WMU News

Trolley installed on eve of WMU's 100th birthday

May 22, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Western Michigan University, a full-scale replica of one of the university's most distinctive, memorable and famous landmarks was installed today in front of the Bernhard Center.

Four engineering students faithfully replicated the Western Trolley, which operated from 1908 to 1949 on the steep incline of Prospect Hill on the university's original campus.

Following more than six months of research, planning, design and construction, the replicated trolley was unveiled at a WMU Alumni Association-sponsored breakfast program April 8. This week, about 30 feet of standard gauge railroad track and ballast were laid on the sloping lawn in front of the Bernhard Center, and today, the trolley was moved on a large flatbed truck from Kohrman Hall to its new home near the center of the West Campus.

Still to be built are a platform and walkway so that students, alumni and campus visitors can actually sit in the trolley and feel what it must have been like to ride up Prospect Hill decades ago. The non-operating replica of one of the two incline trolley cars that served the university's historic East Campus will be open to visitors by August and dedicated Sept. 5.

"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 engineering design project. 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.

Project faculty advisors were Frederick Sitkins and James VandePolder, both from the industrial and manufacturing engineering department. Also assisting and advising the students were 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 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.

For more information about WMU's Centennial Celebration, go to <www.wmich.edu/centennial>.

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

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