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Collected Objects | Multi-Media | Model Street Car Layout | Regional History | Preservation | Interpretation
The NCTM Exhibit Hall, the streetcar rides through Northwest Branch Park, and our Educational Program are all designed to fulfill the Museum's mission to collect and preserve objects related to the electric railway systems of the region and to use these objects to interpret the role of these transportation systems in the growth and development of the region.


As you first enter the Exhibit Hall, you will see actual parts from the trolleys and street cars of the area, including
  • a trolley wheel and slider (to collect the electricity from overhead wires),
  • a controller from an early (1904) street car,
  • a valve from an air brake,
  • a plow from the street cars that ran inside the city limits of the District of Columbia with an explanation of this unusual system, and
  • the ubiquitous farebox used on most public transportation in the 20th century (this one is from Cleveland).
Panels on the walls explain these systems to the visitor and young guests enjoy the hands on experience.
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A bank of computer screens next to the farebox allows the visitor to
  • review scenes of street cars in Washington DC and along the Potomac to Glen Echo,
  • to learn about light rail in several cities in North America, and
  • to teach children (and adults) the names of the various parts of the electric street car.
In the far corner of the room is a space marked "Theater". Every twenty minutes a narrated slide show, "Washington’s Trolleys Rediscovered", produced by Carroll James, describes the history of street cars in Washington DC, from the first horse-drawn vehicles in 1862 to the dismantling of the local system 99 years and 6 months later.
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For the youngest visitors, the most memorable display in the Exhibit Hall is the model street car layout. The setting represents Connecticut Avenue in the 1930's - a time when there were still horses pulling wagons, that milk trucks were making home deliveries, and that not all of the the trolley tracks were encased in concrete. Several different street car models (from the 1920's to 1950's) are used in the display, although only one runs at a time. The exhibit is activated by the push of a button to call the street car from the station on the far right side. The street car goes around a long loop, then returns to the station where the passengers disembark and the street car then waits for another call.
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Large panels around the room illustrate the development of the various communities in the region where streetcars were in operation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were many streetcar lines in the region. At that time, the building, driving, and maintaining streetcars and right of way ranked 5th in the country for industry size. Company ownership was in private hands and often included an electric generation facility to provide power for the streetcars.
Eventually, as consumer devices were developed for use by consumers, the streetcar company became the provider of electricity for homes and businesses various communities. This situation stayed this way until 1935 when the Public Utility Holding Company Act forced financial separation of streetcar companies from their electric companies. In addition to the Depression, this breakup of the holding companies and the rise of the automobile as preferred means of personal transportation eventually led to the failure of many streetcar companies in the U.S. without income from the sale of electrical power to subsidize streetcar operations.
However, streetcars had already greatly influenced local development and growth of the suburbs along the streetcar lines. For the Museum, the development of Chevy Chase is a good teaching example of a "streetcar community".
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One of the valued items in the Museum's collections is not even inside the Museum. As visitors board the trolley, they notice an ornate, windowed structure, about the size of a closet, up on a post next to the boarding platform. This is one of the five switching towers that originally controlled street car traffic near Union Station. This tower, most recently located at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was donated to the Museum in 1977 by a local family who had originally obtained it for use as a playhouse. More details.
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The largest objects in the Museum's collection are the trolleys. These electric magic carpets are fondly remembered by some and have never been experienced by many others, except at the Museum. While the trolley ride can be a marvelous adventure, it also represents a ride into the past. Passengers can see through the eyes of our earliest neighbors that there were stretches of unbroken land between stops - land that they know today is bustling with shopping centers, homes, schools, and autos. Using maps in the Museum and knowledge of local geography, Docents are able to point out to visitors where the trolleys used to go and where Metro goes now. And, just to bring a bit of the past home, the intrepid explorer can even find some of the old right of way and imagine what it was like when the trolley went through his or her neighborhood.
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Copyright © National Capital Trolley Museum
November 2, 2007