2017-09-29 / Front Page

From single trip to 63-year ride

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Donald Curry, 81, third from left, gives a tour Monday to visitors at the Seashore Trolley Museum inside the workshop that now bears his name. Curry was the first paid employee of the facility and has worked there in some capacity (part time, full time, and as a volunteer) since 1954. The Donald G. Curry Townhouse Shop, built in 1969, has between four and six cars in it at any one time from the museum’s collection of more than 200 electric railway vehicles undergoing maintenance and renovation. (Duke Harrington photos) Donald Curry, 81, third from left, gives a tour Monday to visitors at the Seashore Trolley Museum inside the workshop that now bears his name. Curry was the first paid employee of the facility and has worked there in some capacity (part time, full time, and as a volunteer) since 1954. The Donald G. Curry Townhouse Shop, built in 1969, has between four and six cars in it at any one time from the museum’s collection of more than 200 electric railway vehicles undergoing maintenance and renovation. (Duke Harrington photos) KENNEBUNKPORT — More than 60 years ago, a young college student accepted his Boston roommate’s invitation to check out the old trolley cars at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport.

Arundel resident Donald Curry says he would not have guessed it when accepting that call for a road trip, but it ignited a passion in him that lasts to this day.

Curry’s dedication to the museum’s cause, to preserve the history of America’s electric railway lines, has since seen him work on just about every one of the 200-plus cars in the museum’s collection, while also obtaining many of the rare and hard-to-find original parts and writing several tomes on the history of the industry, right down to tracing the lives of individual cars, and even a manual on how to restore examples of America’s early mass transit systems.


Sally Bates, executive director of the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, stands on the site of a planned $330,000 expansion of the facility’s Fairview Carhouse. The project, due for an official groundbreaking later this fall, will expand storage space of the building by 560 linear feet, providing 14 new covered spaces to the 27 new available, while closing in for all four sides of the garage for the first time, to better preserve the museum’s priceless collection of antique electric railway cars. Sally Bates, executive director of the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, stands on the site of a planned $330,000 expansion of the facility’s Fairview Carhouse. The project, due for an official groundbreaking later this fall, will expand storage space of the building by 560 linear feet, providing 14 new covered spaces to the 27 new available, while closing in for all four sides of the garage for the first time, to better preserve the museum’s priceless collection of antique electric railway cars. “Don is both devoted and enthusiastic — and he’s amazingly knowledgeable,” Seashore executive director Sally Bates said. “He’s been part of restoring just about everything we have that has been restored.”

On Sept. 9, the Seashore Trolley Museum board of directors payed homage to Curry by naming the repair shop where spent so much of his time, in his honor — dubbing it The Donald G. Curry Townhouse Shop.

“He’s worked miracles on our equipment,” Seashore President James Schantz said at the unveiling ceremony for the new shop sign. “In 2014, he was honored by the Association of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award as the longest-working person in this field. I don’t think anyone will ever surpass his record.”

On Monday, Sept. 25, Curry took a few moments from working on one of the old Portland-Lewiston Interurban cars that has consumed much of his time of late — and from giving shop tours to any museum visitor who happened by — to talk about his life and love of the Seashore Trolley Museum.

Q: How did you first discover the Seashore Trolley Museum?

A: I went to Northeastern University for two years as a chemical engineering major, as I had a childhood love of chemistry.

At that time I stayed at a fraternity house in Brookline and one of my roommates there said he’d heard that my parents, who come from New York where I’m from, had dropped me off with a roll of quarters in my pocket, and that I had traveled the whole MTA in Boston. He said, “Well, if you want to see real streetcars being preserved, you ought to come with me next weekend to the Seashore Electric Railway — it wasn’t called a museum then. As it turned out, that trip was his last visit here in over 40 years, while I really never stopped over 64.

Q: How did he know about this railway up in Maine?

A: As I recall, a couple of our cars we had got from Providence. He had seen them and wanted to know where they went. I’ll never forget what we drove up here in was a 1936 Ford coup, my same age. But I ended up volunteering through that first winter of 1953, and the next year I became the first paid employee in the summer of 1954. And I guess I’ve been coming here ever since. In the beginning, I just sort of showed up and did what needed to be done. There was no formal asking. It was obvious things needed doing and I was available. Then, as now, the board was very interested in having young people willing to do this kind of work. The people who started what became the museum were from Harvard. They came up here a year or two before I did and saw our founding president sawing a rail with a hand hacksaw, and they said, “This fella needs help.” So, they became active, about eight or 10 of them. Often, when I came up here back then, I would meet them at Harvard and they would be my ride up here.

Q: What did you do here during those early years?

A: I remember there was a need to build a pit so we could get underneath the real cars. I also helped to lay some of the rails. Today we have 1.5 miles of track — so, it’s a 3-mile ride out and back — but have then we only had enough rail for the car that sat on it. When we’d get a new car we’d have to lay enough track for that one and push the previous one forward that much. So, it was basically things like that and whatever else they thought I should do. I was here during the week. We didn’t have a telephone, we had electricity, just barely, and I was the only one here much of the time. For the first two years, I actually lived in one of the cars.

Q: What interested you so much in helping out yourself? Most people, I think, would come, ride the trolleys, say, “That was fun,” and go home.

