Fort Collins rolls again.

Fort Collins Municipal Railway car 21 is readied for its return to service earlier this month after nine months out of service due to an axle failure. The 1919 Birney car underwent other significant work while replacement axles were being fabricated. Photo via the Fort Collins trolley Facebook page; click image to visit.

A longtime success story in the heritage trolley movement is back on the rails.

Fort Collins Municipal Railway Birney car 21 returned to service earlier this month, nine months after the 1919 American Car Co. product was sidelined by a broken axle.

The unintended hiatus proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“While the car was down we refinished most of both the interior and exterior woodwork and rebuilt the air compressor motor which included refinishing and undercutting the commutator on the armature which I was able to do in my own shop,” FCMR chief mechanical officer and director Roger Mitchell told me in an email last week.

“After we had the A end axle break I decided it was time to replace both of them,” Mr. Mitchell wrote. “Since we are an FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) non insular railroad the work had to be done by an AAR (Association of American Railroads) certified shop,” he added.

Research pointed him toward a Back East contractor who could do the job for a fraction of what some contractors closer to home were quoting, and so the job went to Lyons Industries in Ebensberg, Pa.

“They did a great job and the dimensions were within a fraction of a thousandth of an inch of what I specified,” Mr. Mitchell wrote. The axles arrived in March, and after additional work “on April 13th we got the car put back together and made our first shakedown run,” according to Mr. Mitchell.

The end result?

“The car is in the best shape, ever!” was how an enthusiastic post on FCMR’s Facebook page described the 92-year-old streetcar in a post heralding FCMR’s May 1 opening day.

Pictures of the gleaming Birney appear to confirm the verdict. The line’s lone operating trolley looks like new, thanks not only to the work of FCMR’s dedicated volunteers and contractors but also thanks to a group of college students who pitched in to give car 21 a final sprucing up before its return to revenue operation.

CSU students helped spruce up car 21 in preparation for its big day. Photo via the Fort Collins trolley Facebook page; click image to visit.

This is, after all, what heritage and preservation is all about. A piece of industrial equipment has been a part of the community for nearly a century: As a working streetcar from 1919 to 1951, as a static display for the next three decades and as an operating trolley again since late 1984 (with regular seasonal service commencing in 1985). Consider, then, that the collegians who helped clean the trolley a few weeks ago weren’t even born when it returned to service as a museum piece; kids who rode the restored trolley with parents and grandparents who could remember the original Fort Collins Municipal Railway operation a generation ago are now old enough to have children of their own who will come to know the trolley as a living part of the city’s history.

Indeed, an April 29 article in The Coloradoan newspaper noted that about $15,000 was spent on repairs, with donations coming from all quarters, including “one woman who passed along a $3 donation — $2 from one granddaughter and $1 from another — ‘because they wanted to see the trolley run again,'” FCMR motorman and treasurer John Beckett told the paper.

“It’s good to welcome back the trolley service that runs between City Park and Mountain Avenue,” The Coloradoan said in a May 4 editorial, praising how the car “is maintained as a labor of love” by FCMR volunteers.

Love is important, but the key word really is labor (and cash).

The trolley cars of old really were built to last, some running as much as 30 or 40 years before retirement — albeit usually with some modifications and, one expects, at least a modicum of maintenance. But they were workhorses and often treated as such by many systems, with maintenance declining as the years went on and money became scarce (“make do and mend,” as the British say; or here in America, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”) The April 29 Coloradoan article mentioned above even suggests that the broken axle was an original piece of equipment.

Alas, even with good maintenance nothing lasts forever, least of all the moving parts on a trolley car that has spent more than a quarter century in regular service. Even limited to seasonal weekend and holiday service, something was bound to wear out eventually. (Mr. Mitchell, in his email to me, suggested that machine work done by a contractor when the wheels were replaced more than a decade ago may have contributed to the axle failure.)

Such is the dilemma facing many museums and heritage operations, and especially those with a lone or small number of operable vehicles. Without a backup vehicle, car 21’s July 2010 breakdown ended FCMR’s operating season a good two months early. Without donations and a lot of hard work, suspension of service could have been considerably longer.

Fort Collins Birney car 21 doing what it does best. Photo courtesy of Roger Mitchell.

Trolleys — and heritage cars at that — don’t exactly grow on trees. True, the past 30 years have seen a respectable boomer trade in used PCCs, Milan Peter Witts, Melbourne W Class cars and diminutive Porto Brills as indomitable hand-me-downs that in many cases could be pressed into service by heritage lines (or even transit operators) with work ranging from minimal upgrades to comprehensive overhauls. But such vehicles aren’t exactly for rent on demand, nor are any such cars native to a town like Fort Collins, whose little Birney cars hold more than local historical significance. When it closed in 1951, the original Fort Collins Municipal Railway wasn’t just one of the last small city systems to fold; it is said to have been the last American city using Birney cars in regular transit service.

FCMR’s business plan makes the case quite neatly, noting that the organization is “neither a mass-transit facility nor simply an amusement ride,” nor “a general transportation museum,” but “an historical and educational operation … Providing an experience of riding FCMR-era streetcars (cars used between 1907 and 1951).” Such focus is admirable, showing both purity of purpose and business savvy. Thus, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for a homegrown car serving part of an original route.

Happily, though, Fort Collins is not without options in this regard, albeit options FCMR was not in a position to exercise immediately with car 21 out of commission last summer.

FCMR car 25 is seen waiting out the years during its long retirement. Photo via the Fort Collins trolley Facebook page; click image to visit.

Five former Fort Collins cars are known to be in existence. FCMR is in the process of restoring a second car, number 25, which came to the Colorado city in 1946 from Richmond, where it operated as Virginia Railway and Power Co. 1520. After four decades outdoors on private property, the Brill car returned east in the 1990s, where it would undergo partial cosmetic restoration and another change of hands before returning to Fort Collins in 2008 for what was described as a five-to-seven-year restoration.

The hope, then, is that car 25 will double the fleet, which volunteers hope ultimately will run over an expanded line over Howes Street to the system’s old carbarn.

Those who would like to support FCMR and its mission can find information on the group’s website. We wish the organization and the people of Fort Collins all the best in this worthy endeavor.

* * *
Special thanks are due to FCMR chief mechanical officer and director Roger Mitchell, both for his detailed email describing work on car 21 and for referring me to photographs on the group’s Facebook page.

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