Phil Morse has been working to restore Maine's only remaining interurban trolley car for the better part of 20 years. Now, a surprise gift from a little-known California trolley foundation will make it happen, finally. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

A historic electric trolley car that once toted President Theodore Roosevelt on campaign stops through Maine is on its way to full restoration following a windfall donation from the West Coast.

Arthur Jones, 88, is a World War II veteran from San Diego who just wants to see some things through before he’s gone. One of those things is the restoration of the Narcissus, which is underway at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport. Jones has stepped in as the car’s financial savior with a major donation that will speed the project along.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

“I think I was born with a trolley in my hand,” said Jones. “I never realized there would be a renaissance in trams but, of course, I’m delighted.”

[Saving the last link to when Teddy Roosevelt rode Maine’s rails at 80 mph]

A lifelong regret, Jones said, is that he missed the final days of the Indiana Railroad, which he remembers from his childhood in St. Louis. The railroad dwindled out of profitability and then collapsed after a terrible 1941 train wreck. To slow the slip of electric train history, Jones said his foundation will support American trolley museums “for quite a few years.”

Credit: Courtesy Seashore Trolley Museum

“It will have quite a lot of money available for the various trolley museums in the United States,” said Jones.

The museum acquired the Narcissus, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, in the late 1960s when it was a family’s camp in the woods of Sabattus, though talk of having a Portland-Lewiston Interurban line car started when the museum formed in 1939.

“People have wanted this for 50 years and longer,” said Phil Morse, who is managing the project.

Restoration is expensive. Fundraising has been complicated by other museum projects and a relatively small pool of donors with the money and interest for train and trolley restoration. However, the Narcissus has a savior.

In 2014, Morse wrote to the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation, a relatively obscure organization which had donated funds to other trolley projects. There was no website, no email address and no reply until one morning when Morse’s phone rang.

“I pick it up and this guy says, ‘This is Arthur Jones. I received your letter. What are you doing?’” said Morse. “I told him the story of the Narcissus.”

A photocopied form letter arrived a few days later with handwritten notes in the margins. Jones had pledged $10,000, but gave Morse just 90 days to raise matching funds.

“Looking back, this was Arthur testing my mettle,” said Morse. “It was old school, like, ‘Let’s see what this kid is worth.’”

Morse raised the money with a couple days to spare, and a check for $10,000 arrived right away.

Credit: Courtesy Seashore Trolley Museum

Jones then offered another $40,000 matching grant, which came through in January. That was enough to keep the project moving for the rest of the year — but then a representative for Jones called again.

He wanted to know how much the Narcissus would cost to finish.

Morse and others scrambled to figure the costs of elements they hadn’t planned on addressing for years — such as the ultra-rare electric motors and trucks, which are missing.

They estimated more than $500,000. Jones said go ahead.

“At that point I’m like, wanting to cry,” said Morse, crying. “I haven’t even met him.”

Morse estimates that the Narcissus, which is named for a flower, will be restored within a couple of years, though in this case, progress breeds more challenges. The museum needs artifacts and materials to display with the trolley, but the big question is how to protect the Narcissus when it’s finished.

The museum has studied building a secure, 22,000-square-foot, climate-controlled Maine Transportation Hall, but that’s a dream at this point. Morse worries about how he and others will accomplish such grand plans, but then something happens that reminds him.

Recently, a man and his 8-year-old daughter, who was a descendant of the trolley’s designer, visited the museum from California.

“A volunteer happened to overhear the father say to the girl, ‘That’s Grandma’s grandfather’s trolley. That’s the Narcissus,’” said Morse. “It was like, hallelujah.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.