Learning to drive a trolley wasn’t exactly on my bucket list.
And why would it be? We don’t see them cruising down Front Street or carrying passengers to and from York. In fact, before visiting the Rockhill Trolley Museum, I wouldn’t have guessed that trolleys operated right here in downtown Harrisburg years ago.
But about 90 minutes outside the city lies an interactive playground of history you can touch, feel, sit on and, yes, even drive.
The Rockhill Trolley Museum, located in Rockhill Furnace, is home to 23 trolleys with 13 currently in operation, said museum President Joel Salomon. The museum houses large pieces of history that, for many older generations, seemed to vanish overnight.
Hidden away in one of Pennsylvania’s charming, but tiny towns, the museum is one of our state’s best-kept secrets, Salomon said. Since its inception nearly 60 years ago, the volunteer-run museum has laid and maintained three miles of track, transported trolleys cross-country (which, as I learned, is no easy feat) and painstakingly brought new life into some very old cars.
As I noticed on my tour with Salomon and volunteer Jim Cohen, visitors are often perplexed upon their arrival to the museum. And it’s easy to see why. There are no glass-encased artifacts or “Do Not Touch” signs in sight. Instead, I was encouraged to climb on board, feel the cool metal of the car’s body and take a seat inside.
“This is an actual operating museum. The trolleys are the exhibits,” said Salomon. “When you go to an antique car museum, you can only look at them. Here, we try to run two or three different trolleys a day.”
Almost as impressive as the cars themselves is the enthusiasm of the museum’s dedicated crew. According to Salomon, the museum has 25 to 30 volunteers, with 12 to 15 considered highly active.
“Our farthest-away volunteer lives five hours away in the Rochester area,” Salomon said. “Volunteers do everything from building tracks, maintaining the tracks and powering trolleys.”
Labor of Love
Notable local Harrisburg volunteer, Sloan Auchincloss, offered his support to the museum with time, personal interest and resources. Auchincloss passed last year, but his long history with the museum had spanned decades previously.
“[Auchincloss] was a member and friend of the museum for years,” said Salomon.
While he was most active during the 1970s and ‘80s, Auchincloss had more recently taken an interest in a rare, recently acquired car—a Valley Railways trolley car built in 1895 and locally operated until 1938. Before making its way into the museum, the car was gutted and transformed into a restaurant and, eventually, became somebody’s home.
Salomon and the rest of the volunteers have been actively raising money to restore the shell of this unique trolley car to its heyday, meaning they’ll need to search for almost all of its mechanical parts, seats, windows and more.
Thanks to a grant from the Auchincloss family, as well as several matching grants, the museum has $40,000 tucked away to help bring this distinguished trolley car back to its former glory.
Which, as I saw firsthand, is a labor of love.
Being entirely volunteer-run and privately funded means it can take anywhere from a few years to a couple of decades to restore a trolley car. And there’s no cutting corners at Rockhill.
Volunteers scour internet sites like eBay and reach out to connections around the world in search of original parts. As one may imagine, these can be tricky to come by. And if a car comes in that’s been badly beaten down, such as the Valley Railways car, it can take hours of research to identify its origins. Once the volunteers find out more, they’ll work to meticulously match every detail—from the stained glass patterned windows to the coat hooks hanging inside.
While I’ve ridden in a trolley or two on my travels, it was the rich history of each car and the devotion of the museum’s volunteers that left me with a new appreciation for historical preservation.
In fact, I was hard-pressed to find a question Salomon couldn’t answer—from when trolleys stopped running in Harrisburg (the answer, July 1939) to when they were most popular in America (in 1920, they were the fifth-largest industry, he said).
The museum officially opened its doors for the season on Memorial Day weekend for rail fans, history buffs and families to come ride in a little piece of history.
According to Cohen, the museum sees up to 50 visitors on any given day. The big draw, though, comes during special events, including the Pumpkin Patch Trolley days and the Polar Bear Express. With hundreds of Christmas lights twinkling across the tracks, the museum can attract upwards of 600 trolley passengers per night in December.
As we neared the end of our tour, Salomon expressed what he really wanted visitors to take away from their experience.
“We really want to show people that this is possible,” he said. “We can restore a trolley back to its former glory.”
And while the museum’s youngest visitors may not understand the historical impact of what they’re riding, Salomon insists that the kids who come will never forget ringing that trolley bell for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, I don’t think I will either.
The Rockhill Trolley Museum is located at 430 Meadow St., Rockhill Furnace. It is open Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through October, with special events running through December. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 2 to 12. For more information, visit rockhilltrolley.org.