Clio Logo
Lowell, Massachusetts is home to the National Streetcar Museum, a satellite of Maine's New England Electric Railway Historical Society's Seashore Trolley Museum. Located in the Mack Building across the street from Lowell National Historical Park, the museum offers both exhibits and trolley ride tours of historic Lowell (3).

  • The National Trolley Museum's New Orleans 966 car (image from the National Park Service)
  • National Trolley Museum in Lowell (image from Railway Preservation online)
  • A Los Angeles example of a horse-drawn omnibus trolley (image from KCET Media)
History of Lowell Public Transportation
Prompted by growth and suburbanization, Lowell's first public transportation was established in 1864 by the Lowell Horse Railroad Company, with a line connecting the city center to the neighborhoods of Belvidere to the east and Pawtucket Falls to the west. These first streetcars, like those in Boston at the time, were horse-drawn. Working-class residents largely remained in the crowded city center, while middle and upper-class citizens moved to the suburbs due to streetcar access, creating a real estate boom. This was a pattern played out in many American cities in the mid-19th century, including nearby Boston (3; 4). In Lowell, where mills were an integral part of the city's economy, streetcars with low-priced fares provided an essential connection between workers and industry (1). The city's first electric streetcar came in 1889, on the route along the Merrimack River in downtown Lowell. Through mergers and expansions, the old horse-drawn streetcars were gradually replaced with electric models, though horses and wagons were still in use in the early twentieth century. The companies running the lines even built and ran a countryside resort at Canobie Lake in New Hampshire. The turn of the century also brought interurban street railways linking Lowell to nearby towns; unfortunately, companies sometimes overextended themselves, cutting funding to workers and discontinuing services to stay afloat (3). 

In 1903, the all-male, mainly Irish streetcar workers of Lowell joined the Amalgamated Association of Streetcar Employees to form a union. After strikes by workers and complaints from the public, Lowell's streetcar lines were bought by the Lynn & Boston Railroad Company (renamed the Boston & Northern Street Railway Company), with Patrick  F. Sullivan of Lowell in charge. The company merged again with the Bay State Street Railway Company, but the latter went bankrupt in 1918. Streetcar railways declined in the 1920s throughout New England, and Lowell's turn-of-the-century electric trolleys ran for the last time in 1935 (3).

History of the National Streetcar Museum

During an economic decline in the 1970s, the city of Lowell partnered with the National Park Service to plan an industrial heritage park to generate tourism (see Lowell National Historical Park and American Textile History Museum.) As trolley lines were an important component of Lowell's textile industry, it was decided to use replica streetcars to transport visitors between locations and provide tours within Lowell National Historical Park. The cars were constructed by the Iowa company of Gomaco. The Seashore Trolley Museum of Kennebunkport, Maine, helped to guarantee the accuracy of the replicas, which began operation in 1984. The museum also partnered with Lowell in 1998 with plans to expand the lines, add more trolleys, and create a permanent exhibit space. Unfortunately, the first two components of this concept were determined not feasible after a sixteen-year study; however, the indoor museum became a reality, and features the "On Track" exhibit (1; 2).

History of the Streetcars

Lowell National Historical Park operates three replica J.G. Brill Company trolleys, two New England "breezer" (open air) streetcars and one "semi-convertible" (all weather) car (2). These were the "first accurate replica trolleys built in the United States," (3). As part of the partnership between Lowell National Historical Park and the Seashore Trolley Museum, Lowell also operates the restored, original New Orleans No. 966 streetcar. The 966 was built in 1924 by Perley-Thomas, and ran in the French Quarter, where Tennessee Williams was inspired to write his famous play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," (1; 2 ; 3).

1. American Public Transport Association. "Lowell, Massachusetts." Accessed August 5, 2018.
2. Railway Preservation. "U.S. Streetcar Systems- Massachusetts – Lowell." Accessed August 5, 2018.
3. Seashore Trolley Museum. "History of Streetcars in Lowell." Accessed August 5, 2018.
4. Warner, Sam B. Jr. "Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900." Harvard University Press and the MIT Press. 1962. Cambridge, Massachusetts.