Because I had learned of its closing, I decided to visit the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad Museum (OCFR) on Saturday, August 20th, 2016. I happened to be passing through Fall River exactly when they were scheduled to be open, so I figured I could spare an hour to try to find out what is going on.
I grew up not far from Fall River, and had visited Battleship Cove many times as a youngster. However, most of those visits pre-dated the creation of the adjacent railroad museum. A visit to Battleship Cove about 5 years ago did not yield enough time to visit the OCFR, but I did note that they were open.
The site is easily accessible to visitors of Battleship Cove, which is a major tourist attraction in the area. There are at least three other museums nearby (including the railroad museum) and other attractions (waterfront park, carousel, etc.) While all is in the shadow of the large bridge overhead, and some industrial sites nearby, the overall area is clean and safe. On this visit, the sun was shining and the temperature in the mid-70s – a perfect day to be out enjoying the local attractions.
The OCFR parking lot is small, but paved and adequate. I suspect most visitors park at Battleship Cove, then cross the street to visit the OCFR before walking back to their cars. I was greeted by a man and woman who were hanging out on the "porch" that looks across the street. The grounds are reasonably well kept and nothing seemed to be in dire need of repair, repaint, or restoration. Admission was a measly $3.
The first exhibit consists of a gutted Pennsylvania Railroad day coach, which has been outfitted with a nice set of displays outlining the history of rail operations in the Fall River area. It includes photos, artifacts and other small memorabilia, with each case representing an era of operations – from the 1800s to the present day. There is a small N gauge layout, some Lionel trains on display, and a wooden train table for the kids to play on.
Coupled to the coach is the most significant artifact, the Firestone RDC. This ex-New Haven Budd Car has local significance, having operated in commuter service to the Firestone plant in Fall River, and later as a MBTA commuter coach. The interior is pretty much as it was in service, except the luggage racks have been removed. There are some photos and signs explaining the car, and that it is missing two drive shafts and one of its engines (which were removed by the MBTA when they depowered their RDC fleet in the 1980s.)
Out the back of the RDC is the NYC (nee-Conrail) side view caboose. Like the RDC, it is pretty much original inside with desks, stove, etc. This leads you to the New Haven box car, which is outfitted with a video display (which was running a general movie on railroads) and many artifacts including track tools, a train order hoop, etc. Back out of the boxcar brings you to the entrance porch – where visitors can pull a whistle cord to sound a diesel locomotive horn.
The last major artifact is a medium sized shed which has "Fall River" signage. However, there is no indication of its heritage. Total visit time is 30-45 mins.
During my visit I met with Jay Chatterton, who appears to be the main force behind the museum. He provided me with this additional information (which he gave me permission to share publicly.) Please do not "shoot the messenger" or criticize his comments – he has read this discussion forum thread already and is choosing not to comment.
1. Attendance is way, way down to the point where the operation is unsustainable. The whole operation hinges on visitors to Battleship Cove, which has seen a massive reduction in its attendance. In fact, as he said this, we glanced over and observed no one going in or out of Battleship Cove. In years past, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the place would have been packed. He mentioned that I was his ONLY visitor all day (which remained true as he closed when I left.) On my way out I observed that the maritime museum down the street seemed equally deserted.
2. Battleship Cove has a very popular program that allows Boy (and Girl) Scouts to camp overnight on the vessel. However, the timing of that program changed such that it no longer allows campers time to explore the other area attractions. What used to be a very popular side trip to the OCFR (or other area museums) is no longer an option – by no fault of its own.
3. The museum is, in fact, closing on Sept. 4th – after 30 years of operation. Jay will be retaining the items from his personal collection (mostly small artifacts) and returning anything on loan to the museum to the rightful owners. He will then be deaccessioning the remaining artifacts, including the RDC, caboose, and box car. While he owns the ex-Pennsy coach, he will also offer that interested parties. He is doing everything "by the book" and is willing disclose the financials, etc.
4. His plan (underway) is to contact the local/regional railroad museums and preservation organizations – many of which he has existing relations; it is his intent that everything finds a good home. While he does have a switch to connect to the Mass Coastal rail line, it is my opinion that everything will have to be moved by truck. It's apparent that Jay is basically tired of running the organization, and is giving it up to move onto other things.
5. The ex-Pennsy coach is probably the item in most danger. He claims that the wheelset/trucks are in excellent shape – having been rebuilt by Amtrak just before retirement. (I'm no expert on that, so I have to take him at his word.) However, the body is in rough shape and (as mentioned) contains no seats, windows, or anything for hauling passengers. It would either make a good display car (as it is now) or sacrificed to lend its trucks to a more worthy car.
FYI, the local connection to this car is that it ended its service life as a commuter coach between Providence and Boston.
6. The box car is unique, as being the only surviving one of its class from the New Haven. It was rebuilt at the Readville shops outside of Boston and really should stay at a local railroad museum. Personally, I can think of several operations that could use this in photo-freights, etc. Jay claims that other than the fake wall he added to accommodate the video equipment, it is 100% original inside and out (and it looks that way to this observer.)
7. I asked Jay about the "Fall River" shack. It was reconstructed from the burnt out remains of the yardmaster office from Pawtucket, RI. The Fall River signs are not authentic. He opened it for me to reveal a nicely done yardmaster office, with desk, stove, and other supplies. It could easily fit on a flatbed truck and would fit right in at any rail yard.
8. The land the museum sits on is owned by the State of Massachusetts.
In short, it was clear that a lot of thought, planning and work went into creating this museum. It was a good look into the region's railroad heritage – set in an ideal location for a quick stop. It was just the right size to be a coat-tail operation against Battleship Cove, but if no one is visiting the main attraction, there's not much one can do.
I recalled my last visit to Battleship Cove five years prior, and the place was lively and vibrant; today, it was not. Moreover, I recalled hearing the diesel whistle several times that day – not knowing where it was coming from (it is near an active rail line.) Now I realize it was likely different families taking turns blowing the horn from the OCFR front porch, a simple enjoyment that will be lost at summer's end.
After I left, I continued on to my sister's house for a cookout. One out-of-town guest who was not familiar with the area asked a local what there was to do in Fall River. The local person immediately started talking about Battleship Cove, along with the adjacent maritime and train museum. Unfortunately, the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad Museum will no longer be there, should the out-of-town guest choose to explore Fall River next summer.
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