An early morning blaze swept through the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville yesterday, causing an estimated $10 million in damage and destroying eight historic streetcars that museum officials described as "priceless artifacts."
The Montgomery County Fire Department was alerted to the museum fire in the 1300 block of Bonifant Road about 2 a.m. after a call from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police saying it had received a report of a security alarm sounding at the museum, said Fire Department spokesman Pete Piringer.
When firefighters arrived, raging flames had ripped through the roof of the car house that stored the eight vintage streetcars. It took 50 firefighters nearly an hour to extinguish the flames, in a fire that Piringer said could have caused the single greatest dollar-loss in county history.
Among the destroyed streetcars was Capital Transit Co. 1053, a one-of-its-kind experimental streamlined car that helped close out the trolley era in Washington, and DC Transit 0509, a rare streetcar, circa 1899, that once served Great Falls.
"The loss of [these two cars] has destroyed physical links to the technological development of streetcars in the nation's capital," museum officials said in a statement posted on its Web site. Also lost was the sole surviving snow-sweeper from the trolley lines that served Northern Virginia from the 1890s until the 1930s.
"The cars are priceless artifacts," the statement said. "Operating examples of the other cars lost in the fire exist in Austria and elsewhere in the United States, but were significant in the museum's overall interpretation of the development of the electric streetcar."
Investigators from the county Fire Department and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collected evidence for analysis at the scene yesterday and brought in a dog trained to detect fire accelerants.
Piringer said investigators are looking into several possible causes, including arson, the building's electrical system and a severe thunderstorm, which generated lightning strikes.
Museum officials said it had been planning to construct a display building for the streetcars that were destroyed.
The museum says it receives about 20,000 visitors annually.