The vision of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery is to create meaningful opportunities for people of all ages to learn, reflect, and have fun through hands-on and collections-based explorations in science and culture.
A busy mix of horses and buggies crowds Linden Street in Fort Collins, Colorado. In less than 5 years after this photograph was taken, Fort Collins would usher in a new wave of transportation with the installation of a streetcar line and an influx of personal automobiles.
In 1906, Fort Collins City Council granted a streetcar franchise to the Denver & Interurban company; construction was completed in 1907. Having a streetcar system in small town like Fort Collins meant much more than just a mode of transportation--it was a way of staying current with the technological trends of other American cities.
A Denver & Interurban streetcar can be seen in the distance in this 1907 image of the Fort Collins Automobile Club. This north-facing view down College Avenue is considered to be the first photograph of the streetcar running in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The capacity of the Denver & Interurban streetcars was 44 passengers, and each car weighed 40,000 pounds. They were painted Brewster green and yellow with gold lettering and striping. #M-106 is shown here with motormen J.O. Beeler and Bill Williams.
Accidents, though rare, did happen on the trolleys. A collision with a steam shovel on the Lindenmeier Lake line, near the Great Western Sugar Factory, caused the destruction of Denver & Interurban Car #M-102.
Downtown businesses in Fort Collins relied on the customers the trolley brought to their doors. A sign (upper left) in the interior of A.W. Scott's Pharmacy at 101 South College Avenue advertises the times when the streetcar left from that location: "Cars Leave Here 10, 30, and 50 Minutes Past the Hour."
Facing delcining patronage and financial problems, Denver & Interurban terminated trolley service on July 10, 1918. City officials considered the possibility of local operation, and on January 7, 1919, Fort Collins became the smallest city to own and manage its own streetcar system.
A switch to lighter and newer Birney streetcars made the Fort Collins trolley system faster, safer, and more economical.
The swaying, rocking motion the Birney cars made when traveled on the tracks earned them the nickname, “The Galloping Geese.”
From 1919 to 1931, the streetcar system in Fort Collins was a modern as any in the country’s larger cities. One article in the Saturday Evening Post remarked that, “For a truly fancy performance in the field of transit, no place on earth can beat Fort Collins, Colorado...It has the lowest trolley fares in the nation, five cents a ride...”
By 1925, Fort Collins was the smallest city in the United States with a regular streetcar system.
Trolleys weren’t just for transportation; they were for practical jokes as well!
The students who rode the trolley to high school and Colorado State University were its most infamous pranksters; a popular prank was to grease the tracks so streetcars couldn’t make it up a hill.
The trolley car barn sheltered the streetcars and also provided space for maintenance and repairs.
Motormen for the Fort Collins Municipal Railway could keep warm with a kerosene heater located near the fare box.
The Fort Collins Birneys featured wooden interiors with cane seats with seatbacks that shifted so riders could always face in the direction of travel.
From 1907 to 1951, Fort Collins’ streetcar system was an integral part of the community. Even though operating costs outpaced profits, citizens were unwilling to see the streetcar system go. On four separate occasions, in 1932, 1934, 1938 and 1950, the community voted to keep the trolley system running, even if they had to subsidize the cost.
However, by 1951, streetcars were no longer working as a transportation system for Fort Collins. The population had grown to 20,000, and the city reached far beyond the 6.2 miles of still-operating track. Many homes also had private automobiles. On June 30, 1951, Fort Collins City Council voted to suspend trolley service for six months.
Shown is the final page in a collection of daily registers kept by operators of the Fort Collins Municipal Railway. The registers span over 25 years.
Fort Collins resident L.H. Hoffman was a loyal streetcar rider; his collection of monthly passes spans 13 years. Pictured are three examples, plus the reverse of a monthly pass from 1939 that recommends: "Ride the cars and be safe - Save downtown parking space for out of town customers - Boost your utilities."
On June 30, 1951, the streetcars made their last runs; this was also the last scheduled run for any Birney cars in North America. By 1952, the suspension of the trolley system was permanent and all the cars except #21 were sold, the tracks were torn up, and the electrical poles were cut. Car #21 found a new home outside the Pioneer Museum.
By the 1970s Car #21 was an eyesore; years of exposure to the elements and a lack of maintenance left the little Birney a collection of rot and peeling paint. In 1976 the Fort Collins’ Junior Women’s Club won $500 in a “Business for Beauty” contest. They decided to restore Car #21 as part of a downtown redevelopment project.
The initial plan was to turn the trolley into a small visitor center. However, volunteers realized that the trolley car would need a lot more than fresh paint. Car #21 did not need to be restored, it needed to be rebuilt. And if it needed to be rebuilt, there was a chance it could be more than just a downtown accessory – Car #21 could run again.
A dedicated team of volunteers worked for 8 years rebuilding Car #21. In order to figure out what to do, the Fort Collins Municipal Railway Society (FCMRS), formed in 1980, contacted museums across the country looking for blueprints, instruction manuals, experts – anything and anyone that could help them restore Car #21.
The plan to restore the streetcar rails along Mountain Avenue was met with resistance from some Fort Collins residents. Worried about the noise, decreases in property values, and tree-removal, protesters held signs saying “Welcome to Disneyland” and “Move the Trolley, not the Trees!” The debate was taken to court, where the protesters ultimately lost.
A restored trolley was pulled down Mountain Avenue to its new car barn amid cheers. In the car barn, finishing touches were added in preparation for its first run in December of 1984.
It took over $100,000 and even more volunteer hours to restore Car #21. Over fifty volunteers continue to work for the Fort Collins Municipal Railway Society.
Shown is Car #21 as it awaits passengers at the City Park stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. Today, the trolley car rides up and down Mountain Avenue on spring and summer weekends, and has carried almost 200,000 riders to date.