2017-02-05 / Front Page

Labor of Love

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Volunteers restoring historic trolley car in Kennebunkport
By TOM WELCH
Special to the Journal Tribune

KENNEBUNKPORT —Behind a frozen winter landscape and surrounded by hundreds of steel and wood-framed hulks that seem out of place as they languish in the snow, lies a 105 year-old, 46-foot skeleton.

It is known as Narcissus.

Its outer skin stripped away, Narcissus occupies a platform supported by wooden blocks and jacks, frozen in the icy grips of Maine's winter,  resembling the skeletal remains of a dinosaur undergoing restoration.

But despite the cold and eerie stillness, there is the faint presence of a heartbeat.

Several heartbeats, in fact.

"There's a human connection with Narcissus," says Phil Morse, director of an effort to revive and rehabilitate this historic, wood-framed behemoth. "It has a story to tell. Every car, bus or trackless trolley here has a story to tell."

Inside a large steel-framed building in a back corner of the sprawling Seashore Trolley Museum grounds, there is a bustle of activity. Nearly a dozen skilled craftsmen — volunteers and staff — slowly and meticulously work to breathe life back into this and other land vessels that traveled the streets of Maine and the rest of the world a century ago.

A focus of their attention these days is the Narcissus, a  1912 trolley car with a story — a story being told through the efforts of Morse, and technicians like Donald Curry, Jim Mackell,  Ernie Eaton, Larry Shaffer, Randy Leclair, John Melanson, and others who have taken on the task of restoring Narcissus and other vintage trolley cars that occupied an era gone by.

Narcissus' "story" is unique among the others under restoration, as its beginnings are tied directly to a former President. Theodore Roosevelt  made a widely publicized political trip on Aug. 18, 1914 aboard the Narcissus between Lewiston and Portland, generating considerable attention and fanfare along the way.

The Narcissus was one of six original Portland-Lewiston Interurban (PLI)  trolley cars comprising Maine's then, state-of-the-art electric railway system, built between 1910 and 1914 and promoted by industrialist W.S. Libbey. All of the cars were named for flowers. The Narcissus was built in 1912, and the PLI system operated between Portland and Lewiston from 1914 until 1933, when it was largely dismantled.

The Narcissus is the sole survivor of the original six trolley cars.

It was Roosevelt's 1914 trip aboard the Narcissus helped boost Maine's  growing electric railway system and reaffirmed his cherished and personal connection with this state.

"Many people are aware of Roosevelt's connections with Maine, " says Morse. Indeed Roosevelt spent periods of time in Maine, from a trip to the Moosehead region and Mount Kineo at age 13, to a series of  hunting trips at Island Falls, where he befriended William Sewall, a noted Maine Guide who nurtured Roosevelt's passion for the outdoors. In later years, he made a number of trips to Maine, one of which may have been aboard the Interurban system.

Morse joined the museum as a member and later volunteer in the mid-to-late '90s, eventually taking on the role of promotion and fund raising several years later.  

"I remember a few old-time members saying that the one thing they regretted most was not having ridden on the Narcissus," says Morse. "Many of them are gone now, but I've wanted to honor those members."

Despite its historical significance, the Narcissus, was not to be among the first fundraising projects. Morse and others decided to start with a smaller project to test the complex fundraising and matching grant waters. After working through that initial venture, the fund-raising focus began to shift to the Narcissus, and by the mid 2000's those efforts were launched. In May of 2015, the historic trolley car was brought into the "shop" to prepare for its restoration, a process that is currently underway.

As brief as it was,  Roosevelt's heralded 1914 trip became the centerpiece of the "human connection" that has given life to the Narcissus project.

"My interest in Theodore Roosevelt started in 2010, while I was searching for details relating to his ... visit to Maine," Morse writes in his blog (http://narcissus1912.blogspot.com)  "... I felt that having had Theodore Roosevelt as a passenger on the Narcissus would become a very important talking point in developing support for the project."

But amid the talking points and funding efforts are the vital efforts of those staffers and volunteers who have devoted hundreds of hours and shared their technical expertise on the often painstaking restoration work.

Donald Curry,  who actually accompanied the Narcissus when it was delivered to the museum in 1969, is one of them.  

"There is so much that goes into this (restoration work)," says Curry, who became the  museum's first paid employee more than a half century ago, "It is literally a piece by piece project."

And in a 46-foot, largely wood-framed trolley car, there are a lot of pieces. Fragile wooden and stained glass components are being meticulously repaired and restored by volunteers and staffers, while other "heavy lifting" will involve leveling the structure  and installing the "trucks" (wheel assemblies) that drive the car.

Though the outer "skin," stained glass window frames, and other fragile components have been removed for individual repair and restoration, fundraising efforts are focused right now on raising money for a matching grant that will fast-track the restoration. 

Morse says that, if that effort goes well, completion could be about three to five years away.

"Someday it will leave this building under its own power," Morse says. "A lot of people would really like to see that."

 

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