- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wearing a pillbox conductor cap, WilliamBlackburn eases the dark yellow Dutch street car into the wooden barn at the National Capital Trolley Museum, pulling it up next to a turquoise and pastel green car, one of the last trolleys that plied the streets of Washington until the 1960s.

Parked tightly on the three parallel tracks of the large barn are street cars from across the country and around the world — a 1930s New York car with rattan seats, a Washington trolley under repair that dates to the late 1890s and a Toronto streetcar that still has the ads from when it was retired in 1995.

But the collection has some gaps. Two years ago, a fire tore through a garage next door, destroying eight cars, much of the building and what museum officials say was an important record of the history of public transportation in Washington.

“We lost some unique cars,” said Mr. Blackburn after stepping down from the driver’s seat of the Dutch car.

The museum, located on Montgomery County parkland about 15 miles outside the capital, was able to acquire some replacement cars through an unofficial network of streetcar buffs and collectors. A major expansion, which will include construction of a new museum and larger storage barn, is expected to begin soon.

But the fire has had a lingering effect beyond just the rubble of the burnt barn. Museum officials say attendance has dropped 25 percent since the fire, a trend they attribute to a mistaken belief by the general public that the fire crippled the museum. In fact, it reopened six weeks after the Sept. 28, 2003, blaze.

It’s not hard to understand why the misconception developed that the museum was closed. The early morning fire ate the roof off the barn and consumed the cars inside. Damage at the time was estimated at $8 million, although museum officials say some of the cars were priceless and irreplaceable. The cause was never determined, but Wesley Paulson, the museum’s volunteer director of development, said it may be linked to an electric system that powers the cars.

Among those lost was an 1898 car that swept snow from the tracks in Washington with large brooms made of bamboo reeds. An experimental car from the 1940s and 1950s was destroyed, as was a car that once ferried passengers from Washington to the Great Falls tourist spot on the Potomac River.

The museum has since obtained three cars to help rebuild, but the damaged barn was not repaired.

The fire was also a financial blow for the museum, which has an annual operating budget of about $60,000. The building was insured, but the cars were not, Mr. Paulson said.

Founded in 1959 to preserve the history of Washington’s trolley system, the museum is small, consisting of the storage garage, a track that loops a mile through the woods, and a shop and exhibit in a building that looks like a train depot. It is open only on weekends and some Thursdays and Fridays, depending on the season.

Almost all of its staff are volunteers. That includes a core group of about 15 people, mostly retirees, who run the cars for visitors and tinker with them on weekends. They include Bill Shartzer, who remembers watching trolley cars from the window of his family’s apartment on Capitol Hill.

“I used to watch the old double-end trolleys go by all the time. I’d get very excited,” he said.

The new museum, which had been planned before the fire, will include a $1.2 million car barn that will more than double the storage space. Visitors will be able to walk around the trolleys in the new display — currently people can only peek through the front doors of the barn.

It will also be made of steel instead of the wood and masonry of the current building. And while it’s under construction, the museum is taking no chances on what’s left of its collection.

“We just paid for an extremely expensive sprinkler system,” Joanie Pinson, the museum’s education director, said as she walked through the wooden barn.

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