Winter Monorail!

January 28, 2020

A quick visit to the monorail in the winter. Not much to say here really!


The media has discovered my monorail!

June 26, 2019

My monorail cabin project is apparently trending online! It all started when the Pioneer Press’ summer intern found this site, and published an article in the local paper:

Whatever happened to the Minnesota Zoo monorail cars? A St. Paul guy turned some into cabins.

From there, it got picked up by car website Jalopnik:

And then the Weather Channel. Really? The Weather Channel? I even had to ask the reporter who called me, what? really? Apparently, yes, really.

And so it goes!

I’ve put up a quick Youtube video with a few more details and some video of moving the monorail! If you’d like to support this site and my silly projects, please subscribe to my channel! This is my first *ahem* “real” youtube vid aside from some old junk from college and un-narrated randomness, so I apologize for all the “ums” and “uhs”. If I keep doing this, it might get better…


March 27, 2018

I’ve been mildly interested in rail bikes for a while, but too lazy / busy to build one myself. However, when one popped up at a local estate sale I couldn’t pass it up.

Before the safety-conscious railfans jump on me, the track I’m testing this on is fully disconnected from any live rail and is on public land in a city park (The Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary). It’s part of a former industrial spur and was incorporated into the park as a bit of decoration by the designers.

I’m not sure of the origin of this contraption. It’s obviously homemade, but when and by whom are a mystery. The bike has a little side saddle “sidecar” on the outrigger, suitable for a passenger or cargo. The bike itself seems to have been built in England, or at least parts of it were. The nameplate is worn off and everything is pretty rusty! I’m guessing it’s from the 1950s or 60s, but whether it was a hobbyist or a railroad employee who built it, I don’t know.

The bike required a little work to get it going. Namely a new rear wheel, new crank and pedals, reinforced weld, new chain, and some minor adjustments.

It barely fits in the car, and requires the rear hatch to be open. This could get annoying if I want to transport it very far!

My initial tests showed that it does pretty well on abandoned track in decent condition. However, any bends, dents, large gaps, or major bushes on the rail will derail it. It kind of goes through switches in one direction, but tends to fall off the frog going through the other way.

A short (<1min) video of my early test runs can be found here:

Monorail Remodeling

September 18, 2016

Below are some aerial photos of the monorail showing our “station” (deck) platform started, and the very scenic rural setting between farms and forest:

Drone 12

Drone 11

Aerial photos are courtesy of Tim Walgrave.

Below is a newer floorplan render, showing potential layouts for two cars. This version includes a “sleeping”/”living room”/”office” car and a “kitchen”/”dining”/”guest” car. My improvements will mostly be drop-in modules that don’t permanently alter the car interiors. I have a few friends using the other cars and designing their own interesting interiors!


A close-up of the main control panel, featuring some more museum displays and a Baron von Raschke action figure (after his professional wrestling career, the Baron drove the monorail at the zoo). If any of my readers have photos or artifacts they’d like to share in this small and very unofficial museum, please let me know!


We also have a projector screen that can be set up for monorail movie nights!



More to come as I continue working on this!

Monorail Extras

October 19, 2015

Work is gradually progressing on the monorail train, which has proven to be a wonderful place to camp out! As we work on remodeling and fixing up the train I will have more posts with photos and progress reports, but for now here are a few monorail-related odds and ends. First is a 1979 T-shirt design I came across:


And a 1984 postcard of the monorail in operation:


And some original monorail fare tokens from the zoo:

Monorail token web

I’ve made a few custom bumper stickers:


And here are a few more photos of the train’s origin, in case anyone is curious what the zoo side of things looks like. Some of these facilities might not be around much longer.

The abandoned MN Zoo monorail station (soon to become a new animal attraction):



Some pictures of the abandoned monorail track:

track4SONY DSC


In the maintenance barn with two trains parked inside:


Some close-ups of how a monorail bogie mounts to a car (normally this would be hidden between two cars, but one car has been de-coupled):

bogie3   bogie1

And a close-up of the transition from maintenance track (two rails for caster wheels) to monorail track (center beam for tires):


The remaining monorail cars from the zoo are destined for an East Coast museum.







Monorail Part II

July 27, 2015

As previously mentioned, I’ve purchased a retired monorail train from the Minnesota zoo. This follow-up documents some of the steps involved in moving a 100-ft long, 6-car monorail train from one place to another. All 6 cars are now in their new home in the countryside, the train makes a terrific weekend cabin and a very unique conversation piece!


