Friday, January 8, 2010

O.R. Cummings and his research collection

O.R. Cummings, Seashore Trolley Museum Member #5 and author of more than 50 books on the history of electric railways has been a fan of trolley cars since he was a child. Trolleys captured O.R.’s interest at a very young age:

“My first memory of a trolley goes back to 1926 or 1927 when my parents and I lived at 3 Gardner Street, Salisbury, Massachusetts. The house was only a short distance west of Route 1, Lafayette Road, along which the trolleys from Salisbury to Smithtown Square, Seabrook, N.H. ran. Well, I was playing in the yard on a warm spring or summer day when I heard the noise of a collision. I ran to the scene of the crash and saw that a Model T Ford had tried to make a left turn as what I now know to have been a Birney car approached. The right front wheel of the flivver was demolished, but there were no injuries. The driver was a Gardner Street neighbor. I got holy Hell from my mother for going up to the scene of the crash.”

O.R.’s love of trolleys continued as he grew up:

“Late in 1927 we moved from Gardner Street to our newly-constructed home at 1 Maple Street, Salisbury. The house was very close to Elm Street (now Route 110) along which Haverhill-Salisbury Beach and Haverhill-Newburyport trolleys of the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway ran. Until Sept. 7, 1930, I enjoyed the sight of yellow trolleys passing the end of Maple Street at least twice an hour. One of my neighbors, Rollins French, frequently took me to the carhouse in Salisbury Square where I became friendly with some of the operators.”

By the time O.R. became an active trolley fan in 1940, he had already amassed some excellent material for the research collection he was beginning to assemble and that is the focus of our Maine Historical Records Collections grant project.

Born in 1923, O.R. attended Bates College from 1940 to 1942 before joining the U.S. Coast Guard to serve in World War II. Between 1942 and 1946, O.R. served primarily in the Marshall Islands and the Central Pacific. In 1948, O.R. graduated from the Bentley School of Finance and Accounting (now Bentley University) and then was employed as a reporter for the Newburyport Daily News until 1956, with the exception of 11 months of active duty in the U. S. Navy in 1951-52. After the Korean War, O.R. worked as a rewrite man and later the copy editor for the Manchester Union Leader from 1956 until his retirement in 1987. In his “spare time”, he published a series of definitive electric railway histories that are loaded with illustrations, facts, and anecdotes, drawing from the images in his research collection. According to Herb Pence, a Seashore Trolley Museum volunteer, O.R. has the mentality of an historian, with a meticulous writing style and attention to detail that can be credited to his education in finance and accounting.

O.R., in collaboration with Charles Heseltine, continued to enlarge his research collection of photographs, maps, and postcards which he donated to the Seashore Trolley Museum Library in 2009. The collection consists of six hundred images dating from 1895 to 1949 from every electric street railway that ever operated in the state of Maine. The images are not just of trolley cars, but of street scenes in cities and towns across Maine, including buildings, parks, shops, factories, billboards, and recreational destinations. Also pictured are other forms of transportation (notably sea scenes), and people wearing the changing fashions in dress over half a century. Students and researchers of Maine history, sociology, and economics will find this unique collection to be a valuable primary source.

The Library at the Seashore Trolley Museum has successfully applied for a Maine State Archives Historical Records Collections grant to preserve O.R. Cummings’ research collection. The grant will support a Preservation Intern who will remount all of the photographs in new archival albums on acid-free paper. A team of volunteers, with O.R.’s invaluable assistance, has been busy over the last few months identifying and describing each photograph, while another volunteer has been scanning each image for inclusion in the Maine Memory Network, an online virtual museum.

While the research collection is invaluable, even more amazing is O.R.’s vast store of knowledge about electric railways. The other volunteers have nicknamed him “the Oracle” because O.R. can look at a photograph and give you details about the car, its life history, the location of the photograph, and sometimes the day the photograph was taken based on visual clues. O.R.’s love of trolley cars, his willingness to share his knowledge, and his enthusiasm for preserving transit history has inspired all of our library volunteers as they tackle this challenging and worthwhile archival project.

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