WMU News

Engineering seniors unveil replicated Western Trolley

April 10, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- Four senior engineering majors at Western Michigan University have faithfully replicated the Western Trolley--one of the university's most distinctive, memorable and famous landmarks--just in time for this year's centennial celebration of WMU's founding.

The full-size replica of one of the two incline trolley cars that served the university's historic East Campus from 1908 to 1949 will be placed in front of the Bernhard Center and officially dedicated Sept. 5. A platform will be constructed so that students, alumni and campus visitors can sit in the trolley or have their photographs taken with the historic replica.

"Given the interest that has surrounded the trolley throughout our history and the meticulous detail and craftsmanship of the replica, this will undoubtedly be the high point of our centennial celebration for many people," says Ruth Heinig, professor emerita, who co-chairs the Centennial Committee. "These students have taken a fabled page out of our history and literally brought it to life for countless future generations to enjoy."

Replica builders Jeff Clausen, Corey Hendrix, Aron Murphy and Brian VanderPloeg used it as their senior project and will be among those making the 64 project presentations at the Conference on Senior Engineering Design Projects in the Bernhard Center Tuesday, April 15, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The trolley project will be presented at 2:30 p.m. in room 209 of the Bernhard Center. (See below for more information about each student.)

Following more than six months of research, planning, design and construction, the completed trolley was unveiled at a WMU Alumni Association-sponsored breakfast program April 8. An audience including Interim President Daniel Litynski, Engineering Dean Michael Atkins and about 60 alumni and people from the local community--many of whom had personal recollections of the trolley--listened as the students and their faculty advisors talked about the lengths to which they had gone to uncover many of the trolley's mysteries.

There are no surviving plans or blueprints of the original trolley cars and only one bench from one original car survived, that thanks to Professor Emeritus Zack York, who saved it and later returned it to WMU. While the original trolleys were among the most-photographed landmarks in Kalamazoo, there are no known color photographs, which made determining the authentic colors a major investigation of its own.

Following the April 8 presentation, guests were invited to see the finished replica. Many sat in the completed car or had their photos taken in front of it. According to alumni with personal recollections of the trolley, the replica looks exactly like the original.

Project faculty advisors are Frederick Sitkins and James VandePolder, both from the industrial and manufacturing engineering department. Also assisting and advising the students are John Lindbeck, a professor emeritus of engineering technology, and Thomas Swartz, a member of the industrial and manufacturing engineering faculty, as well as members of the Centennial Committee and staff members from University Archives, University Landscape Services and the Office of University Relations. Funding is being provided by the Centennial Committee, through donations of materials by local companies and through other private gifts.

The famous Western Trolley was actually classified and registered as a railroad. It is the only known incline railroad in the history of the state of Michigan, and may be the only railroad ever owned and operated by a college or university. For nearly 40 years, the Western Trolley carried students and faculty up and down the steep incline of Prospect Hill, on which the original WMU campus was built. An article in a 1931 issue of the Western Herald, student newspaper, reported that the trolley averaged 2,280 passengers daily. In its heyday, the trolley at Western State Teachers College was featured in newspapers from Chicago to Detroit. After World War II, however, use of the trolley declined, and by 1949, safety issues and rising maintenance costs forced the school to shutdown and dismantle the trolleys.

The original trolley bench, preserved by Zack York and returned to WMU in 1992, is permanently displayed in the McKee Alumni Center Lobby of Walwood Union on Oakland Drive. Other centennial memorabilia is displayed in the lobby, open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Students who replicated the Western Trolley

Jeffrey A. Clausen is an engineering graphics and design technology major from Grand Blanc, Mich. He is the son of Kenneth and Marjorie Clausen of Grand Blanc.

Corey L. Hendrix is a manufacturing engineering technology major from Sturgis, Mich. He is the son of Mark Gwilt and Connie Woods of Sturgis.

Aron E. Murphy is an engineering graphics and design technology major from Battle Creek, Mich. He is the son of Sandra and Ronald Murphy of Portage, Mich.

Brian D. VanderPloeg is an engineering graphics and design technology major from Wyoming, Mich. He is the son of David and Marcia VanderPloeg of Wyoming.

Media contact: Thom Myers, 269 387-8400, thomas.myers@wmich.edu

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