A Ride Back in Time: Fort Collins’ Historic Trolley Turns 100

While lots of cities had electric-powered streetcars, trolleys, and trams during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, relatively few had Birneys.

Birneys were the Volkswagen Beetles of the streetcar world: They were small, light, mass-produced, and relatively affordable. About six thousand of them were built from 1915 until 1930. Today only a handful of Birneys are left in the world, and perhaps a dozen of them are still being operated as rail lines.

Fort Collins’s Birney Car 21 is one of them, and it turns a century old this year. Its full name is Fort Collins Municipal Railway’s Birney Car 21, but people also call it “Car 21” or just “Birney.”

For more than forty years, Birney cars looped through downtown Fort Collins and out to a few popular nearby destinations. One line, which operated for just a few years, ran to a lakeside open space that featured a dance pavilion, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and a private zoo, complete with a bear and monkeys.

From start to finish, Fort Collins’s streetcar system ran from 1908 until 1951.

“Back then,” according to trolley volunteer Bethany O’Brien, “Fort Collins was known as having one of the nicest public transportation systems in the country.”

A bit of research confirms this statement. In 1947 The Saturday Evening Post ran an article that said, “For truly fancy performance in the field of transit, no place on earth can beat Fort Collins, Colorado.”

map of Fort Collins' trolley lines 1918-1951

Although the routes changed over the years, the heart of Fort Collins’ railway transit route ran along Mountain Avenue and then looped through Old Town.

Courtesy Municipal Railway Society Archives

Saved from the scrap heap

Unfortunately, those days were numbered. In June 1951 the Fort Collins Municipal Railway rattled to a stop. It was the last scheduled Birney ride in North America and the last streetcar ride in Colorado.

For a few decades, that is.

Birney Car 21 went on display in Fort Collins’s Library Park, where it rotted and rusted for nearly twenty-five years. In the 1970s and 1980s a group of dedicated citizens restored the trolley and a section of tracks. In 1984 Birney Car 21 was listed on the National and Colorado Registers of Historic Places. And in 1985 Birney Car 21 resumed service as a heritage line on historic Mountain Avenue, which runs from Fort Collins’s Old Town neighborhood west to one of the city’s oldest and most popular parks.

Step aside, San Francisco

Not everyone was pleased. According to O’Brien, “When they first decided to put it back on the rails, people were not happy—they thought it would be loud and disruptive. Now people come out on their porches and smile and wave. I think it adds a bit of history and personality to Mountain Avenue and to Old Town.”

Another Birney volunteer, Paula Shattuck, agrees. She says, “My husband and I were born in San Francisco, which has trolleys as well as cable cars, so we were thrilled to find out that Fort Collins had a trolley. I think it says a lot about the Fort Collins community and its focus on preservation.”

trolley in Fort Collins

Since the 1980s, Birney Car 21 has been run and maintained by the Fort Collins Municipal Railway volunteers.

Courtesy Municipal Railway Society Archives

A peek back in time on a special street

For visitors and locals alike, Mountain Avenue is a landmark that’s worth a drive, a walk, or a bike ride. Running east-west from Old Town to City Park and Grandview Cemetery, this two-mile, tree-lined thoroughfare could be considered the city’s most historic stretch of road. With some of the oldest and grandest homes in Fort Collins, Mountain Avenue hosts the Independence Day parade and New Belgium Brewing Company’s Tour de Fat bike ride, as well as some of the best trick-or-treating in the city.

But if you really want to experience Mountain Avenue and you happen to be in town on a summer weekend or summer holiday, the best ride down Mountain Avenue is on Birney Car 21.

Settle into the wooden seat and peek out the window over the top of your arm, so you can’t see the cars lining the road. Listen to the signal bell and the conductor’s voice while you take in the old trees and historic homes. You may find yourself transported not merely a mile, but back in time a hundred years, when entertainment came in the form of nickel streetcar rides, picnics by the lake, and private zoos with monkeys.

Visit Fort Collins published a version of this blog on April 9, 2019.