A: Well, first of all, back then there was no riding. We were still then under very basic construction. But I enjoy working with my hands. My grandfather was an inventor and my father was an engineer— although he worked in labor relations at General Electric and didn’t get to do much with his hands, but he had that background. After me all three of my kids worked here — two of the boys became electrical engineers and did very well because of the experience they had here — as did my grandson. He worked here for three summers as a blacksmith. He liked to pound on red-hot iron. But they all got to work at a much higher level than I did at first, just playing around with the trolleys. They were able to get into things and take them apart, which greatly expanded their outlook at all things mechanical.

Q: What was was the allure of trolley cars in particular?

A: Well, I liked trains. I grew up in Scotia, New York, which is just west of Schenectady. I had a piano teacher who was about 10 miles from where we lived. I normally took the bus, but you had to transfer at a corner where the trolley cars still ran then. And I used to wonder where they went — although unlike my friend, who had to follow them up here to Maine, for me back then it was a simple matter for getting on and taking a ride. So, I did that. I was maybe 6 or 7 at the time. I rode all the way to the trolley barn and back, making a couple of transfers. When I got back my mother was quite impressed that I’d been able to find my way around.

Q: She wasn’t upset?

A: No. It was a different time, I guess. I got back in one piece, same as I would have if I had gone to my piano lesson. Actually, as I recall this was a separate trip, so I didn’t even miss a lesson. That was my first experience with trolly cars, but I was fascinated by the Schenectady railway buses and trolleys, and when I went to Boston there were a lot more there then than there are now.

Q: What is the mystique about trolley cars that interests you in them?

A: Well, for me, I like to take them apart and put them back together. But other than that, it’s hard to say. I don’t analyze my feelings that much — why am I doing this silly stuff. I remember after I decided chemical engineering was not working out and I transferred to music education at Boston University, my roommate there asked my, “What are you doing? Why are you spending all your spare time going up to Maine and getting dirty and filthy at ‘the junkyard,’” which is what they called this then. Today his is president of the 470 Rail Club of railroad fans in Portland. So, it’s an interest that rubs off pretty easily, I guess.

Q: What finally brought you to Maine full time.

A: After graduating from Boston University with a degree in music education I taught for four years in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I found out the Portland Symphony Orchestra needed a bassoon player, which was my instrument. At the same time I found out about a job in Cape Elizabeth as band director for their schools — elementary, middle, and high school. So, I came up and took both jobs, doing each for 25 years. During those years I continued to work at the trolley museum during the summers.

Q: What did you do after you retired from teaching?

A: I retired to this, which was a summer job anyway, working full time until June 1 of this year when I decided I could no longer keep an 8-hour-a-day schedule.

Q: How was the museum changed over the years?

A: Well, I was director of the museum myself for nine years. And like some of the people who have come here over the years, I’m amazed and how much the collection has grown and wonder how we’ll ever find the means to preserve them all.

Q: How long does it take to restore each car?

A: It depends on a lot of things — the technology involved, how big a job is it, how much money do we have. We have some that took three years, and another that took 31. One of the ones we are working on now, the Narcissus, which was famous for having Teddy Roosevelt as a passenger during a campaign run for Progressive Party candidates, that job is very complicated, very involved, That one will take several years to get done.

Q: Speaking of Teddy Roosevelt, do you ever think when you are working on a trolley car about all the people who must have ridden it.

A: That’s funny, but, yes, with the Narcissus, I sometimes touch the spot where he is known to have stood from photographs and joke that I’m siphoning off a bit of his DNA.

Q: I’m sure you’re supposed to love all your children equally, but do you have a favorite trolley car here at the Seashore Museum?

A: It’s always the one I’m working on that that moment, whichever one it is. But I do tend to prefer the older cars. The newer ones are kind of bland. I would rather work on the ones that have more character. Of course, the old ones are often the more difficult to work on. You have to do things the difficult way with them.

Q: What is your favorite part about working on these cars?

A: It’s actually the research — looking at old blueprints and histories where they are available, and writing down everything I’ve learned. I still spend a couple of hours each day just on that, trying to get everything down so it’s not lost and forgotten.

Q: What is it about trolley cars that makes them worth preserving?

A: This was a very important industry, much more so than anyone alive today realizes. People rode these trolleys because that were no other way to get around. It was their lives, their livelihood, it meant everything to them. When I came along we could see the end of that with newer technologies. The Biddeford and Saco, the Atlantic Shoreline, these were gradually fading out. But now they are coming back. Cities are putting them back in everywhere. Light rail they call it now. So, we are kind of the link between what it was when it was very primitive, but very essential, to the streamlined, hi-tech, trains we are getting now.

Q: How did you feel when you heard the Seashore board of directors was naming the shop after you?

A: It was quite an honor. Of course, I joke that they should have left room on the sign for to make it the “Donald G. Curry Memorial Townhouse Shop.” I guess I have spend a lot of time here, and plan to continue doing as much as I can for as long as I can, even though I struggle with Parkinson’s now. Before the sign went up and they just had the posts in for it, I grabbed some folks and said, “Bring your camera and follow me.” I brought a shovel and posed between the posts where the sign would go. They said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Digging my grave.”

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