EAST WINDSOR — “She’s really pretty,” says Roger Pierson, assistant chief motorman, as we board the orange and yellow Boston Elevated Railway 5645 trolley. He has specially selected it for my stint as a guest motorman at the Connecticut Trolley Museum. Built by the Laconia Car Co. and put into service in Boston in 1924, the stand-alone electric trolley car was one of the last of its kind when it was retired in 1959 and moved to the museum’s 17-acre headquarters at Warehouse Point.
The museum, founded in 1940, draws on more than 70 pieces of equipment to explain how trolleys helped develop the suburbs, stimulate the growth of mill towns, and create amusement parks on the outskirts of urban areas. About six trolleys are operational, and the museum offers rides on them.
“These historic relics are irreplaceable,” says Pierson. There’s no better way to appreciate their history than to take the wheel — well, the levers — of a trolley and roll on down the line. The museum’s Guest Motorman program makes that railroad conductor dream come true.
“All kinds of people come out to do it,” says Pierson, “including professional motormen.” They would certainly have a leg up on me, but Pierson is a thorough, patient teacher. He started coming to the museum when he was 5. Twenty-seven years later he is one of the volunteers who keep the place open and the trolleys running.
Pierson begins by showing me where the gear and brake handles are attached. (The trolley is immobile without the handles.) Then we go outside to attach the electrical pole to the overhead wire, which carries a hefty 600 volts of direct current.
“When you do it at night,” Pierson says, “you get sparks — like fireworks.”
The car goes forward from the connector, so we hook up the pole at the back of the car. This takes more muscle than I had anticipated, as does moving any of the trolley’s mechanical linkages. I tug on a rope to get the pole out from under its catch, then walk it back and forth until it connects to the power wire. Pierson purports to be impressed with how quickly I catch on. I think he’s trying to boost my confidence.
We climb back aboard and attach the gear and brake handles. As I place the trolley in neutral, it begins to build up air pressure in the tanks that operate the brakes, the doors, and the whistle (an add-on created for signaling at crossings). The old compressors chug and wheeze as they fill the tanks. It takes about five minutes for the dashboard gauge to show the minimum of 80 pounds per square inch.
The brake lever has three settings — release to the left, apply to the right. “Apply the brake gently,” Pierson advises. “She’ll start to bite and if she bites too much, move the lever back to the left so we don’t go flying through the window.” The middle position is “neutral.”
After checking that the track is clear, I close the doors with another small lever. Releasing the brake, I place the trolley in “forward” and move the adjacent wooden accelerator handle into the first of five positions to power the electric motors. The trolley slowly begins to roll forward. It feels weird not to have a steering wheel, but the track guides the car and between the accelerator in my left hand and the brake lever in my right, I literally have my hands full.
Pierson places his foot on the whistle pedal to let out a few short toots. “I always do that when we start to move,” he says, “just to warn anyone who might think he’s going to walk across the track.”
The museum’s current track covers 1½ miles and the guest motorman makes two round trips in a 90-minute session. It’s just enough of an adventure to feel novel, and not so much that it becomes difficult. Pierson has me accelerate slightly so the trolley won’t slip its wheels on the slight incline of the track, and then has me try gently braking. Once we get rolling, he instructs me when to apply more or less acceleration until I get a feel for track conditions and minute inclines.
This journey is very different from 5645’s halcyon years on the streets of Watertown. Here the track cuts straight through the woods. I apply the brakes instinctively when I see two fawns in a clearing, but they are train-savvy and bound off. Pierson lets me open up the accelerator until the 45-foot, 15.5-ton trolley is shaking and shimmying up a slight hill at about 25 miles per hour. Two red-tailed hawks jump off limbs and flap majestically down the right-of-way.
“We actually have four nesting pairs along the route,” Pierson says.
The track crosses two paved roads equipped with lights and railroad crossing bars. I blow the horn — long, short, short, long. I feel powerful as traffic stops.
At the end of the track, I slow and stop the train, then climb down to change the electric poles. Once they are swapped, Pierson and I head to the other end of the car, attach the gear and brake levers, and make our return run.
As we pull out, I take the power in my hands and place my foot on the whistle for two quick toots: Look out, world, here comes the train.
CONNECTICUT TROLLEY MUSEUM
58 North Road, East Windsor, Conn. 860-627-6540, www.ct-trolley.org. Open through Labor Day Mon and Wed-Fri 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Sat 10-
4:30, Sun noon-4:30; check website for fall and winter hours. Adults $8.50, 62 and over $7.50, 2-12 $5.50.
Guest Motorman $55 includes instruction and two trolley trips with up to four friends along for the ride; individual membership in museum included. Reservation required for Guest Motorman program.