As long as there have been railroads, there have been railfans. During the Depression years of the 1930s, as one streetcar or interurban after another vanished from the scene, small groups of railfans banded together in an ad hoc fashion to save bits and pieces before it all disappeared completely. At first, some of these collections had nowhere to operate, and over time, short stretches of track were built to run them on.
That was about as much of an agenda as they had back then, but over time, these efforts created fledgling railway museums in various parts of the country. Some have grown and thrived, while others failed and have fallen by the wayside. In some cases, museum tracks are on old interurban rights-of-way, while others were built from scratch.
Over time, old techniques were reclaimed, redeveloped, and relearned from the experience of an earlier age, or even, in many instances, done from scratch through a process of trial and error. In the process, some amazing work has been done, and a few of yesterday’s chicken coops are today’s operating cars.
The Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine started in 1939, but at first, even its backers didn’t call it a museum- it was the Seashore Electric Railroad. But as these are generally “demonstration” railroads that don’t take people from point A to point B, it made more sense to think of it as a museum.
Some of the first cars to be saved were open-air trolleys, which were quickly going the way of the dinosaur. Fairmount Park Transit in Philadelphia was the last regular operator of open cars in the US when it was abandoned in 1946.
The Illinois Railway Museum, which today has the largest collection in the country, began life on the property of the Chicago Hardware Foundry in North Chicago, adjacent to the CNS&M. But as the collection grew, and the North Shore Line quit in 1963, a larger, and more permanent home had to be found. You can read the entire fascinating story here on the excellent Hicks Car Works blog.
Even those museum operations that failed served as a bridge that preserved equipment that eventually found a new home somewhere else later on. The Columbia Park and Southwester, aka “Trolleyville USA,” in Olmstead Township, Ohio is a case in point. Businessman Gerald E. Brookins had the wherewithal to assemble a collection of about 30 cars in the 1950s and 60s, and maintained them with a staff of several mechanics. Brookins’ contemporaries did not have these resources, and as a result, much rolling stock that would have been lost got saved, despite the sometimes inauthentic paint schemes he had them done up in.
His operation was part trolley museum, part practical transportation, as trolleys carried people between his trailer park and his shopping center. After his death in the early 1980s, his family kept the line going for several years, but the museum had to close after they sold the trailer park. The collection was brought to Cleveland with plans for a “heritage trolley” there, but when this fell through, the entire collection was sold at auction. Illinois museums were the main beneficiaries of this sale, since the Brookins collection was rich in both CA&E and AE&FR cars.
More and more often, these cars have spent more time in trolley museums than they did in regular service. CA&E car 20 is an example. The oldest operating interurban car in the country, car 20 ran on the CA&E from 1902 to 1957, a total of 55 years. (CA&E was also the last interurban to operate wood cars.) But this year will mark 56 years since the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin ceased passenger service.
In many cases, saving a car did not keep it from deteriorating over time. As an example, compare this 2006 photo of Five Mile Beach Electric Railway car 36 with one from 1945, when it was acquired by the Connecticut Trolley Museum. But at least the car still exists and could be restored.
The Magee Transportation Museum in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania is another example of one that did not make it. After assembling a collection of perhaps a dozen cars or so, the museum fell victim to both the death of its namesake and the ravages of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. You can read the sad story in a profile of the late Ed Blossom here.
As CERA celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, we tip our hat to those earliest railfans, whose herculean efforts helped preserve history for future generations to come. Under the circumstances, it’s a wonder that anything at all was saved, not that so much was lost. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.