The original weight was in the neighborhood of 27 tons (numbers vary depending on the source consulted, and few documents agree). We were able to lose quite a bit of weight by removing the wheel bogies and drive motors, which was also required for uncoupling and removal from the track.


For those interested, here are some of the bogies removed from the train. One is powered (with the large motor on top), and one is an unpowered idler:


The zoo was able to uncouple each car and move it on a maintenance track – actually two rails that support small casters under the cars. These originally allowed access to the underside of the train in an inspection pit.

For loading, we backed a trailer up to extensions of these maintenance rails, and winched each car onto the trailer using a cable puller or “come-along”.


Photo by Megan Emerson



Loading each car was about a 3-hour process, requiring occasional adjustments and stops to bridge various gaps in the rolling surface. After getting each car secured to the trailer, we drove them to their new home.


Quite a few unfortunate drivers can now say they’ve been stuck in traffic behind a monorail. The open ends of middle cars act like huge fiberglass air scoops and make for slow progress. I was able to take back roads for the journey, but you know you’re slow when a loaded cement truck passes you going uphill.

I had originally hoped to unload these by hand, using some redneck technology (a platform to roll them onto, and a series of jacks and blocks to lower them to the ground). Some friends pulled an all-nighter doing materials strength calculations and modeling possible methods, and convinced me this was even less safe than it sounded.


Instead, I hired a crane to do the hard part. Wieser Concrete has been amazingly helpful with this project, going above and beyond what we had hoped. I would highly recommend Wieser for anyone needing crane service in Wisconsin!


We tried various rigs for lifting these. The arrangement shown below was the first setup, strapping around the car with wood spreaders at the top to prevent crushing:

For the rest of the cars we used a much simpler and more stable lifting rig, with chains run down the ends to the steel frame. Most of the weight is in the bottom of the cars, the rest is mainly fiberglass.



After unloading from the trailer, we parked the monorail cars in a line so they formed a full 6-car train again. Below is an aerial view of one of the cars being moved into position:

Photo courtesy of Tim Walgrave

Photo by Tim Walgrave

The crane was able to place these very precisely, so we could nest them together as designed. We had assumed that fine adjustments would need more jacks and rollers, but an expert crane operator who can save hours of manual labor is well worth it!

Each car is fairly self contained, much like a small camper or RV. They have small hatches allowing access to the interstitial space and crawling passage between cars if desired. We may add bunks or other changes down the road, although I’m still planning to make as few major modifications as possible to preserve the original vehicles.


I’ve even started a very small museum of sorts in the driver’s cab, with a few historic photos and artifacts related to the monorail. And of course, no monorail would be complete without a Simpsons reference!




The Saveitforparts Monorail

June 1, 2015 is finally putting itself on the map, with the purchase of a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!


That’s right, I’ve bought an entire six-car monorail train from the Minnesota Zoo. The zoo’s elevated monorail system was retired in 2013 after 34 years of service, with the state-owned agency seeking to dispose of the equipment. As a lifelong train enthusiast with ongoing railroad history and model railroading projects, I couldn’t resist the chance to preserve a piece of local history!


While it would be awesome to construct a track and actually run the monorail, my resources are more suited to a static use of the cars. My initial plan is to park them on a rural property and use them as weekend cabins, as each car is similar to a small camper or RV in size. Interestingly, some of the Twin Cities’ TCRT trolley cars were used the same way after their retirement (sadly, most were scrapped or burned).

Below is one potential layout I came up with for a single middle car, leaving as much of the original body intact as possible (the seats are molded into the fiberglass inner shell). As the cars already have lights, heating vents, and multiple doors, it should be relatively simple to retrofit them for such a use without much alteration. I have some ideas for using multiple cars as well, the final layout will be exciting to develop!

Potential Middle Car Renders

Below are some close-ups of what the cars look like inside and out:

m4  1108141448

I’ve also been doing quite a bit of research into the history of these monorail trains. While it’s certainly a very niche field of study, I’ve collected a few details that might be of interest to other monorail enthusiasts.


Monorail switch and maintenance building, courtesy of Dakota County GIS.

The Minnesota Zoo’s Monorail was built in the late 1970s by Universal Mobility Inc (UMI), and is a “Unimobil Tourister” model. It began running in September of 1979 at the new Minnesota Zoological Garden (opened May 1978). The Minnesota legislature authorized the monorail with the provision that it be self-financing, separate from the zoo. A nonprofit corporation, Minnesota Zoo Ride Inc, was incorporated in 1976 to finance the accepted construction bid from UMI. The system included 3 trains, an oblong loop of track, an enclosed maintenance shop, single switch, and indoor & outdoor sidings for storage and maintenance.


