2015-03-06 / Front Page

‘Roosevelt’s Ride’ to be restored

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


President Theodore Roosevelt, in Maine to campaign for the Progressive Party’s gubernatorial candidate, Halbert P. Gardiner of Patten, appears at an August 1914 stop in Gray aboard the Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus,” now undergoing a $400,000 restoration project at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport. (Courtesy photo) President Theodore Roosevelt, in Maine to campaign for the Progressive Party’s gubernatorial candidate, Halbert P. Gardiner of Patten, appears at an August 1914 stop in Gray aboard the Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus,” now undergoing a $400,000 restoration project at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — Generally speaking, one does not expect to find a place listed on the National Register of Historic Sites under a tarp, buried in the snow. And yet, that’s where the “Narcissus” sits at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, 46 years after it was acquired with an eye towards full restoration.

But that’s about to change. The last remaining car of the old Portland-Lewiston Interurban (PLI) electric line, and the only one known to have carried a U.S. president, is scheduled to go into the shop for initial body work next month. That work will include installation of windows carefully reconstructed over the past year at Sundancer Stained Glass in Saco.


The Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus” is shown as it appeared when acquired by the Seashore Trolley Museum in 1969, after more than 30 years of use as a summer cottage on Sabattus Lake. 
(Courtesy photo) The Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus” is shown as it appeared when acquired by the Seashore Trolley Museum in 1969, after more than 30 years of use as a summer cottage on Sabattus Lake. (Courtesy photo) More importantly, while a fundraising event will be held this summer, from July 31 through Aug. 2 to kickstart the $400,000 restoration of the Narcissus to full operability, momentum is already growing, with $27,000 in grants and donations since last fall.

The first phase of the exterior body work is expected to cost $120,000 and be finished by early 2016. But it’s the recent donations that have helped the Narcissus turn a corner, so to speak, according to project manager Phil Morse.

A longtime member of the Seashore Museum, Morse is a Kennebunk native who first started visiting the site with his parents in the 1950s. Later, he took his own children there and began volunteering in 1996. He’s spearheaded restoration of the Narcissus since 1999. But the car, on the historic register since 1980, has been in the museum’s possession since 1969. Now, nearly half a century later, work is about to begin in earnest and Morse hopes that once visitors to the museum sense work is finally underway, more funding will begin to roll in.


The so-called “eyebrow,” a stained-glass arch that tops two windows on the Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus” was in mid-restoration in June at Sundancer Stained Glass in Saco. The eyebrows, six to each side of the Narcissus are nearly done and ready to be reinstalled this summer as part of a $400,000 restoration project of the 52-seat trolley car, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 
(Courtesy photo) The so-called “eyebrow,” a stained-glass arch that tops two windows on the Portland-Lewiston Interurban trolley car “Narcissus” was in mid-restoration in June at Sundancer Stained Glass in Saco. The eyebrows, six to each side of the Narcissus are nearly done and ready to be reinstalled this summer as part of a $400,000 restoration project of the 52-seat trolley car, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Courtesy photo) “Seeing it outside under a tarp, that doesn’t generate a lot of emotion,” Morse said, “but once it’s in the shop and there’s active restoration work going on to the car, that we hope, will generate a lot of enthusiasm.”

Unlike many board members and volunteers at the Seashore Trolley Museum, Morse says he’s not a “rail enthusiast.” Or, that is to say, he has no personal memories of having ridden on trolleys during their heyday, and he does not keep scale model replicas set up in his basement. What attracts him to the trolleys, he says, is their stories.

“Every one of these cars has a story. That’s what I get passionate about,” he said. “Part of our mission is to bring those times and moments to life. For me it’s the personal stories and being able to ride in the car, with the sights and sounds and smells. When you see a trolley in its environment, that’s what makes the emotion connection to the life and times of the people who rode them on a daily basis.”

