Back on Track
Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum is on a Roll with Business, Tourism Efforts
From the center of town, the faint ‘ding-ding’ of the Shelburne Falls trolley can be heard in the distance.
It’s a sound that was once commonplace in town, but it’s new to most who live there today, and it signals more than movement on the centuries-old tracks; it announces the return of a burgeoning hub of activity.
The small yellow trolley car is just one sign of activity at the old rail yard on Depot Street, however. Once the start- and end-point of the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway, the plot of land that overlooks Shelburne Falls has been home to the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum Inc. (SFTM) since 1991. Since then, a committee of volunteer directors has created the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum, procured the town’s original trolley car, number 10, and restored it to operation for a short stretch of the line, an attraction that began welcoming visitors in 1999.
The group also facilitated the purchase of the property at a cost of $162,000 in 2004, after uears of renting from the Blassberg Corp. Subsequently, SFTM started rehabbing the three-building complex, converting it into office space for an eclectic mix of tenants, a more expansive tourist attraction, and perhaps even the source of a new means of transportation in Shelburne Falls — at least for a few blocks.
Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley
Sam Bartlett, president and general manager of SFTM, said work is currently underway to convert much of the railyard’s existing buildings into retail and community-use space in this, its seventh season as a tourist destination. Some local businesses already use portions of the buildings for overflow storage, such as a rare and used book dealer, a model airplane store, and a carpenter, but tenants are also already beginning to line up to rent areas of the building for more active use.
“We’d like to use the space to generate new interest in art-related businesses and to generate revenue,” said Bartlett. “It’s what we need to do to survive; trolley ticket sales won’t be enough.”
Space within all three buildings is currently available. Artists are of particular interest, he said, due to the close proximity of the Salmon Falls Artisans Showroom, just a few feet from the rail yard, and the booming arts sector in Shelburne Falls and surrounding towns. The first tenant slated to move in upon completion of the renovations, is a children’s art museum, which will hold exhibits as well as classes for local youths.
Bartlett added that the SFTM is actively seeking potential tenants that will be compatible with the organization’s mission — to preserve a piece of Shelburne Falls’ history and attract new business to the town.
“There has been a resurgence of rail lines across the country,” he said, “and therefore a renewed interest in vintage and heritage trains and trolleys. Tenants who are also interested in that history, or who will be an added draw for people interested in riding or learning more about the rail history of this area, would be the best fit for this space.”
Part of that plan is also to increase the visibility of the museum itself, currently located in the building that once served as the front office and warehouse. As tenants begin to move in, Bartlett said the museum will move into the former freight house, which will allow more space for exhibits and free up about 1,100 square feet for rent. The space is heated and ADA accessible, Bartlett said.
Ding, Ding, Ding Went the Bell
Outside, some expansion plans are brewing as well. David Goff, one of SFTM’s directors, said the group is currently petitioning local and state governments and conducting an engineering feasibility study to extend the abbreviated length of track toward Shelburne Falls’ downtown, coming to a stop near what is now the town’s biggest attraction, the Bridge of Flowers, which once carried the trolley across the Deerfield River to connect passengers and freight with the booming mills of the West County area.
The trolley car itself was built in 1896, and traversed the rail line between Shelburne Falls and Colrain, carrying passengers as well as freight, until 1927.
At that time, the trolley would travel from the rail yard that is now home to the trolley museum to the center of town, where they would then cross the Bridge of Flowers and travel down what is now Route 112.
“This was a pretty isolated route,” Goff said, “but it still illustrates how important rail and trolley travel were at one time in the U.S. This line connected the mills, transported mail and freight such as cotton, coal, and apple cider vinegar, and served as a primary mode of transportation for several years.
“This rail yard was a beehive of activity at one time,” he added. “It was part of the trolley boom that continued for years and was huge in this area and in Springfield, where Wason Manufacturing was one of the country’s most prominent trolley car manufacturers.”
But as railroads declined, Goff continued, the trolley line gradually lost business until its final large contract expired, stopping car number 10 in its tracks until the SFTM reintroduced it to the town in 1999, after six years of painstaking restoration. In the interim, the car had been privately owned and, at one point, used as a chicken coop.
Now, said Goff, the broad goal for the SFTM is to return the trolley to a vestige of its former glory. While the route still won’t be a long one, if approved, he suspects that an extension could have a significant impact on the town’s economic viability, particularly in terms of tourism dollars.
“Our current railroad has already been a positive attraction and a draw to the region,” he said. “In our seven short years of reactivation, the trolley museum railway has already carried thousands of paying passengers. The economic impact of an attraction like that is immense when you consider the multiplier effect of one person coming to Shelburne Falls to ride the trolley.”
It won’t be a huge extension, Goff noted, but it would double the length of the trolley route and bring a new means of transportation to downtown Shelburne Falls. This, in turn, will connect a number of popular shops, attractions, and eateries to the equally popular Salmon Falls Artisans space and the now growing rail yard, though it still represents a distance that is walkable by most.
“It may not be much,” he said, “but the project will extend the ride for passengers and bring us important visibility in the downtown area of Shelburne Falls.”
Even without that visibility afforded by a downtown route, Goff said several visitors come to see and ride the trolley already. Many are rail enthusiasts from around the globe, but many others are tourists and day-trippers, made aware of the museum and the trolley through literature at the Shelburne Falls Visitors Center.
For $2.50, those visitors can ride the trolley and learn about its history, as well as visit the museum and gift shop (that’s free for those who pass on the trolley ride). For an extra $15, visitors can become ‘instant motormen,’ operating the trolley with assistance from an SFTM volunteer. That experience includes powering up the car, guiding it down a length of track, putting on the brakes, and ringing the car’s signature bell – several times – and guiding it back to the rail yard.
The End of the Line
While members of the SFTM board of directors aren’t kidding themselves into thinking they’re creating the next San Francisco, they do see the value in a small stretch of rail in Shelburne Falls.
“There is a great trend of reuse in Western Mass. now, creating new, creative ventures out of buildings and structures that have passed their heyday,” Goff said. “This area rode the trolley boom for years, and there’s a little life left in these tracks.”
As if to agree, Bartlett, at the helm of trolley car number 10, stamped his foot vigorously on the floor switch that rings the car’s bell as it rolled into the Depot Street station.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]</a