offer.

When Seashore got the opportunity to provide a car to augment the National Park Service's Lowell trolley operation, 966, a high capacity car that is easy and economical to run, was chosen for the assignment. Unlike Seashore, which has to deal with numerous wheel profiles, the Lowell operation standardized on a standard freight profile requiring deep flanges and wide treads. Seashore had a set of matching trucks with the correct motors and wheels, so the museum swapped them for the ones under 966 and the car serves as our ambassador.

First we did a photo runby with streetcar 966.

Next was a runby with the open air trolley 1602.

Next another photo runby with 966.

One last shot on the way back to the rental car after which we drove to the Best Western Chelmsford Inn and went for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse then Robin did the laundry and I wrote stories before watching television and calling it a night.