Minnesota Zoo monorail car barn. Photo by Gabe Emerson


Based in Salt Lake City, Universal Mobility designed and installed several similar monorail systems in the United States. One other Tourister of nearly identical design was installed at the 1984 World’s Fair, then moved to the Miami zoo where it still operates. Updated Tourister II models operated at King’s Dominion, King’s Island, and Carowinds amusement parks, while older, open-car versions operated at various amusement parks and are still used at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Another Unimobil system reportedly operated at Fuji Highlands in Japan. Several proposals were floated to install UMI monorails in metropolitan areas for public transit, but none were funded.

Califorina UMI study

The fiberglass car bodies were produced by Intermountain Design, who still manufactures monorail, people mover, and aerial tramway cars for various users. The mechanical drives and control systems were supplied by Maschinenfabrik Habegger of Switzerland. This company was tied to Von Roll Holding Co (designer of the Sydney Monorail among others). Both companies also designed ski lifts and aerial cable tramways (The Skyride at the Minnesota State Fair is a Von Roll system). Bombardier / TGI later acquired many of the UMI and Von Roll patents and produced another very similar monorail, known as the UM series. Von Roll / Habegger also marketed a very small monorail for use on farms and vineyards.


1970s concept drawing of zoo and monorail (note maintenance spur and car barn at lower right)

The Minnesota Zoo monorail ran into trouble almost immediately after installation, as ridership was not as high as predicted. The legislature refused to pay the full installments to investors, covering only what the ride actually made in fares. Shareholders (including various local and national banks) sued to demand the full loan amount in 1980. The state supreme court sided with the legislature and attorney general, saying that the state had no obligation to pay if the legislature chose not to.

The state was again sued, this time accused of securities fraud. Court cases dragged on through the early 1980s, involving investors, insurance companies, and various state agencies. The monorail remained operating, with profits covering only a fraction of the installments. Fares in 1980 were $1 for adults and 50 cents for seniors and children.

In September of 1985 the monorail system was repossessed, then sold back to the Minnesota Zoological Foundation with help from private donors and new loans. The monorail continued to report little or no profit, despite fares climbing to around $5 per person in recent years.


Monorail control cab, photo by Gabe Emerson


These ongoing money problems may show why monorails never gained much of a foothold in the US, despite the optimistic press of the 1970s. The energy crisis briefly brought a renewed flirtation with public transit (as well as other energy-efficient projects and proposals in Minnesota and elsewhere). Proposals for installing UMI monorails (or related people-movers) included downtown Saint Paul, Los Angeles, and other cities. Concept drawings for some of these installations can be found in several 1970s government studies.


Concept art for proposed St. Paul People Mover, courtesy Metro Transit via MNHS


A proposal for downtown Saint Paul imagined a monorail or people mover running through the former Selby streetcar tunnel, as well as a section of subway with station at the State Capitol.


Other cities considering monorails looked closely at the Minnesota Zoo as a test case. The zoo’s system was one of the first all-weather monorails installed in the US, and underwent extensive winter testing to prove it could function in northern cities. This monorail was one of the few with onboard cabin heaters, others had only A/C. A custom snowplow was fabricated for the train, mounted to one of the lead cars. Later a small street-sweeper device was built, and made to look like a miniature version of the monorail.


Winter operation studies found that the elevated track did well at preventing snow buildup, but sometimes iced over and impeded traction. The power rails were located under a lip at the track edge, which helped keep them dry, but there were occasional issues with ice and thermal expansion.


Hard specifications for this monorail are difficult to nail down, each document I’ve found lists a slightly different weight, speed, and capacity for this system. As best I can determine, each of the three trains could carry 96 passengers seated, or 120 with some standees.  Trains were 100ft long and consisting of 6 cars. Wheel bogies were shared between cars, with a total of 7 per train (normally 4 powered and 3 idler bogies). The motors developed about 300hp at peak output, for a theoretical top speed of about 35mph. Normal cruising speed was around 3-4 mph and operations at the MN zoo were limited to a 7.5mph top speed. The main track included a 6,628ft loop and a 358f long maintenance spur. A moving switch connected the spur and loop, and a lateral transfer beam allowed switching between tracks at the maintenance building.  Approximately 1,000ft of guideway made up the lateral beam and service rails at the maintenance shop (some of the outside sidings were removed). About 730ft of guideway was at-grade, the rest elevated on steel columns.


The drive system consists of rubber tires driven by 480v DC motors, with side-facing guide wheels riding the outsides of the track. Power and control signals were picked up from electrified rails under the lips of the track. Braking was dynamic, with emergency and holding brakes. The system was supposedly very quiet (“…as softly as a cloud”), although the AC compressors for summer use could be noisy.


