PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — They may not be the winding streets of San Francisco, but there definitely will be some zing in the air this spring and summer when the Presque Isle trolley takes to the road for historical and cultural tours around Aroostook County.
“We are really excited about this and have some big plans,” said Kim Smith, treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society. “We are inaugurating our first season with the trolley in our most ambitious season ever.”
Affectionately known as “Molly,” the 1985 gas-driven trolley will be put to work this summer in connection with a series of countywide historical tours, museum crawls, foliage trips and community festivals.
“There used to be electric trolleys all over the state,” said historical society president Craig Green. “But this is the first-ever trolley in northern Maine.”
Vintage trolleys and replicas like the Presque Isle vehicle are common tourist attractions in places such as Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Boston, Green said.
“We have a lot of neat places and things to see here,” he said. “But it covers such a large geographic area there is really no other way to do [tours] than with a bus or trolley.”
The notion of bringing a historic trolley to the city is one Smith has been working on for about three years, and she said cost and logistics were certainly the two biggest challenges.
Smith, who ran a public transportation system in Virginia similar to the Aroostook Transportation System before she came to Maine, is familiar with the ins and outs of buses.
“I know the industry and I knew we could get a grant,” she said. “But the new trolleys are about $90,000 each, and even if the [historical] society only had to come up with 20 percent of the total cost, that’s still a huge hurdle.”
About the same time Smith started seriously researching grant options, she ran across an announcement for a state surplus public auction and among the items was a 1985 trolley with a listed base price of $5,000.
Thanks to some quick action on the part of the society, Smith said it was positioned to be among those with a first shot at the trolley. When she learned there were several other groups interested in it, she admitted fearing the subsequent bidding war would crush her dream.
“So we did not even go to the auction,” Smith said. “But then we got a call and learned no one ended up bidding on it and did we still want the trolley for $5,000.”
The vehicle’s aluminum body and wood interior were in great shape, Green said, and with a few hundred dollars in spare parts, it was up and running good as new.
“I always thought it would be cool to have a trolley here,” Smith said. “I wanted it for citywide tours and a museum crawl.”
Which is exactly what the former Biddeford & Saco Transit trolley will be doing starting at 9 a.m. next Saturday as the first of monthly three-hour, 35-site tours of Presque Isle gets under way, taking riders from the city’s historic fire station to the site of the county’s first potato farm, the Presque Isle Army Base and Mantle Lake.
Seating is limited and reservations are required by calling the society at 762-6300.
The historical society also has planned a series of museum crawls, each featuring a different region of Aroostook County, including the St. John Valley, central Aroostook and southern Aroostook.
“A lot of times people take for granted where they live and don’t realize the interesting history there is,” Smith said. “Presque Isle has some amazing history and some amazing characters.”
The society felt it was important, Green said, to look beyond its own backyard.
“As we talked with other museums in the county and partnered with them for these visits, we sensed a kind of connectedness in a way we had not before,” he said. “We hope the relationships we forge with these other societies and museums will in turn excite them about participating in events with us.”
Among those events are historical pavilions at the Northern Maine Fair, Green added.
The trolley also will be used during history camps for youth around Presque Isle.
“Studies show by engaging young people in local history they have a greater sense of community,” Smith said. “This could really help instill a sense of pride in the youth and really be a key in keeping young people in Aroostook County or bringing them back.”
Historical museums also are good for the area’s tourism-based economy, Smith said, citing an Americans for Arts survey showing 850 million people visited museums across the country in 2003.
“That’s more than attended all professional sporting events combined that same year,” she said.
In addition to scheduled tours, the Presque Isle trolley is available for private charter.
All tours are narrated, though Smith said she was unsure whether she would appear in her period costumes.
“Definitely not my Civil War costumes,” she said with a laugh. “The hoops just won’t fit through the door.”
Complete tour information, times, dates and prices are available on the Presque Isle Historical Society website at www.pihistory.org or by calling 762-6300.