The Tiny Trolley of Western Michigan University

Article excerpt


"Get your tickets for the trolley ride?" For more than 40 years, upperclassmen teased freshmen with this question as they boarded Kalamazoo's "Western State Normal Railroad," also known as the "Western Trolley," This incline railway thought to be the only one ever operated in Michigan ran from Davis Street to the summit of Prospect Hill, where the original normal school campus was located, It saved students, staff, and faculty 105 steps (one way) and untold minutes, but it could be chilly in the wintertime.

The idea of an incline railway came from Western Michigan University's first president, Dwight B. Waldo. On a June day in 1907, Waldo hosted a luncheon for a state legislative committee. Afterward, he led the men 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 the president that the university needed an easier means for students to reach campus especially the young women. (He perceived female students to be physically weaker than men.)

At the time, most women lived in boarding houses along the foot of Prospect Hill. Former student Betty Clark stated that females "were handicapped by skirts which almost touched the ground making their progress up the side of Parnassus, as it was nicknamed by the students, extremely slow and their clothes would gather dust or the mud along the trails. It was believed that such a problem might seriously retard the development of Western and something [had] to be done immediately to take care of this problem before the opening of the fall term."


The state legislature reallocated $3,500 originally budgeted for a ventilation system at the school, and work on a trolley began. It was completed in June 1908, just in time to transport hundreds of the school's supporters to campus for the official dedication of two new buildings. The manufacturer of the trolley cars remains a mystery, but the cars were likely produced locally in Kalamazoo.

The trolley was powered by a fixed electric motor located in a small brick building atop the hill, and aided by the action of one car's descent counterbalanced by another car's ascension. Each car could accommodate 16 passengers. According to WMU Magazine, "Common practice among the students was to sit on the backs of the benches and put their feet on the seats. Only small children, the elderly, and freshmen could be found seated on the benches."

The trip from the bottom of the hill to campus took slightly over a minute, and the trolley could make 50 such trips an hour.


During the trolley's history, colorful conductors operated the minuscule railroad. The first--William Champion--abruptly quit one day, citing the noise of the trolley's vibrating cables. Alfred Colvin, the second conductor, operated the trolley for nearly 40 years, becoming a campus celebrity in the process. In 1948, conductor Charles "Charley" Allen was interviewed by the Western Herald about his role in student life. Allen stated, "I like to help as much as possible.... I don't like to see anyone walk up or down those steps. I've walked up and down those a few times myself and so I know how they are."

The conductor's 10-hour shift would begin just before 7 a.m., when the right doors of the two cars were removed and the machinery serviced. At 9:15 a.m., a break of 15 minutes was taken to attend to oiling and urgent maintenance. The trolley then operated until 12:10 p.m., when the conductor would stop to eat lunch, sweep out the cars, and check the safety connections. Operation would restart at 12:40 and the trolley would continue to run until 5:07, when the conductor secured the equipment for the night. This schedule was followed five days a week.

As Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo both grew in size, the trolley served as an important mode of transportation. …