The system was designed to be fully automated, controlled by an analog computer. Cars could be timed and spaced automatically, with multiple trains slowed or stopped as needed to avoid collisions. Human drivers could override the system, and also manned a microphone to narrate the ride and identify animals along the route.


I am looking forward to preserving one of these very interesting trains, and creating a unique and historic vacation cabin! And who knows, maybe someday, or somehow, I can get some track laid down!

For additional information on this and other monorail systems, check out the links below:

UMI Downtown People Mover Winterization Test (1982 report including details specific to the MN monorail).

The Monorail Society (general information, technical data, and monorail history)

Minnesota Zoo history & timeline

1888 South Saint Paul monorail (overhead track)

Star Tribune article on this monorail

Wired article on this monorail

The Funter Bay Railroad

July 17, 2013

In the first half of the 20th century, Funter Bay had a small railroad running to mine workings at the base of Mt. Robert Barron (originally known as “Funter Mountain”).


A short mine railroad was first reported in 1895, when a newspaper article described plans for “about 1,000 feet of railroad track” running along the beach to various mine tunnels. This would likely have carried ore carts pushed by hand or pulled by draft animals.

Newspaper reports state that workers began laying 36-inch narrow-gauge rails towards the mountain in 1912. Originally, this track consisted of 4×4 wooden rails, spiked to an existing corduroy wagon road bed. The rails could have had strap iron on top, as did other wooden tramways in the area.  A 1920 inventory of company assets describes the line as 4000′ of 36″ gauge surface tram, and a 1921 map labels it “wooden tramway”. It was elsewhere listed as a “tram road” (many of these terms are used interchangeably in describing small railroads). Initially four ore cars of about 3 tons were used, these had steel wheels and wooden boxes, and were hauled by mules along the wooden track. Although a “locomotive boiler 40hp with 40hp engine” is inventoried in 1920, this seems to have been connected to a sawmill at the time and not related to the tram.

Between 1920 and 1926, the track was upgraded with steel rails, laid on the same corduroy grade in between the existing wooden rails (which had become rotten by that time). The new line was approximately 25″ gauge, and seems to have used 20 or 25lb steel rails (30 tons of 20lb rails were purchased around 1926, along with frogs and switches, to supplement an existing stock of 11 tons of 20 and 25lb rail). Twelve additional all-steel ore cars were purchased second hand from the Gastineau Gold Mining Co in Juneau (which had shut down and begun selling off equipment in 1921). Also in 1926, consulting engineer A. A. Holland recommended that the track be straightened, graded, and ballasted to prevent derailing. Holland suggested that cars should be hauled by cable due to the grade near the mountain, noting that locomotive haulage would require new track to take the steepest part of the hill more gradually.

1926 photos showing wooden rails with and without steel rails laid between them:
Funter Track

Some of Holland’s suggested improvements were implemented over the next few years. A 1928 letter to Governor Ernest Gruening reported construction of a “surface railroad” and purchase of a locomotive and cars. The 1930 stockholder report describes “railroads, 24″ gauge, 20lb rails” and an 8-ton steam locomotive. Within a few years the wooden roadbed was replaced with gravel from mine tailings. The 1931 Annual Report to the company stockholders stated that; “The Railroad Bed leading from the main tunnel to the mill located on the shore, and which was constructed of corduroy, was found too weak for continuous heavy loads and therefore has been ballasted the entire distance with crushed rock derived from the various workings in the main tunnel. New 8″ x 8″ x 9′ long ties have been secured and thus the road made substantial for any load at present under contemplation”. The report also mentions a branch of the railroad along the shore to the wharf.

Beginning in the 1930s, the line is referred to on maps and documents as a railroad, vs a tramway. This distinction may have had two factors behind it. For one, many early tram/railroad lines in Alaska used wooden trestles or ungraded track for their entire length to avoid the cost of permanent gravel grades. The switch from corduroy to graded roadbed at Funter was a significant upgrade. Secondly, the use of a steam locomotive seems to have boosted the status of small operations. Short lines with locomotives were more often called “railroads” while longer horse-drawn lines often remained “tramways”.

The company acquired a used 0-4-0T “Dinky” saddle tank steam locomotive around 1928. It seems to have been built by the Davenport Locomotive Works and was categorized as an 8-ton engine. Unfortunately no identifying marks are left, so the construction number and year are uncertain. It is anecdotally reported to be surplus from the Treadwell mines, which used steam locomotives at least until 1912-1913. Treadwell suffered a collapse in 1917 and finally shut down the last shaft in 1922, then sold the remaining equipment and property to the Alaska Juneau mine in 1928. As the AJ used electric locomotives of different gauge, the surplus steam locomotives were probably made available at bargain rates.

