Friday, September 19, 2014

Trolley Service Returning to French Lick Resort

The Cook family lives by the philosophy that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
 
They didn’t see dilapidated buildings; they saw opportunities.
 

West Baden Springs Hotel prior to the restoration

They didn’t see an outdated electrical panel; they saw a focal point for a new dining venue.

The Power Plant Bar & Grill was named for an old electric panel
found in one of the outbuildings

 They didn’t see a rusted old trolley car; they saw a portal to the resort’s past
and a way to transport guests today.
 
The sidelined trolley sits in the rail yard after retirement

Like a lot of the French Lick Resort treasures, the trolley’s history spans many decades, starting in 1903. This fall a new chapter will begin when trolley service returns almost a 100 years after it was first launched in French Lick and West Baden.
In 1903, the roads were dirt and horse-drawn carriages were the norm. Imagine the delight when electric trolley service began. Guests could catch the streetcar at the steps of West Baden Springs Hotel and go all the way (a whole mile) into downtown French Lick.
 
The trolley was a raging success, and in 1916 it set a record for carrying 250,000 people in a single year. At a nickel a ride, that’s over $300,000 in revenue in today’s world. Not bad for what was billed as the“world’s shortest trolley line.”
According to Railway Historian Alan Barnett, the electric cable car offered “ping-pong” service because it was not designed to make turns. When the car reached French Lick, the conductor would physically move the overhead power line around the back, allowing for the return trip to the depot at West Baden.
The advent of the automobile put the brakes on the trolley service in 1919. That is until Alan Barnett and the folks at the Indiana Railway Museum (IRM) resurrected the idea in 1987. They were able to find Trolley Car #313 from Portugal, the closest thing they could find to the original 1903 car.



Trolley circa 2000
Junior Carnes, an 89-year-old bellman at French Lick Springs Hotel, remembers his shifts as a volunteer conductor during its first year in operation. “People just loved the novelty of it. The West Baden hotel was closed at the time so people would just ride over and come back.” The daily service ran for 15 years but ceased in 2002 when the trolley coasted quietly into the junk yard.

Now the train (trolley) will be pulling back into the station, literally, thanks to a partnership between the resort and the Indiana Railway Museum. IRM General Manager Rick Olsen worked with the Indiana Department of Transportation to draw up plans to redo the original track and secured a $200,000 grant.

Simultaneously, craftsman Dan Ping took on the daunting task of restoring the old trolley car and put in a total of 2,600 hours completing the project. The decay was extensive and the years had not been kind to #313. He saved as much of the original material as possible, including the interior components, and built a brand new cupola. The end result is nothing short of a work of art.
 
Project Manager Alan Beck went about finding someone to work on the undercarriage and add some “juice”  to the former electric engine. Help would come by way of Andy Schwenk, who owns an ag-repair business in nearby Jasper, IN. Only stipulation was that the engine had to be green since Schwenk only works on John Deere machinery. The undercarriage is now powered by diesel and contolled by hydrostatic transmission.  
 
The trolley car was placed on the newly-laid track ths week in anticipation of the loading platforms being built near the casino on the French Lick property and adjacent to the garden at West Baden Springs Hotel. Check out this time lapse video of the event.
 

The new service is set to debut after Thanksgiving. The trolley will run seven days a week from 6am -10pm. Save your nickels, there is no charge for the service.