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May, 2001

Long Range Possibility:
Seashore in Lowell

By Jim Schantz, Chair of Seashore’s Board of Trustees

We are overdue on reporting progress on the potential Seashore branch in Lowell, so this column will cover recent developments. For those who may not have heard of the project, here is a brief summary of Lowell’s present trolleys and our involvement:

Lowell is a historic mill city located along the Merrimack River northwest of Boston. In the 1980s, supported by U. S. Senator Paul Tsongas, a Lowell native, a National Park was developed in Lowell to celebrate the city’s rich industrial heritage. Mill buildings were rehabilitated and developed into outstanding exhibits of the city’s manufacturing past. As street railways played a major role in bringing thousands of workers to Lowell, the interpretive plan called for a short trolley line with replica cars to transport visitors through the park site and to lend authenticity to their experience. Seashore provided design and historical information for the three cars (two open and one closed) built by Gomaco, of Ida Grove, Iowa. These cars became the first accurate replica trolleys built in North America.

Seashore founder Ted Santarelli, plus Dan Cohen, and Fred Perry actively worked on various aspects of the project, and others lent their help. In fact the third car, patterned after our Bay State 4175, was dedicated to Ted’s memory, after Ted passed away just before the car’s completion.

The next major development came in late 1998 as representatives of the city and the Lowell National Historic Park (LNHP) approached us to solicit Seashore’s participation in a potential ambitious expansion of the trolley system. In short, they described extending the line beyond the confines of the park to serve other venues in Lowell’s compact downtown and to connect with the commuter rail line to Boston. Of great interest to us, they also envisioned a trolley museum, to be a branch of Seashore, with our cars operating in conjunction with the replica cars that would provide regular service.

Additionally, there is an excellent archive facility operated by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell that could readily be expanded to house some of Seashore’s extensive library collections. Opportunities also exist for joint educational programs in transit related fields with both U Mass and the Lowell vocational schools.

Lowell hosted delegations from Seashore in both January and April of 1999, and groups from Lowell visited Seashore at several points as we jointly explored the collaboration. Many valued friendships blossomed as our interactions continued.

Though clearly this would be a long-term project that could unfold over a period of five to ten years, Seashore’s board enthusiastically endorsed entering into a Memo of Understanding to evaluate the feasibility of this project. Other parties to that document are the City of Lowell, the Lowell National Historic Park, the Lowell Regional Transit Authority, and the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments.

What followed through the rest of 1999 and early 2000 was a series of briefings to build support and enthusiasm for the project. I had the pleasure of representing Seashore in all of these, and have been joined increasingly by External Ventures Committee members Roger Somers and George Sanborn, and by others as the opportunity has arisen. Over the months the project team met with and presented to the Lowell City Council, the University of Massachusetts, the U.S. Department of Transportation, representatives of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, Lowell’s state representatives on Beacon Hill, Lowell business groups, Federal Transit Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy, among others. I also contacted Bill Withuhn, a Seashore friend and Transportation Curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington who lent his support and who mentioned the eventual possibility of the Smithsonian awarding affiliate status for a future Seashore branch at Lowell.

The key question for the project, as for any major program, is funding. Both the City and the LNHP have an admirable record of proposing worthy projects, attracting financial support, and faithfully executing the projects. As such, they enjoy a very favorable reputation with governmental funding bodies at all levels. With professional grant writers on staff at both the city and the park, the expectation has been that the project will be funded by a combination of transportation, Park Service, and highway funding, as well as any number of special governmental programs and potential private sources. Though governmental funding for a museum would normally be difficult to secure, by folding the main museum facility into the trolley line’s maintenance center, and by incorporating some other exhibits into LNHP programs, governmental grants might help advance the museum. Clearly, the overruns in the Big Dig project could limit Massachusetts sources of funding, but all avenues are being explored.

However, the first step is to find about $270,000 for a full feasibility study to determine the scope, costs, and overall viability of the project. Much project activity has focused on this goal. As of this writing, three or four applications have been submitted for this funding, and there is hope at least one might be successful by this summer. However, in the mean time, there have been some important preliminary successes:

Interpretive plan: The LNHP identified a limited source of funding for a professional study to define the scope and programs of the potential Seashore branch. We have prepared an initial statement of our goals and mission for the museum, and a museum consultant has been engaged to conduct the program. In the next month or so, we anticipate a workshop with full participation of Seashore and the LNHP’s expert interpretive staff, to advance this study.

Archives study: Funding may also be imminent for a similar preliminary study of the archive space that could be used by Seashore and some other Lowell nonprofits.

Site designation: The Lowell City Council recently approved a development plan that would place the potential museum and maintenance facility on the vacant parcel on Dutton Street, just past the end of the present LNHP trolley line. This site is the most desirable potential site as it is highly visible along the main artery from the highway and is directly opposite the wonderful textile museum. More than a century ago the site featured a railroad roundhouse so the planning concept includes a recreated roundhouse to house the museum.

A regular Seashore contribution to the trolley project has been to monitor closely the funding and development of other similar heritage trolley projects in cities such as Memphis, Tampa, Little Rock, Kenosha, Dallas, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Even though none of these includes a full museum, they provide highly relevant examples to help guide us.

What probability of success can we attach to the project? No one can compute that at this point. Any rail transit project needs to quantify why the extra capital expense for rail is justified vs. less expensive rubber tired alternatives. The obvious advantages of recreating authentic history need to be backed by defensible numbers that show how rail will attract more riders and investment dollars than buses. These questions have been raised in Lowell and remain to be answered. As well, the community, government, and business leaders need to lend their unified support to the plan to encourage the allocation of funds. A full feasibility study will be the most important next step to define the rationale for full political and community support.

Though success is not yet assured and a time frame is hard to estimate, the project possibility justifies our continued participation. The prospect of reaching new audiences, of finding new sources of volunteers and financial support, and of interpreting some of our cars in an authentic urban setting would be an unbelievable additional opportunity for Seashore to fulfill its mission. Stay tuned for further developments in this exciting project.


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