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Trolley operators put code in their clangs

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October 10, 2004

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley," goes an old song. "Ding, ding, ding went the bell." Who knew those clangs and dings were code?

That's just one of the things visitors to the Seashore Trolley Museum will learn when they board a vintage car for a 30-minute, 3-mile ride over part of the old Atlantic Shore trolley line, which once connected Kittery, Kennebunkport, and Biddeford.

Our conductor explained that the series of bells and clangs that riders of a certain age may recall was in fact a method of communication between the conductor at the back, who had authority for the train, and the engineer, or motorman, driving the car. Two dings from the conductor meant "go ahead," and the motorman responded with two clangs of his foot pedal. Three dings from the conductor meant "back up."

There's a lot of Boston history at the museum, which claims to be the oldest and largest electric railway museum in the world. One of the first sights a visitor comes upon is the former Northampton Station from Boston's Orange Line, which stood at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street in the South End from 1901 to 1987. Its greenish-blue color comes from the fact that the exterior was clad entirely in copper.

Also on display is the switching tower for the Boston Elevated Railway that stood at the intersection of Causeway and North Washington streets near North Station from 1901 to 1938. Also, the trolley ride starts at the Arlington Heights Loop, which the museum acquired after the loop ended service in Arlington in 1955.

The trolley we rode, Car 4387, operated on the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Stoneham Line until 1946. It had rattan seats and period advertising, including posters claiming "Curley gets things done."

The rest of the museum is a sprawling display of some 250 cars from all over the world, housed in several huge barns. The earliest, dating from the late 1800s, are horse drawn. Highlights include cable cars from San Francisco and New Zealand; a Yale Bowl Car, a bright yellow and red open trolley with wooden slat seats that carried fans to football games; a seafoam green car used in Rome, N.Y., from 1914 to 1950 with six little wooden chairs bolted to the floor; and a car from Ottawa with a huge sweeper on the front to brush snow from between the rails.

The luxury car 1030 from the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. (1931-51) has an all-aluminum body, a fully furnished parlor, and a top speed of 85 miles per hour.

In the Town House Shop restoration facility, several cars are in various stages of disassembly and repair. From a catwalk, visitors get a good sense of what daunting and painstaking work it is to restore these rusty behemoths to their former glory.

ELLEN ALBANESE

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