One person who reportedly rode the PLI line regularly was former governor and U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, who took the trolley to and from classes at Bates College. The PLI’s 34.6 miles of track ran from Monument Square in Portland to Union Station in Lewiston. During the life of the line, from 1914 to 1933, it shuttled more than 7 million passengers.

But perhaps the most important was the one passenger whose ticket makes the Narcissus such a one-of-a-kind car, historically speaking. While there are more than 250 vehicles in the Seashore Museum collection, the Narcissus is the only one to carry a U.S. President in Maine.

On Tuesday, Aug., 14, 1914, Theodore Roosevelt made a swing through Maine to campaign for the fledging Progressive Party, or “Bull Moose Party,” as it was popularly known. Stopping in Lewiston, Roosevelt boarded Car No. 14 of the PLI line — mentioned by name in coverage of the event in the “Lewiston Daily Sun” — bound for Portland, with stops in Gray and New Gloucester.

The trip was meant to boost the prospects of the Progressive Party’s gubernatorial candidate in Maine that year, Halbert P. Gardiner of Patten. However, the appearance was as much a coup for the PLI line, then billed as Maine’s “finest and fastest electric railway,” given that it had been in operation for little more than a month when TR set foot on the Narcissus.

In honor of his “inspection tour,” Roosevelt bestowed upon the Narcissus’ operator, Joseph N. “Joe Happy” L’Hereux a $10 tip — a princely sum equal to $234 in 2015 dollars.

A photo exists of Roosevelt aboard the Narcissus at a stop in Gray, although, to be charitable, one has to use a fair bit of imagination to make out the person purported to be the 26th president. Still, the size of the crowd is clear and the enthusiasm for Roosevelt’s appearance apparent.

During the trip, a young girl tossed a bouquet of flowers onto the Narcissus’ platform as it slowed for a curve along the route. The collection was snatched up and brandished high overhead by The Rough Rider. In response, Gardiner was quoted in the New York Times saying: “They will talk about that at milking time for months to come. If the Colonel could make a tour of (all) the states like this, the Progressive Party would sweep both old organizations out of power.”

It was not to be, however. Gardiner lost to incumbent Republican William T. Haines. Nationwide, the Progressives managed to get five of its number elected to Congress that year, but more than half of its 138 candidates failed to break double digits in the election tally. Roosevelt declined to carry the Progressive banner in the 1916 — as he had in 1912 — presidential election and without a marquee name to give it media credence, the party died that year. Roosevelt would return to Maine in 1918 and ride the PLI line once more, although its unknown which car he boarded on that trip. A year later, he would be prematurely dead of a detached blood clot at age 60.

Long ride home

The Narcissus meanwhile, rode on until the PLI line was abandoned in 1933. The line, once lauded as the latest and greatest, lasted not quite 20 years. But it was in trouble even from the start. According to Morse, PLI founder, “Right off the bat, there was disarray because of his estate and questions about how the ownership transfer would happen,” Morse said.

Ultimately, the PLI assets went to the Androscoggin Light & Power Company, which was subsequently acquired by Central Maine Power. Unlike the practice with most of its subsidiaries, Morse says, CMP allowed AL&P to operate as a more or less independent entity until the PLI line was shut down, due to increasing loses in the face of stiff competition from the burgeoning automobile industry.

By September 1933, all of the PLI tracks and equipment had been sold to a New York salvage company, while the Narcissus and its seven sister cars ended up in private hands. Each of the original six cars, – like the Narcissus 46 feet long and nearly 9 feet wide – had been named after a flower, in an attempt to give each a distinct identity apart from its car number. A seventh trolley added to the fleet in 1920 was called The Maine.

What became of most of the cars is unknown. Even the Narcissus fell of the radar for a time. It’s believed that it was pressed into use as a diner, although no direct proof of this has ever been found, Morse says. However, by 1939, when the Seashore Trolley Museum was founded, the Narcissus was on the shore of Sabattus Lake, minus its undercarriage and wheel assemblies, known as the truck, its body converted to use as a summer cottage by trolley enthusiast J. Henry Vallee.

