- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

The National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville is still recovering from a barn fire two years ago that destroyed eight cars and historical documents about public transportation in the District.

“We lost some unique cars,” the museum’s William Blackburn said as he was parking a yellow Dutch street car, one of the last trolleys that plied D.C. streets in the 1960s.

Museum officials have acquired some replacement cars through an unofficial network of streetcar buffs and collectors. And a major expansion, including a new museum and larger storage barn, is expected to begin soon.

But the fire has had a lingering effect. Officials say that attendance since the fire has decreased by 25 percent. They think the decline is the result of people thinking the fire crippled the museum, which reopened six weeks after the Sept. 28, 2003, blaze.

“People thought we were closed,” said Wesley Paulson, the museum’s volunteer director of development. “That’s not true.”

It’s easy to understand why the misconception developed.

The early-morning fire destroyed the roof of the barn and consumed the cars inside. Damage at the time was estimated at $8 million, though museum officials say some of the cars were priceless and irreplaceable. The cause was never determined, but Mr. Paulson said it may have been linked to an electric system that powers the cars.

The surviving cars include a 1930s New York car with rattan seats, a D.C. 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.

Among those lost were an 1898 car that swept snow from the tracks in the District with large brooms made of bamboo reeds and one that ferried passengers from the District to Great Falls on the Potomac River.

The fire was also a financial blow for the museum, at 1313 Bonifant Road, 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 the District’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 on weekends and some Thursdays and Fridays, depending on the season.

Almost all of its staff are volunteers, including a core group of about 15 people, mostly retirees, who run the cars for visitors and tinker with them on weekends. Among them is 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,” he said. “I’d get very excited.”

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. Right now, people can only peek through the front doors of the barn.

It also will be made of steel, instead of the wood and masonry used for the existing building. While the new building is under construction, officials are taking no chances on what’s left of the collection.

“We just paid for an extremely expensive sprinkler system,” said Joanie Pinson, the museum’s education director.

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