WMU News

President Bailey to dedicate replica of historic trolley

Sept. 1, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- In her first official act marking Western Michigan University's centennial celebration, President Judith I. Bailey will dedicate a full-scale replica of a car from one of the University's most distinctive landmarks--the Western State Normal Railroad, which operated on the University's East Campus from 1908 to 1949.

Dedication ceremonies will be held Friday, Sept. 5, beginning at 11 a.m. on the lawn in front of the Bernard Center, where the replica was installed in May. Joining Bailey for the ceremony will be Ed and Ruth Heinig, retired professors and co-chairs of WMU's centennial celebration, and engineering faculty and students who designed and built the replica.

Beginning one year ago, four senior engineering majors faithfully replicated what is commonly called the "Western Trolley." The non-operating replica of one of the two incline trolley cars was completed in April, in time for replica builders Jeff Clausen, Corey Hendricks, Aron Murphy and Brian VanderPloeg to present it at WMU's annual Conference on Senior Engineering Design Projects.

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 of 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, 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 trolleys, the replica looks exactly like the originals.

Project faculty advisors were Frederick Sitkins, professor and James VandePolder, associate professor, who are both from the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. Also assisting and advising the students were Dr. John Lindbeck, a professor emeritus of engineering technology, and Thomas Swartz, a faculty specialist in industrial and manufacturing engineering, as well as members of the Centennial Committee and staff members from the University Archives and Regional History Collections, University Landscape Services and the Office of University Relations. Funding was 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 trolleys 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 trolleys averaged 2,280 passengers daily. In its heyday, the railroad at Western State Teachers College was featured in newspapers from Chicago to Detroit. After World War II, however, use of the trolleys declined, and by 1949, safety issues and rising maintenance costs forced the school to shutdown and dismantle the trolleys.

Students who replicated the Western Trolley

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

Corey L. Hendricks from Sturgis, Mich., graduated in April with a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering technology. He is the son of Mark Gwilt and Connie Woods of Sturgis.

Aron E. Murphy from Battle Creek, Mich., graduated in April with a bachelor's degree in engineering graphics and design technology. He is the son of Sandra and Ronald Murphy of Portage, Mich.

Brian D. VanderPloeg from Wyoming, Mich. graduated in April with a bachelor's degree in engineering graphics and design technology. He is the son of David and Marcia VanderPloeg of Wyoming.

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

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