WEBB CITY, Mo. — Webb City’s historic trolley is now rolling down the tracks in King Jack Park with a new engine and other fresh upgrades.
Members of the Southwest Missouri Electric Railroad Association teamed up with Webb City Parks and Public Works departments to renovate Streetcar No. 60 over the past several weeks. The 103-year-old trolley is now equipped with a 175-horsepower diesel engine, a rebuilt compressor, new bearings and new upholstery. The diesel engine runs a 300-volt generator that pushes the wheels and powers the trolley.
The Southwest Missouri Electric Railroad Association is a nonprofit organization that’s responsible for running and maintaining the trolley. The association turned the trolley over to the city approximately two years ago. The trolley was manufactured in 1916 in St. Louis.
Clyde Thornbrugh, association member, has been maintaining the streetcar for the past three years and built the pushing unit that moves the trolley down the 1.1-mile railroad track around the park. He often serves as one of the two conductors who operate the trolley in the front and the back of the car.
“There are some challenges there, and I like the challenges of making it go and figuring out why it doesn’t work,” Thornbrugh said. “We perform maintenance on it year-round.”
The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad reached Webb City in 1879 and began service in 1893 with a 10-mile-long connection between Joplin, Carterville, Webb City and Prosperity, according to newspaper archives from the Joplin News Herald.
In 1889, Alfred H. Rogers created the Southwest Missouri Electric Railway, a streetcar railway system between Webb City and Carterville. The rail cars were pulled by mules until the system was converted to electric power in 1896.
Rogers established the Southwest Missouri Electric Railway Co. in 1893, which was headquartered in Webb City and operated over 94 miles of track serving the Tri-State Mining District from 1889 to 1939.
Jerry Fisher, a member of the association, said the streetcar project was initially launched by “Fritz” Rogers, who spent about 20 years of his life restoring the trolley. Rogers worked anywhere from six to eight hours hours a day, six days a week to refurbish the car.
“He found it down south of low-water bridge (in Joplin), and it was being used a chicken coop,” Fisher said. “The only reason it survived is because it has a metal frame, inside and out. He rebuilt everything inside and went all over the United States looking for original parts. It was the early '70s when it was brought up here.”
In 1894, the railway was used by 400,000 travelers, a number that grew across the mining belt to 8 million by 1910, according to a 1911 article from the Joplin News Herald. With the establishment of Route 66 in 1926, cars began displacing the streetcar, which officially ceased operation in 1939 after the end of the mining era.
Streetcar No. 60 has gone through multiple replacement parts, including a Chevrolet Corvair engine and a Buick engine. Fisher said Watco, a rail services company at Pittsburg, Kansas, has helped tremendously with the trolley over the years, with the company donating money and services to restore the piece of history.
“It’s been a good deal, and we’re so indebted to Watco,” Fisher said. “They’ve been good to us. We also have a fellow who came from north of Houston who has spent close to a year up here working on the car.”
The association provides maintenance for Streetcar No. 60 several times a year to keep it in tiptop shape for the reading program, “Clickety Clack — We’re Reading Down the Track,” and the Polar Bear Express in the winter. The car operates on the first Saturday of each month during the farmers market sessions and the third Saturday of each month for the reading program.
“It’s a great asset for the city,” said Fisher, who’s also a City Council member. “So much so that it actually ran here, and older people can remember it running. It looks pretty much the same as it did years ago. It brings back memories for a lot of people.”
Tom Reeder, parks and recreation director, said the trolley serves as a tool to help draw people to the park and is a reminder of Webb City’s history.
“We get to not only provide a service to our community today, but we’re also providing a service to our communities in the future,” Reeder said. “This is our contribution to future generations of people in Southwest Missouri.”