A streetcar to desire [again]

Welder/fabricator gets century-old trolleys back on track

Practical Welding Today July/August 2009
July 27, 2009
By: Amanda Carlson

Welder/fabricator Bernie Bisnette takes the corroded, worn-down,and skeletal remains of trolley cars and restores them to their originalappearance for the Seashore Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport, Maine.

eastern massachusetts street railway

Bernie Bisnette stands next to his latest project, the No. 7005 of the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, originally built in 1927.

As the only metalworking restoration technician at the Seashore Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport, Maine, Bernie Bisnette likens his job to a case of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Bouncing around from one trolley project to another and switching gears from removing rivets, to annealing work-hardened steel, to building up components worn down by years of corrosion are enough to make anyone wonder.

While it can be a lot for just one person to handle, the retired Marine Corps aircraft maintenance mechanic remembers that the job requires no blueprints, no expensive equipment, and allows him to be 100 percent creative. The best part is he finds his escape from the high-stress, fast-paced computer-driven world when it's just him and a 100-year-old piece of American history. What could be better?

"You develop a connection with each one, and the whole time you're working on one you're thinking about how, back in the day, men rode the rails and got stuff done. Now we just go home and play with our computers. It's just such a difference," Bisnette explained.

The Seashore Trolley Museum, founded in 1939 and incorporated in 1941 as the New England Electronic Railway Historical Society, started with just one trolley car—the No. 31 from the Biddeford & Saco Railroad Co. Today the museum houses more than 200 trolleys at its 100-acre facility, 20 of which are completely restored and three currently available for use by visitors. The museum relies on donated funds to refurbish the old trolley cars, which themselves are donated. Approximately 20,000 people visit the museum each year.

Preserving History

Using old photos and recommendations from the museum's curators, Bisnette rejoins or builds up worn-down and corroded components using shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) or gas metal arc welding (GMAW). With a grinder he cuts and etches the component back into its original shape.

Working with parts and components that are 100 years old or more can pose unique challenges. Each trolley arrives to the museum in a different condition. Some are so severely worn down or corroded that they are skeletons of their original selves. No matter the condition, Bisnette and the museum curators make every attempt to improve what"s already there. Sure, it may be quicker to replace the corroded sections or fabricate new components from scratch, but the integrity of the original piece is well worth the process.

"If you replace too much, it becomes a replica, and we're trying to stay away from that. You have to balance how far you go when cutting and bending new metal. We're building up what's there and turning it into what it once was," Bisnette said.

Much of the metal in the trolleys, Bisnette added, contains Hatfield manganese, which causes the metal to work-harden. Some trolley components that underwent years of impact are so hard they require proper annealing in order to be manipulated.

Identifying the types of metals in the trolleys can be tough too. So Bisnette does a lot of spark testing, and recalls a lot of hit-and-misses when he first started. Trying to weld corroded materials is no picnic either. For instance, the Connecticut Car No. 1160 had at one point hauled salt, which had corroded the metal so badly that it took a while for the weld to take.

"We started with a little hole and ended with a huge hole because we kept burning it back until the metal got good enough for it to grab. Once it took, I was able to build it back up, close it in, and redrill it. You really learn the capability of what welding can do."

And then there's money, or lack thereof. Money is tight at the not-for-profit museum, and there isn't enough left over to buy a press, bending equipment, or even an oven. That's not a problem for Bisnette, though, who also dabbles in blacksmithing. Who needs an oven when you've got a coal forge?

"It"s really the best way. You get the forge going and you bury the component in the sand overnight. You come back the next morning and start working."

Plus, he said, there's something special about using old techniques. "When you're working on old stuff, you have to think in old ways."

Trolley restoration doesn't happen overnight. It's a highly detailed process that takes time, careful calculation, and a lot of patience. So it's no wonder that the more time Bisnette spends working on each trolley, the more connected he feels to it and the time period it came from.

"We're preserving history. People will be able to come and look at the trolley and read about it. My name may never be tied to it, but that's OK.

"It's going to sound crazy, but sometimes I wonder if I'm restoring the trolley or if the trolley is restoring me."

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8260

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