The Baltimore Streetcar Museum is a surprisingly small institution in North Baltimore consisting of two nondescript buildings in the old railroad basin across from the modern streetcar station on North Avenue . This meant you could see the old trolleys running when you stepped off the train but getting to them was another matter entirely (it took me over a half hour of aimless wandering before I finally found the road the museum was on).
“If they made them maps in 3-D, you wouldn’t have had a problem,” said one of the ‘conductors’ upon hearing my difficulty finding the place.
The main museum is open weekends for only 4 months a year (June-October), and the car house is only open by appointment. The main building consisted of an atrium with a ticket booth and gift shop on one side, and the entrance to the main auditorium on the other with a collection of train prints and advertisements in the hallway leading to the restrooms.
“Well, I can’t sell you a ticket right now,” said the conductor when I came in. “1) Because I don’t sell tickets, and 2) because our auditorium is booked for a children’s birthday party. If you leave and come back, we’d be glad to serve you; otherwise you stay out here ‘til the kids leave at 1 o’clock – though we’re not gonna ‘throw them out’ immediately at 1. We need the money.”
“1) I just got here,” I said tiredly. “2) I’ve been walking around this area for the last half hour trying to find this place, and 3) I’m exhausted.”
“Oh come on, all you do is ‘turn left on Maryland Avenue, right on Falls Road and pass under the overpass.’ What’s so hard about that? It’s less than two minutes back to the main road.”
Well, he told me off. But instead of leaving, I threw myself into the faux-leather chair next to the box office that the conductor just disappeared into. About five minutes later, the auditorium flies open and several kids run out screaming all over the atrium until being round up by a harried chaperone.
Another ten minutes pass, and once again the doors fly open and one of the parents asks “who wants to go on another trolley ride? Yay!”
They leave, and the conductor comes out of the ticket booth and barks “You wanna trolley ride, come with me. Come on,” and leads me to the same trolley the party was lead onto. “Scoot over, we got another passenger,” he said to a girl sitting on the end of the row.”
“No, really that’s fine, I’ll just catch one later.”
“Just get on,” he says practically shoving on board.
The girl gives me a sneering look and says “you’re not part of the party!”
The trolley leaves passing three parents with camera snapping pictures of their kids (and one interloper) riding the trolley. There were also parents on board with camera recording their kids (and that creepy guy in the third row) experience for posterity. We travel along for maybe a quarter mile with the boy in the first row yelling “ring the bell, ring the bell” every few seconds.
At the “end of the line,” the conductor gives a canned speech about this “not being the longest trolley line in the world, but it is the widest…”
He then jumps off to switch the sign on the car, lift the safety bar on the left side and drop the one the right (for “insurance reasons”), helps us flip the seats and than jumps back aboard the front of the trolley so we can head back to the visitors center.
When we come to a stop I hear “Hey, let’s all get our picture taken with the trolley. Yay!”
Meanwhile, I’m trying to get off without interfering with any more pictures, but my bench mate is sitting on the steps steadfastly refusing to let me pass.
“Now get closer… and smile,” the hostess said as I slide out under the bar on the left side of the trolley.
Now I’m allowed into the gallery after I’ve already crashed the very party they were trying to keep me out of.
It turns out to be one medium sized room with 3 long, pizza box ridden tables in the middle, a bunch of static photo boards along three of the walls, a large train display (with oddly mixed time periods) against the entry wall and a crude mock-up of a trolley car with controls in the front and a theater in the back showing a video about the history of streetcars.
I realize they have no money for new exhibits (though they did have 4 photos of the Central Light Rail, or “gutter line” as the conductor called it), but what they already had was crude and sophomoric like the streetscape in the atrium made out of poorly painted wooden blocks.
One of the biggest letdowns was the museum store, it had 3 T-shirts (2 adult, 1 youth), a couple old trolley videos, a few children’s books and a stack of train magazines from the 70s. There was another, much larger, train display in the back corner, and a large selection of trolley themed slides (unclear if they were for sale or part of a display). The rest was empty shelf space (though there was a vending machine in the hallway leading to the restrooms).
I make my way out of the exhibition hall and find a far friendlier conductor rounding up visitors for a ride on a later model streetcar (as opposed to the open air trolley I’d been in earlier). There were three other families on board, and one conductor with the same canned “this may not be the longest trolley ride in the world, but it is the widest…” speech followed by a more lively discussion about “railroad weaves” and retrofitting their acquisitions to fir on the wider tracks.
I exited the streetcar and quietly made my way back towards the “gutter line” to contemplate my visit.