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From 1909 to 1949, Western Michigan University students traveled to and from campus on the “Western State Normal Railroad” or “Toonerville Trolley.” Registered and classified as a railroad, the trolley is the only incline railroad ever operated in Michigan and possibly the only railroad owned and operated by a U.S. college or university.
Birth of the Trolley
The idea of the trolley came from the institution’s first president, Dwight B. Waldo. On a sizzling June 1907 day, Waldo hosted a luncheon for a state legislative committee. Afterward, he led the legislators from a downtown Kalamazoo hotel to the campus atop Prospect Hill. As Waldo ascended the steep hill using wooden stairs, he stopped halfway to allow a plump legislator to catch his breath. This incident convinced President Waldo that the University needed an easier means for its female students to reach campus (He perceived the female students to be physically weaker than the men.). The state legislative committee reallocated $3,500 originally budgeted for a ventilation system, and work on the new trolley began. It was completed in June 1908.
The “Glory Days,” 1908-1949
The trolley operated by fixed electric motor located in a small brick building atop the hill and aided by the funicular action of one car’s descent while the other ascended. The trolley could accommodate sixteen passengers a car. The trip from the bottom of the hill to campus took slightly over a minute, and the trolley could make fifty such trips an hour.
During the trolley’s forty-year history, only two conductors operated the miniscule railroad. The first – William Champion – abruptly quit, citing the noise of the trolley’s vibrating cables. Alfred Colvin, the second conductor, operated the trolley for nearly forty years. As Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo both grew in size, the trolley served as an important mode of transportation. According to a 1931 issue of the Western Herald, the trolley averaged 2,280 passengers daily. During the trolley’s glory days, accounts of the railroad appeared in newspapers from Chicago to Detroit.
As one of WMU’s most popular landmarks, stories about the trolley have been recorded from former students and residents. Students rushing to class would overcrowd the bottom car, but Colvin would not lift the car until the excess students dismounted. Although the trolley rides were free, upper-classmates sometimes convinced inexperienced freshmen to buy “trolley ride tickets.”
Unfortunately, the trolley ended operation in 1949 due to safety issues, a lack of funds for the repairs and the decline of ridership after World War II. In the spring of 1951, the trolley’s famous tracks were removed and the cars sold for scrap.
A Centennial Replica
During Western Michigan University’s Centennial Celebration in 2003, former WMU President Judith I. Bailey dedicated a full-scale replica of a Western State Normal railroad car. The builders of the replica car were Jeffery Clausen, Corey Hendricks, Aron Murphy and Brian VanderPloeg. With a great deal of support from the WMU community, these dedicated engineering seniors took more than six months to research, plan, design and construct the replica car. The task of building a replica car was extremely tedious, since no plans or blueprints of the original trolley cars exist and only one bench from an original car survived (WMU Speech Professor Emeritus Zack York deserves thanks for keeping that one bench.). Even the authentic color of the trolley cars required major research, since no known color photographs of the trolley exist. Funded by the Centennial Committee through private gifts and donated materials from local companies, the trolley was dedicated on the lawn in front of the Bernard Center on September 5, 2003. The replica railroad car serves as a reminder of Western Michigan University’s colorful and unique history.
Sources for Western Michigan University history:
Sources for the above article:
Massie, Larry B. Brown & Gold Memories: Western Michigan University’s First Century. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 2003.
“Engineering seniors unveil replicated Western trolley” WMU News. April 10, 2003. http://www.wmich.edu/wmu/news/2003/0304/0203-318.html
“President Bailey to dedicate replica of historic trolley” WMU News. September 1, 2003. http://www.wmich.edu/wmu/news/2003/0309/0304-054.html