KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Don Curry, sheened in sweat and grime, makes his way up a ladder propped against an old trolley car that, honestly, looks like its best days are long passed.
That is not the case, if Curry has anything to do with it. This trolley was once fit for a president — Teddy Roosevelt, no less — and it will be again.
He inserts an 8-foot length of blackened steel rod into a hole at the top of the trolley named the Narcissus and fishes it through to the bottom with a thunk. One hundred years of moisture and the rat-a-tat of untold miles skittering across rails long ago made cold steel as brittle as ice. The rods break when Curry wrenches them, but after he replaces the corroded part, they’re as solid as the day they were new.
For Curry, 79, who is in his 62nd year of restoring trolleys at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, patience is a virtue. He spent hours Monday morning working on this single rod, but it’s important. It holds the roof to the siding and the siding to the base, pulling it all together in a solid conglomeration of the finest old-growth lumber, stained glass, gold leaf and cherrywood inlay that pre-World War I dollars could buy.
There’s a problem with the fit at the bottom, so Curry cuts away a notch of old-growth poplar — the kind that just can’t be found these days — with a hammer and chisel. It takes a special kind of guy to use tools of destruction on something as precious as this forlorn, century-old trolley car.
“You try to do it the way they did it,” said Curry, who at other times in his life has been a music teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School and a bassoonist for the Portland Symphony Orchestra. “It’s interesting to see how this thing was put together and the craftsmanship that went into it. You know you’re going to screw something up eventually. You try to avoid that and, gradually, it improves.”
It takes a close-up vantage point and a bit of imagination to see what makes this particular trolley car, the Narcissus, so special.
“From our standpoint, this is one of the top jewels in the crown of our collection,” said Phil Morse, a volunteer who is overseeing the restoration of the Narcissus.
Construction of Narcissus, the first time, culminated in the trolley going into service on the Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley line, in 1914. Some 7.3 million people traveled between Portland and Lewiston on that line by its closure in 1933 at breathtaking speeds topping 80 miles per hour — which was about as fast as any land vehicle could travel at the time.
Adorned with leaded stained-glass windows, gold-leaf fleur de lis decorations and inlaid wood detail, the trolley was made for luxury by the Laconia Car Co. in New Hampshire.
Just a few weeks after it went into service it hosted its most famous rider. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, who by then had been shunned by the Republican Party and was touring in support of his new Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, rode the Narcissus from Lewiston to Portland in August 1914 to support progressive congressional candidates in the midterm elections.
Following the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1914 marked the first time in history that U.S. senators were chosen by popular election as opposed to being appointed by state legislatures.
“That’s where he stood,” said Morse, referring to the front end of the trolley. “We call it the ‘Teddy’ end.”
Roosevelt’s connections to Maine are many, but his campaign trip through Maine marked an important crossroads in political history. The trolley’s connection to Roosevelt is part of what is helping the trolley museum, which contains more than 250 transit vehicles, raise the estimated $400,000 it will cost to refurbish it. To that end, the museum is hosting three days of activities July 31 through Aug. 2 called “Roosevelt Days: Celebrating the Naturalist and the Narcissus.”
“Teddy Roosevelt spent a lot of quality time in Maine,” said Morse. “That made a difference in his life forever.”
After coming off the tracks, according to Morse, the Narcissus served as a diner in Sabattus — though few of the details about that are known. It later was used for decades as a family camp on Sabattus Pond before being acquired by the museum.
But what differences did trolleys make? What makes them worth restoration and preservation? That’s the challenge the museum faces as the number of people who remember electric-powered trolley cars operating in Maine dwindles. It’s easy to forget that the proliferation of trolleys led the spread of electrical service. Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro Electric can both trace their lineage to being trolley operators.
Trolley lines — such as the Portland-to-Lewiston line — also shrunk the world. The trip that took an hour in 1914 would have taken a day or more with the next-most-advanced transit mode of the time: horse and buggy.
A hulking, mostly wooden trolley car hurtling down the tracks at more than 85 miles an hour, the trolley pole behind, sparking against high-current wires above, is a scene not familiar by today’s standards. Even most modern passenger trains don’t travel that fast.
“When people get up close to one of these trolleys, it kind of appeals to their sense of the past as a more innocent time frame,” said Randy Leclair, the museum’s restoration manager. “For the people back then, the future of technology was exciting.”
But as Curry observed, it’s a history whose significance pales in light of today’s monorails, automobiles that can cruise at 80 miles per hour and jumbo jets.
“I don’t know who the next generation is going to be,” he said of trolley enthusiasts. “That’s the major challenge we have.”