0-4-0T locomotive from Funter Bay:

The locomotive may have looked something like this when operating.

The total height is about 6′ (Treadwell’s specs called for a 5’7″ maximum clearance). This would have been considered a “contractor’s locomotive”, a type frequently used on temporary track in construction sites, to move dirt or materials around before dump trucks became common. Mines found them convenient due to their light weight and ability to handle uneven, steep, or sharply curving rails. I am not sure if the locomotive had an open cab (as apparently did most of the steam locomotives at Treadwell), or if it had an enclosed or even removable cab (at least one Treadwell locomotive was ordered with a removable cab, and a wooden cab could have been added later). Southeast Alaska’s climate would make at least a roof desirable, other small locomotives in the area had standing-height cabs when there were no clearance restrictions.

Here are some similar locomotive configurations that could have resembled this one:
Davenport locomotive with enclosed cab (larger version than this one).
Small locomotive with open cab.
Similarly sized locomotive (this one a Porter) with low-profile cab.

Such locomotives and light railroad equipment could be mail-ordered new or used from catalogs or classified ads in industry magazines.


Front view of Funter Bay steam locomotive:

Eventually, the rail line from the beach to the mountain was 4100ft long. A branch of about 1500-2000ft ran parallel to the beach just above high-tide line, connecting older mine workings along the shore. A report from around 1915 mentions “several miles of railroad” running “along the shore and back into the various tunnels”, but this seems a bit optimistic. Below the surface, ore carts were hauled through the tunnels by mules, and later by electric battery locomotives. Several documents mention multiple electric locomotives purchased prior to 1956, including a 3-ton GE. The tunnels along the beach are now collapsed or flooded.

Funter Track 2

Two sizes of rail wheels and axles lying on the beach at Funter Bay, the larger gauge set may have been from the 36″ gauge mule tram:

Railroad trestle at Funter Bay in the 1920s:


Courtesy of Alaska State Library, MS 247 1_02

The following picture shows some track along the beach and what might be a switch:

dual gauge

Courtesy of Alaska State Library, MS 247 1_01

Today the beachfront track is mostly washed out, rusted away, or buried under decades of organic debris which are slowly forming new soil on top of the railway.


The steam locomotive was used until around 1951, when the owners seem to have decided it was inefficient. I am not sure if it was fueled by wood or coal, but feeding it would have been time consuming either way. The owners attempted to “modernize” the unit by converting it to a Plymouth gasoline engine. Such was sometimes the fate of other steam locomotives in Alaska and elsewhere. An untitled, undated (but probably from 1951 or ’52) note in government files mentions that the conversion cost $1,000. Another note in the file mentions work on a Plymouth engine cowling and head in April 1952. Another sheet mentions that “A steam locomotive for use on the surface tramway was being converted to gasoline power.” and that the $1,000 price tag included “Repairs to locomotive surface and aerial tram (haulage)”.

locomotive conversion

Since the front of the dinky locomotive was cast to the frame, it would have been hard to simply cut the boiler off. The miners used the old standby of Alaska repairs: If you don’t have the right tool, try dynamite! The story goes that they simply blasted the boiler off the frame, resulting in severe cracking to the front casting:


The gas engine conversion proved to be underpowered; the unit worked on level ground but was unable to make it up the hill between the waterfront branch and the main line to the mountain. The whole rig was abandoned until the early 1970s, when it was salvaged by railroad enthusiast Jim Walsh and moved to Nevada.

A map showing part of the former rail line. The beach section is not shown.

RR map 2

By the late 1950s, maps begin show the line as a road rather than a railroad or tramway, the mine having switched to trucks for transportation. Today there is essentially nothing left of the railroad at Funter Bay. The tracks have all become buried or salvaged for other projects (such as Ray Martin’s marine railroad and planned logging railroad). The land is privately owned and not generally open to visitors.

The locomotive is probably the last major artifact left from this line, and I am greatly appreciative of Jim Walsh’s time and generosity in letting me see it! I am still searching for additional information on this locomotive, such as the construction year, ownership history (Treadwell or otherwise), mechanical specifications, or even old blueprints, but I’ve been unable to track down many details (I spun off another page on small Alaska railroads based on information found during this research). If any readers know of a source for such information, or a possible line of inquiry, I would love to hear about it! As usual, my email address is (replace <AT> with @): gabe <AT>