Will Willsey of the New York Trolley Museum in Kingston, N.Y., sits in the driver’s seat of one of the museum’s vehicles. (Tania Barricklo/Daily Freeman)
KINGSTON, N.Y — After just skating by through the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers at the Trolley Museum of New York are hoping for a strong season in 2023 as the site welcomes a donated subway car from Atlanta and seeks to open an updated 9/11 exhibit.
The latest subway car to be added to the collection, a 75-foot long, 10-foot-wide car, once belonged to the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transporation Authority and operated on its “heavy rail” metro system in and around Atlanta. The car arrived at the end of April.
The aluminum-bodied car was part of a class of MARTA rail cars built between 1979 to 1981 by French manufacturer Societe Franco-Belge. These cars ran between 1981 and 2007, Will Willsey at the Trolley Museum said.
Willsey also serves as a “motorman,” operating the museum’s weekend rides to Kingston Point.
“We have mostly older subway cars, and this represents a new generation,” he said. It has “P-Wire” propulsion, doors and carpeted floors that were state-of-the-art at the time, he added.
It even still has ads from the time of its retirement. They promoted everything from colleges to injury attorneys to a $1.99 crispy chicken sandwich at the Southern fast-food chain Church’s Chicken.
He said the car is fully operational and could be operated using a generator car, as the museum does not have third-rail electrification like the kind used by MARTA and many other subway and metro systems, or overhead trolley lines that could also power the car with modifications.
He said the car could also be pulled with one of his favorite pieces of equipment in the museum’s collection, No. 9. It’s a small Whitcomb diesel-electric locomotive that served the U.S. Army in World War II, including in Italy, before it was later sold to the New York City Transit Authority in the 1960s. The locomotive was a perfect fit for the agency because it could easily fit the tight clearances of the subway for “work train” service, Willsey said.
He added that MARTA not only donated the car. The agency even paid for it to be trucked from Atlanta to Kingston on a “low-boy” tractor-trailer designed to carry oversize and overweight loads, according to Willsey.
“It was cheaper for them to donate it than to pay to have it scrapped,” he said, adding it was disposed of to make way for new ultra-modern trains made by the Swiss train manufacturer Stadler that are coming to the system.
A centerpiece of the museum’s collection, stored inside the trolley barn, is Port Authority Trans Hudson “PA-1” series subway car 143. The car was buried in the destroyed PATH subway station underneath the World Trade Center after the Twin Towers collapsed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He said the car carried firefighters and first responders who arrived at the World Trade Center on the last train to ever serve the station. The interior of the car is a time capsule as it still sports advertisement boards dating to 2001, like one hawking a then state-of-the-art Sony digital camera.
“The lights still work and the doors still work,” he said.
After the attacks, it was stored for more than 10 years in a Port Authority airplane hangar before it was donated to the museum, he said.
Willsey said plans call for visitors to be able to board the car with flat-screen televisions and a black backdrop used to create a representation of being in an actual subway station. An onboard will exhibit will tell the history of the attacks both to those alive at the time and those born after, he said.
The museum’s collection of older subway cars includes an “R4” subway car and a circa-1955 “R16” that operated on the Q Train out to Coney Island. Even older than that is a 1925 “Low-V” car that operated decades ago on the New York City Subway’s number lines dating back to when they were controlled by the private Interborough Rapid Transit company known as the IRT.
He said the museum also added a number of buses to its collection in recent years. They help to tell the story of the time in the mid-20th century when many trolley systems were torn out and replaced with diesel buses, he said.
The collection includes a 1978 GMC “Fishbowl” design model that was common when buses started to replace trolleys on many transit systems.
He said this bus, which also still runs, is from the final years the automotive giant used these designs for its bus and coach division.
Willsey said a more modern bus parked at the museum once served UMASS Amherst in Amherst, Mass. A more modern 1998 MTA New York City Transit Nova Bus RTS-04, sporting a large advertisement for the hit Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera,” was parked next to the MARTA car.
Willsey was taking a break from offering Kingston City School District students trolley rides out to Kingston Point and back. Willsey’s wife, Amy Willse, offered the narration on the approximately 20-minute round trip while their son, Wessley Willsey, 11, helped flag each road crossing.
The students were visiting both the Trolley Museum and Hudson River Maritime Museum, where they took a ride aboard the Solaris, Willsey said.
Willsey then entered the museum’s trolley barn, which houses numerous rare pieces of equipment like the oldest trolley in the collection, No. 3, which comes from Norway and dates to 1898.
He pointed out other European trolleys. They included a Brussels car built in 1910, No. 79 which was built in 1912 for Gothenburg, Sweden, and a more modern 1952 cr from Hamburg, Germany, that was brought to New York in 1978 and was later donated to the museum.
Also in the collection is 1,000 historic President’s Conference Committee prototypes, he said. Introduced in the 1930s, examples of these trolleys can still be found in daily service on some transit systems like Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or “SEPTA,” in Philadelphia.
Willsey, a loader operator by day, is a self-professed lifelong train buff, He said he first started volunteering at the museum after Amy and he visited 13 years ago.
As for Wessley, he hopes to follow in his dad’s footsteps. “I hope to operate the car when I turn 16,” he said.
Willsey said the stakes are very high for the museum after it just barely escaped closing permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a make-or-break year,” he said.
For more information about the Trolley Museum of New York, which is open weekends through the end of October, visit http://www.tmny.org/index.html#se.