When Irene came ashore at East Haven on Sunday, the Shore Line Trolley Museum was as ready as it could possibly be. A number of the museum’s volunteers spent long hours in the days before the storm moving cars to higher tracks where possible. After all, it’s hard to relocate almost 100 antique trolleys when their home sits below the 100-year-flood level.
Ironically, the museum’s board of trustees had just inaugurated an “Elevating the Collection” fundraising campaign in March aimed at building elevated housing for the collection to protect it against even the most devastating hurricane.
The museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located at 17 River St., right next to the Farm River, and has been through recurring floods. This time, with the punishing storm surge brought by Irene, the museum suffered the worst tidal flood in its history.
“It was shocking to see 100-year-old antiques sitting in pools of water, knowing that every minute was further damaging their valuable and irreplaceable motors,” said Jeff Hakner, chairman of the trustees.
“The good news is that there is minimal damage to the car barns. Sprague station, where most visitors first encounter the museum, is fine,” Hakner said. “Most of the railway line is undamaged. However track washouts will prevent us from being able to operate all the way to Short Beach for some time. We plan to have limited operations in effect by Saturday, Sept. 3.”
The bad news is that almost 90 other cars, one dating to 1878, have received some damage. The collection includes 46 cars more than 100 years old. All of them are considered out of service until they can be inspected and their motor insulation tested. The process will take several weeks.
Water in the car barns ran from 12 to 24 inches deep. Cars 948, 850, and 357 are the only ones known to have completely escaped flooding and will be operational once electrical power has been restored.
“Every car we have inspected is repairable, but it will take a significant amount of work,” Hakner said. “Repairing one car with a flooded motor can take 500 hours of skilled labor. We’ll be fighting the effects of this flood on our collection for years to come.”
Virtually all of the activities at the trolley museum are manned by volunteers, from repairmen to conductors and from engineers to committee chairs.
“We launched the ‘Elevating the Collection’ campaign to prevent catastrophic damage to an invaluable collection,” said Hakner, who is also the co-chairman of the fundraising campaign. “We need to construct two buildings above the salt marsh floodplain. Each building will house four railway tracks.”
“If the new buildings had been in place this weekend, the cars inside would have suffered no damage from Irene,” Hakner said. “We have already secured $156,000 toward this goal and are in conversation with a significant group of prospective donors who are considering support.”
The goal of the campaign is to reach $2,000,000. With 1,000 new or renewed memberships each year, the museum association has a dedicated base of supporters who are rallying to the call for aid.
Hakner went on to say that ‘when our new buildings are completed, we will never again have to repair cars knowing that we will have to do it all over again after the next flood.”
The popular tourist attraction had nearly 20,000 visitors in 2010. The museum operates a portion of the old "F" trolley route of the Connecticut Company, which provided service from downtown New Haven, through East Haven and into Branford. Passenger service on the line began July 31, 1900, providing clean, fast, affordable, reliable public transportation. Residents in the suburbs, who couldn’t afford to stable a horse, could then take the trolley to shop for groceries, go to work or school, or go out on the town for the evening.
To a great extent, the trolley created the suburbs by making it possible to live far away from urban centers of employment and yet commute easily. However, its future was dimmed with the advent of the automobile. By the time WWII came along, the lines had been drastically cut back. The trolleys survived during the war years because of the high demand for rubber and gasoline for the armed services. During the war though, many of the rails were torn up for scrap metal. Finally, on March 8, 1947, the last trolley car made its run.
The museum association immediately assumed operation of the line, making this the oldest continuously operating suburban trolley line in the United States, using cars that have come to the museum from throughout the United State and Canada.