Did you know that you used to be able to use local streetcar services to trolley-hop between New York and Boston? That one story should make it clear to you how much public investment we have lost to private enterprise during the twentieth century.
I learned this during my visit to the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut. SLTM is one of those great small institutions with a dedicated volunteer corps that restores trolleys on which museum visitors can ride. These volunteers are the center of the organization, and the SLTM thanks them on their website’s front page. Founded in 1945 as the Branford Electric Railway Association, trolley excursions run over the original suburban trolley tracks. The museum honors native son Frank Sprague (born in Milford, CT), Father of Electric Traction and inventor of the spring loaded trolley pole, which allowed streetcars to collect electricity from overhead wires and operate cleanly within cities. The museum preserves about one hundred vehicles from around the country, which you may either ride or watch the SLTM’s team restore in their rail yard complex.
A late nineteenth century trolley rattles and glides through the coastal marsh, startling herons. At the end of the stretch, you would switch to the next town’s system, all the way up the coast to Boston. Sure, there were faster, more comfortable means of travel by rail or boat, if one had the money. But I think it would have been a fascinating road trip through small towns, prior to the existence of our national highway system. Click here to see a list of Connecticut towns that had trolley systems.
When witnessing the intentional purchase and destruction of our nation’s streetcar lines, former World War II naval commander E. Jay Quinby issued a manifesto to federal and local governments: “This is an urgent warning to each and every one that there is a careful, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your electric utilities (street car systems)! Who will rebuild them for you?” Read more at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority’s website.