Cape May’s ubiquitous Red Trolleys and the people who drive them

Driving a trolley through a crowded summer resort takes nerves of steel. Hear from some of the men and women who absolutely love doing it.

Cape May MAC trolley tours travel through the city’s Historic District, and sometimes beyond.

CAPE MAY — If you’ve visited Cape May, you’ve likely seen one of Cape May MAC’s (Museums+Arts+Culture) fleet of red trolleys moving along the streets of the Historic District, slowly for sure, with loads of visitors looking out the open air windows and smiling. These are the organization’s workhorses for touring and storytelling.

Knowledgeable guides and visitors travel thousands of miles each year within about a four-mile stretch of town and sometimes beyond to hear the stories of Cape May’s history, see its natural beauty, learn about its variety of Victorian architecture, hear a ghost story, or sing a holiday tune with Mrs. Claus at Christmas.

But who are the men and women who drive these beasts through this National Historic Landmark city along narrow streets, deftly avoiding overhanging sycamore branches and distracted pedestrians and bicyclists, when visitors to this resort can swell in the summertime from 4,000 to over 40,000?

Cape May MAC trolley drivers are a special breed. Unflappable, devoted, patient and careful, they keep trolley tours moving in Cape May from January through December, using a great deal of skill and grace.

Nanci Coughlin, of Cape May, is Cape May MAC’s Director of Tour Operations and oversees the organization’s tours, which, besides others, includes trolley tours, trolleys and trolley drivers. She has her Commercial Driver License (CDL) as required for all trolley drivers. It enables her to fill in when a driver is needed at the last minute, and helps with the logistics of moving trolleys.

Cape May MAC trolley tours travel through the city’s Historic District, and sometimes beyond.
Cape May MAC trolley tours travel through the city’s Historic District, and sometimes beyond.

“I’ve always enjoyed driving and have driven many kinds of vehicles over the years,” Coughlin said. “I realized that we had no one to call on in case we needed a driver at the last minute. Sometimes, a driver would be sick or a tour group would show up at the wrong time, plus it was very difficult planning a last minute repair or an inspection schedule around a driver who was already on the schedule. So I took the test! It was the best thing I ever did. It has come in handy numerous times and has made the logistics of moving and maintaining the trolleys much less complicated.”

Here are some thoughts about what it’s like to take these machines on the road:

Do you have a memorable story from your trolley experiences? Bill Kennedy, one of Cape May MAC’s most experienced trolley drivers, drove buses for 30 years in Cape May County. That experience and knowledge is an asset that he shares by helping to train other trolley drivers, as well as in handling a variety of situations.

“I remember driving the trolley two years ago. We were almost finished with a Historic District Trolley Tour when a microburst hit Cape May,” he said. “I pulled over and told all passengers to sit tight until it was over. When it was safe to exit, I let all the passengers off and continued on. There were lots of branches and trees down.”

What skills kick in when you are out driving a route? Trolley Driver Jill Connell of Villas has a background in supply chains and logistics from her previous career. Some of these same skills come into play when she drives.

“Scanning and anticipating,” she said. “Scanning for cars pulling out in front of the trolley, no one wants to be behind a slow trolley. Anticipating when visitors may cross the road without looking and step in front of my trolley. Also, timing skills — the trolley driver and tour guide have to be in synch for the tours so that the trolley is at the right place at the right time during the tour.”

What are some of the joys of driving a Cape May MAC trolley? Bill Green of North Wildwood has a career in professional counseling, holding positions as professor emeritus, Rutgers University, chair, New Jersey Professional Counselor Examiners Committee, former chair, American Counseling Association Public Policy and Legislation Committee and former president, American Association of State Counseling Boards.

“Children love seeing a trolley, and the expression on their faces when I wave or ring the bell is worth more than any paycheck. I especially enjoy having a person with a physical or psychiatric disability on my tours, and make sure to do all that I can to treat them with the respect that they deserve. I get to hear about my customers’ anniversaries, engagements, birthdays and other special occasions, and have even met a few celebrities.”

Do you have a favorite assignment or tour as a trolley driver? John Klos, of Town Bank, had a career with a utility company before moving to Cape May in 2013.

“Our tour season has a rhythm matching the warmth of the sun,” he said, “which starts as a trickle in the spring, crescendos in summer, and slows to a stop after holiday season in winter. Each season has its own challenges — the smaller amount of customers and changeable weather of spring; the hectic, crowded push of bikers, joggers, skateboarders and visitors all on vacation in ‘their’ streets. I might be a little crazy but summer is my favorite time to drive. In spite of the garbage pickups, delivery truck drop-offs, wedding assignments (which can be really fun), the more h
ectic and crowded, the more I like driving. Being successful in overcoming the challenges makes me feel really good. The fogged windows of holiday season and crush of people can be stressful, but when it suddenly stops, it is bittersweet.”

Cape May MAC trolley tours travel through the city’s Historic District, and sometimes beyond.

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