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January 01. 2013 11:14PM

Grant helps bring Laconia-built trolley closer to former glory


Restoration work on trolley No. 4175, the Laconia-built car that spent its career toting people along beach-side routes in three states, began in 1985 and is nearing completion. (COURTESY)

A CENTURY-OLD Laconia-built trolley car, considered a point of luxury in pre-World War I interurban transportation, will inch closer to full restoration with the help of a newly won grant from the National Railway Historical Society.



The $3,800 grant will be pooled with other resources to restore the car to operating shape by its 100th birthday.

Built in 1914, the trolley car was serving as a summer camp cottage on the New Jersey shore when it was found and moved to the Seaside Trolley Museum in Kennebunk, Maine, for restoration as an example of the work of the Laconia Car Company. The New Hampshire builder of trains and trolleys carved out a niche business in building trolley cars that operators could run as showpieces to keep the public interested in their streetcar lines during the early stages of America's romance with the automobile.

"Laconia was a boutique car builder, big on mahogany and things like that," said Randy Leclair, manager of the museum's restoration shop. "It's gorgeous; it's rolling furniture."

Laconia Car Works No. 4175 wasn't much to look at when the museum was tipped off that its shell was being used as a camp shelter.

"We had to actually wire the ends of the car together with a sizeable amount of rail and wire to get it on the flatbed." Leclair said. "It was a complete wreck; it was horrible."

A history of the car, co-written by historian O.R. "Dick" Cummings, a retired New Hampshire Union Leader copy editor, reveals it was ordered by the Bay State Street Railway of Boston in 1913 and placed into service in 1914 on a route that saw it used to convey passengers to the country's first public beach in Revere, Mass.

Bay State was in financial trouble by 1917, and the car was eventually transferred to Newport, R.I., and later to another seaside location, Ashbury Park, N.J., where it spent its final few years in revenue service.

Its presence on routes with heavy tourist traffic was no coincidence. No. 4175 was built to order by Laconia as a showpiece for Bay State Street Railway to try to retain some interest in streetcar service.

Laconia made regular production rail equipment, but because of a good labor pool and the lower costs represented by a country foundation, it could afford the time that craftsmanship takes.

"When they were making this thing, they were trying to figure out how to make it as nice as possible, as light as possible and as fast as possible. They weighed everything, including the screws," Leclair said. "This was the best car that they could put up with, and they put it out on the best routes they could to showcase them."

The car trucked onto the grounds of the trolley museum was no showcase. The wooden interior was a wreck, the motors and trucks were junk, its livery colors were faded and peeled.

Restoration work began in 1985.

"All of the wooden stuff was in horrible shape," Leclair said. But the body is all steel; we found no rust on the main body. It was in really good shape."

Some of the work on the interior has been the 15-year project of a craftsman whose day job is restoring pipe organs.

With the roof, floor and interior restored to its pre-war appearance, the restoration work will concentrate on the mechanics.

The NRHS grant will go toward getting the wheel assemblies, called trucks in the trade, and the motors functioning. More fundraising will be needed to finish that job.

Once it's running again, No. 4175, the Laconia-built car that spent its career toting people along beach-side routes, will once again carry Seacoast visitors.

"It is a work of art," said Leclair. "We will probably use it for special events just because of how nicely it is restored.

"We do relatively decent work, but this will take the cake, it is a thing of beauty."

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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.


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