“He loved the Portland-Lewiston Interurban system,” Morse said. “He was one the first and one of the last riders. So, when the opportunity came to aquire the car for his camp, he did so.”

But whether taken off by Vallee, or during its brief tenure as a diner, the truck was taken off the Narcissus, leaving only the paneled body, with its 40 ornamental leaded glass windows and its interior of rich mahogany from Santo Domingo. That did not bother trustees of the Trolley Museum overmuch, says Morse. As early as the founding of the museum in 1939, trustees has their eyes on acquiring the Narcissus and its one surviving sister-car, the Arbutus, kept complete with its truck on the summer estate of Gertrude Anthony at Bay View, in Saco.

“With both cars safe in known hands, the early trustees set out to acquiring other, more endangered cars,” Morse said. “Then World War II came and many of them went off to war. When they came back they found the Arbutus had been sent off for scrap to aid the war effort. They were heartbroken.”

Work began then to secure the Narcissus, as the last surviving relic of the PLI line. Vallee agreed to part with the trolley body if museum volunteers would help build him a new cottage. Meanwhile, in a signal of how important the restoration project was, Governor John Reed helped broker a deal that saw Canada donate a truck system similar to the one used by the PLI cards as what Morse calls, “an act of international good will.”

That was in 1965, and the Narcissus made its way to Kennebunkport to much fanfare in 1969. But that’s where things stalled out for several decades, even after 1980, when the Narcissus got listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

After Morse took charge, the Seashore Museum went after federal highway grants available for historic preservation projects. However, the decision was made to tackle something smaller and more manageable that the Narcissus as a test project. Although it took 10 years and three tries at the application process, that effort resulted in the 2009 unveiling of the Atlantic Shore Line Railway #100, a $180,000 project now seen as one of the gems of the museum offerings.

With that success, attention turned at long last to the Narcissus and the project was one of only three approved for funding out of 47 applications statewide in 2011.

However, as will sometimes happen, the state legislature re-allocated funds to balance the state budget. It first split the Narcissus renovation into three phases, then killed funding altogether. The grant application suffered the same fate in 2012, and again in 2013.

“It was finally suggested to us that this funding will not be available again for five to 10 years,” said Morse. “That caused me to reevaluate and come up with a new plan. Because of the Teddy Roosevelt connection, and because of provenance that proves it, we’ve really focused on that.”

The renewed effort has resulted in a steady stream of funding, which, when added to the money the museum had on hand from previous funding drives over the decades, leaves the project a little more than halfway toward its funding goal to complete the exterior renovation.

In February, the Amherst Railway Society of West Springfield, Mass., gave $2,000 to the Narcissus project, using money generated by society’s annual railroad hobby show. In mid-December, the Narcissus was awarded a $10,000 matching grant from the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation in La Canada, CA. Making the match possible, staff and alumni from Thornton Academy in Saco raised $10,000 of their own.

Thornton Academy staff and alumni had earlier responded to a challenge from a New Hampshire alum of the school, raising a combined $5,000 in October 2014.

The Thornton Academy connection becomes clear when one realizes that the project manager for the Narcissus restoration is Phil Morse, a substitute teacher and residential life supervisor at the private school.

The goal of the Seashore Museum is to have the Narcissus ride-worthy and ready for passengers by 2019, the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt’s death.

“The more I’ve learned about the man since I began this, the more enthralled I’ve become with him,” Morse said. “But even more important, what I’m really passionate about, is the stories and the emotions tied up in these cars, including all of the people who were endeared to this car in particular, who worked so hard over the decades to see it restored, who have since passed away.

“I really feel like the torch has been passed on to me to see this thing through, to see it restored to its elegance and beauty,” Morse said.

For updates on the project and information on fundraising events visit www.trolleymuseum.org/collection/ narcissus.php.

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