Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 21, 2018

History of streetcars crumbling without proper funding

Midwest Electric Railway turns to community, grants to preserve Old Threshers trolleys
Oct 09, 2017
Photo by: Grace King

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Although it was a warm fall day, a cool breeze filled the High-Speed Interurban 320 streetcar as it rumbled along the one-and-a-quarter mile of track on the Old Threshers grounds. Wes Bender’s voice rose over the noise of the engine and the throbbing air compressor under the car floor as he wove the story of the 1910 to 1940s Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad Co. car to a tour group on Friday, Sept. 29.

The longtime volunteer with Midwest Electric Railway is at home here as he walks along the aisle of the moving train. Bender said there’s nothing special about car 320 apart from its speed. Interurban cars are made to transport people in cities. Car 320, along with the five streetcars owned by Midwest Electric Railway, are “basically priceless now,” he said.

As car 320 pulled to a stop and passengers alighted, Midwest Electric Railway’s area coordinator Maddy Hobbes could be seen in the distance driving Car 9 out of the trolley barn.

“No other ship in the U.S. is a Barber,” Bender said as he sat down in a now-vacant seat on car 320 and pointing out the window to Car 9. He was referring to Barber Car Co., from York, Pa., the company Car 9 was built by in 1910. “It’s not run during Old Threshers because it’s so delicate. We ran it every year from 1971 until two years ago,” he informed the passengers who remained mingling around him to hear more of the streetcar’s history.


The Flagship car

Car 9 is what the Midwest Electric Railway volunteers refer to as their “flagship” car. It is the only original Iowa car, manufactured and used only in Iowa. It ran from Centerville to Albia, and then later from Centerville to Mystic, with stops in between, Maddy said. It served as a passenger car until 1925, when it was then used as a work car, hauling tools to coal mines.

“We really don’t get this car out much,” Midwest Electric Railway director Jeremy Hobbes said. “The body moves a lot. We’re hesitant to load it. We joke that we’re going to take it out one day and the body is going to fall apart.”

Although Jeremy speaks lightly about Car 9 falling apart, all six streetcars need a lot of renovation if they are to be preserved for the long haul. Made of wood, the barn they are stored in doesn’t do a lot to keep out the elements. Although it keeps the snow and rain directly off the cars, with dirty floors and little insulation, moisture finds its way in.

“It’s why they’re in such bad condition,” Maddy said.

“There’s nothing really protecting them from the elements,” Jeremy added.

Jeremy and Maddy said they are looking into raising money for another barn. One with concrete floors and more room.

“When all the cars are put away, it’s very tight in here,” Jeremy said.



Bender, who has been fascinated with streetcars since he was three years old, is passionate about preserving the ones owned by Midwest Electric Railway. As he sat on car 320, he pointed out the detailed woodwork that had been replaced over the years.

Above the car windows on car 320 is curved wood. Bender emphasized that the curved wood is one continuous piece. Care was taken to steam it and shape it. He said the four men who worked to restore this car were expert electricians and woodworkers. Before the car was restored, the nuts and bolts of the car were stored in shoe boxes and kept in the trolley barn between 1990 and 2000.

“Our history is just so important,” Bender said, when asked about why he spends so much time and energy volunteering with Midwest Electric Railway. “It’s important to America to keep history alive.”

Bender doesn’t want to let the cars sit in boxes like car 320 did for so long or to restore them to keep them as delicate artifacts. He wants people to experience what traveling was like in the early to mid-20th Century — and even how commuting in big cities is similar today.

“I don’t want it to be a perfect little trophy you can’t touch,” Bender said.

“We’re one of the only operations I know of that still treats the streetcars like they should be treated,” Maddy said. “You actually experience a trip back in time. That’s what (travelers) would have experienced when the streetcars were operational.”


Finding financial support

Because Midwest Electric Railway is owned and operated by Midwest Old Threshers, which is a nonprofit, directors “kind of have to fight over who gets funds for their historically significant projects,” Maddy said. Because there is “such good competition” with the other projects in areas that need the money just as much as Midwest Electric Railway does, Maddy said they are looking for financial support outside of Old Threshers.

