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Restoring a Providence trolley

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Escaping the end of the line

BY ZACHARY R. MIDER Journal Staff Writer | January 11, 2005

Rhode Island's mass-transit heritage has an unlikely champion in Richard V. Shappy, who is better known for running the Satin Doll and Cadillac Lounge strip clubs in Providence.

In a warehouse next to one of his clubs, Shappy has a crew of workers painstakingly refurbishing an eight-wheeled trolley car from the golden era of electric transit.

Shappy's men pulled the trolley from the rubble of a diner in West Warwick in 2003 -- it had formed the diner's main room -- then built a warehouse to store it. He wants to restore it to the condition in which it left the floor of a Worcester factory in 1911.

"The main thing is to save it, which I've done," said Shappy, 59, of Warwick, who restores old Cadillacs, motorcycles, and anything else that goes around on wheels. "I'm going to go as far as I can with it, and I usually go all the way."

Shappy knows what going all the way means. When he took the trolley from the Veteran's Square Diner last year, he heard that its heavy steel undercarriage had been dumped in the Pawtuxet River a half-century ago. So he hired a diver to troll for the 10-ton "trucks."

"You know, he spent a good part of the day there," Shappy said. The diver, coming up empty-handed, offered to widen the search, but as Shappy said, "it's not the sort of thing that would float downstream.

"Actually, people were kind of curious. They thought we were searching for bodies."

Shappy has located another set of trucks -- in Japan. The cost of buying them and shipping them here would be $50,000, he said. The only reason he hasn't done it yet, he said, is that the trucks are not an exact match. He's still looking for a perfect fit.

IN ITS HEYDAY, United Electric Railways, which operated almost all the streetcars in Rhode Island, had more than 400 miles of track and more than 1,000 electric cars, carrying passengers from Rocky Point to Woonsocket.

Little trace of those days is left, said Everett A. Chapman, a trolley enthusiast from Barrington. Trolleys taken out of service were quickly sold for scrap, their wooden hulls burned in great bonfires. Only a pair of Rhode Island trolleys remain, in a museum in Branford, Conn., and they aren't eight-wheeled passenger trolleys like the one Shappy found.

Chapman has collected bits and pieces of the old cars over the years. Much of the collection came from a man who rescued hardware from a pyre at Rocky Point many years ago.

"I sold [the hardware] to some outfit in Pennsylvania, and ended up buying it back at auction," Chapman said. Now, he said, some of his collection may go into Shappy's trolley, along with more treasures Shappy has found on E-Bay, the online auction site. Shappy keeps some of the best pieces in his office: an old conductor's hat; a coin counter designed to keep conductors from pocketing fares; a sign declaring, "Spitting on the floor of this car is forbidden, by order of the Board of Health."

If and when he completes the project, Shappy hasn't decided what to do with the trolley. A museum in Maine wants Shappy to donate it, but "I think it should stay in Providence," he said.

Shappy has more than a dozen restoration projects going right now, mostly Cadillacs and motorcycles, and a crew of three or four workers to help him. The strip clubs give him the money to indulge his passion, Shappy said.

"I live just to play with the cars. That's all I want to do."

ON A RECENT drizzly December morning, Chapman stopped by Shappy's warehouse, at the former American Chemical building on Charles Street in Providence. The trolley, which originally weighed 46,900 pounds, stood perched on wooden blocks. It was stripped down nearly to its steel frame, on which new welds were visible.

Nearby was a stack of tongue-and-groove tulip poplar siding, custom-milled to the specifications of the original.

The workmen were making arrangements to put a heater in the new warehouse. "They don't want to work in the cold," said Shappy. "I don't blame 'em."

Chapman brought with him trolley photographs from his private collection.

"This well could be his car right here, number 1077," Chapman said, pointing to a photo of a trolley in front of the Broad Street Car Barn in Providence. Chapman thinks the car was taken out of service in the 1940s, about the same time the West Warwick diner was built.

On a workbench nearby, Tony DiRocco, a carpenter who works for Shappy, was examining a heavy wooden door frame. It was once one of four, one for each corner of the trolley. The frame had been heavily damaged by rot and termites, and covered over with countless wooden shims and coats of paint. DiRocco was working with a claw hammer, stripping it down to its original shape and fabricating new ones on the design.

Shappy was picking Chapman's brain. "Did the door open in? Did it open out?"

"You know, I'm not sure," Chapman said.

They squinted at the old photos some more. They showed men in hats and women in corsets and long dresses. Shappy asked to borrow some of the prints. The men talked of demolished car barns, stations that no longer stand, and bright yellow trolley cars that ruled the streets in a bygone age.

From The Providence Journal

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Diner that got around now on solid ground

Built in 1947 by the Worcester Lunch Car Company, the diner opened on West Exchange Street where the Westin now stands and remained there for about six years. In the early 1950s, the diner moved to 777 Elmwood Ave., where it remains today.2907640414_5d393ce900_o.jpg

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2 quick comments:

1) - I ate in the old Veteran's Square Diner at least 50 times growing up - glad to see that it is in good hands.

2) - How about putting it in the Heritage Harbor Museum???

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