Streetcar on track for visitors to Centennial Village
April 14, 2006
by Jack Gillette
The little faded yellow Birney streetcar body has sat at Centennial Village in Greeley, Colo., ever since the museum acquired the car body in about 1979 and placed it on the museum grounds. It was blocked up on railroad ties, and the base was surrounded with something that looked like mobile home skirting. It just sat there with the paint fading away. (It has been re-roofed at least once during those years due to leakage which could have caused extensive damage to the interior.)
The little streetcar started life in 1917 when the American Car Company of St. Louis, Mo., manufactured streetcars numbering 100 through 110 for the city of Colorado Springs. The car at Centennial Village was No. 109. The cars ran on the Colorado Springs &Inter-urban until about 1932, when they were sold or scrapped.
Some of the cars went to Pueblo, Colo., to be scrapped, but somehow, No. 109 survived the scrapping and was at one time used as a tea house on Lookout Mountain.
Joe Garrett eventually acquired No. 109 with the purpose of restoring it. The city of Greeley had another car that was from Denver, but it was different from the ones that once ran in Greeley on The Greeley and Denver Railroad Company trolley system. Number 109 was more like those used in Greeley, so a trade was made with Mr. Garrett.
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When Ken Kafka went to work for the Greeley Museums and saw the Birney sitting there, he felt a little tug in his heart that something ought to be done … it needed to have the undercarriage replaced and be set on rails like the real streetcar it once was.
Ken began the search for wheels. It turned out that the Fort Collins Municipal Railway Society operates a restored streetcar in the summer time and the wheels on their streetcar were getting quite worn and needed to be replaced.
Well, the little Birney in Greeley is a static exhibit, so the worn wheels would work just fine. The Fort Collins group donated the wheels to the Greeley Museums.
Streetcar wheels need rails to run on, so J. C. Newell arranged with the Union Pacific Railroad to donate the needed lengths of rail along with cross ties and spikes. They all sat there for a few years until the undercarriage to which the wheels are attached could be fabricated.
A project like this can be costly, and museums don’t always have enough funds. The Friends of the Museums became financially involved with the project.
The Intermountain Region of the American Truck Historical Society donated funds, and Louie’s Alignment donated the miscellaneous truck springs to be fabricated into streetcar springs.
Ken examined other existing streetcars and studied whatever paperwork he could find on the subject of how the undercarriage should be built. He then took on the job of locating and buying the remaining needed materials and fabricating it all into the undercarriage.
He had three young assistants to help him: Matt Heroy, Tym Lynch and my grandson, Aaron Rudisill. They cut metal, welded metal and ground welds smooth. Ken estimates there were 140 volunteer hours in the making of the undercarriage. When Ken was finally able to spray the black paint on the undercarriage it looked as if it had just come out of a streetcar factory.
Bricks were placed around the rails to form a platform and walkway around the streetcar. With the new undercarriage on the rails, Schmeeckle Brothers Crane Service lifted the car body in two slings. The operator said the body weighed 6,800 pounds. As it was swung gently into place, Ken signaled for the operator to slowly lower the body, and it sat right down exactly as it should. Ken had measured the body at the museum and made the undercarriage at his shop near Pierce. It fit perfectly even though no trial fits could be made during the manufacturing.
With the undercarriage finished and in place and everything fitting correctly, Ken felt a bit emotional and rightly so. It was a job very well done. The streetcar will never carry passengers around the streets of the museum, but it does represent what once was.
The Greeley and Denver Railroad Company ran streetcars over its system in Greeley from 1910 to Dec. 26, 1922. An old Greeley Tribune article says that when No. 30 broke down it was replaced by a Stanley Steamer automobile. The rubber tire was taking the place of the flanged wheel. The tracks were removed, the ties and roadbed were covered with dirt and paved over. On 12th Avenue in Greeley there are places where the pavement feels like a washboard, especially between 9th and 10th streets.
Some years back, the city dug up the old line between 14th and 15th streets where it was getting rough from the ties rotting and causing the pavement to sink. The old ties were very plain to see and there were some spikes still there.
The one thing still left to do is to paint the little streetcar. An article in the January 6, 1915, Greeley Tribune stated, “The new cars will measure up favorably in appearance with anything in the state. They are green in color and have natural oak finish inside.”
One day in the not-so-distant future, we may see the faded yellow replaced by a fresh coat of streetcar green.
The museum is now open and it’s a great time to see the little streetcar sitting on its new undercarriage and on the rails. While you’re there, take time to visit the entire museum. It is a great collection of historic buildings and memorabilia from times past. The volunteer guides are courteous and knowledgeable. It will be an enjoyable outing for the family.
A great big “THANKS”goes out to all those who were in some way involved with this recent work on the Birney streetcar at Centennial Village.