“There’s a lot to compete with,” Maddy said. “The trolleys — to fix them up is really expensive. If we can fix less expensive things at Old Threshers, that’s where the money is going to go first.”

So expensive, that two of the streetcars have been taken out of service indefinitely because they need such extensive repairs.

“One of the Iowa cars we’re working on right now, we’re looking close to $22,000 just to fix two of the four the motors,” Jeremy said. “Total restoration for the car is anticipated to cost $100,000, of which we have raised 50 percent. The bill is almost endless for what it would cost to fix one of those. This is stuff you have to find parts for in another museum or find a place that can build them.”

In the barn, Jeremy walks through car 381.

“The motors need to be redone, all new wiring, floor needs to be worked on,” Jeremy said. “When all that work is done, we’re hoping to get it up and running again in the next two years.”

Streetcar 381 was the last streetcar to run in Iowa in regular service in the 1930s. It was a “Safety Car,” a design that allowed the doors to open only when the car was stopped. It was operated on Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Northern Railroad.

Above the driver is a sign that reads “379. Please Leave Car By Rear Door.” Although the car is now car 381 and not car 379, the volunteers of Midwest Electric Railway thought keeping the sign was important historically. The car also still has the original coin dispenser where people would pay for their trip.

Jeremy said that he’s going to try a new way to fund the streetcars.

“I’m literally going to get on the internet and look up the richest people in the U.S.,” Jeremy said. He said he’s going to write them a letter, share the rich history of the streetcars and send pictures to illustrate his point.

Jeremy and Maddy have also spent a lot of time researching grants that can be designated directly to Midwest Electric Railway.

“We’re passionate about trolleys and we don’t want to see the Iowa car pass away,” Maddy said, referring to Car 9.


See it for yourself

Midwest Electric Railway doesn’t just show off the historical streetcars during The Old Threshers Reunion every year. The cars are available to rent for events. Anyone can come out and rent the trolleys hourly.

They also opened a Trolley School last spring, similar to Midwest Old Threshers Steam School that is held every year. Midwest Electric Railway is planning on hosting their second school in 2018. Participants will learn the history and basic mechanics of how the car works and will have the opportunity to operate and conduct a streetcar themselves.

Midwest Electric Railway will be out on the tracks for Haunted Rails every weekend in October. The kid-friendly event will feature Halloween displays along the track and spooky, decorated streetcars.


A family of


Midwest Electric Railway is run on a completely volunteer basis — from Jeremy, the director, to the newest train conductor. The story told again and again by volunteers was they were looking for a place to fit in when they moved to Mt. Pleasant, and found family on the tracks.

It’s because of Midwest Electric Railway that Maddy and Jeremy even met back in 2012 when Maddy began volunteering. They were married in May 2016 at Log Village and used the trolleys to transport wedding guests around The Old Threshers grounds.

“I started (volunteering) to make friends,” Maddy said. “My love of trolleys grew as I started hanging out there. It’s more of finding a sense of belonging.”

Maddy herself repainted car 1779 green, the color it was originally. Before Maddy painted it, the car was yellow, as seen in Midwest Electric Railway Trolley Guide brochure.

“She got into that paint and too many fumes, but she painted it herself,” Bender joked.

Bender himself seems to be the glue of the operation. He holds the history of each streetcar in his head.

“We don’t really have another historian like Wes (Bender) is,” Jeremy said. “He could be telling a story about how your dog died and make you smile the whole time.”

Midwest Electric Railway is in dire need of more help, however. Most of the volunteers travel from over an hour away to help.

“We have volunteers from Boston, Maine, California, Colorado and Minnesota,” Jeremy said, adding that 90 percent of the volunteers are not local. Only 15 of the volunteers are within a two-hour drive.

The other streetcars in Midwest Electric Railway’s care are Streetcar 1945, which was operated in Milan, Italy in the 1920s, and the open bench 1718 and 1779 Streetcars operated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1880s to 1930s.

“From my perspective, it’s just when you look at these cars, how many wars they’ve been through, the Depression, everything …” Maddy said. “If they could talk, what would they say? It’s neat to sit on them and think, ‘I’m sitting where a veteran from World War I would have sat.’ It’s neat to sit here and think about all the people who sat here to get to and from work, to get to and from the coal mines.”


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