The Telemark - A Northwoods Legend Poised to Rise Again
Three Rivers Two Kayaks One Mission


by B.J. Hollars, photos provided by Chippewa Valley Museum |

ON A FROSTY DECEMBER DAY IN 1879, Eau Claire residents left their homes to line the streets for a glimpse of the latest in transportation technology: the horse-drawn trolley. Its inaugural ride held but a handful of passengers, each anxious for the chance to make local history.

When the driver gave his signal, the horses leaned into their harnesses, churning the four-wheeled trolley along the newly laid track in the four-mile route between Shaw’s grist mill (modern day Shawtown) and the Omaha Depot on Putnam Street (near the current home of Banbury Place).

The trolley traveled east down Menomonie Street toward Water Street, then onto Fourth Avenue before crossing the bridge to the depot. For 7 cents a ticket, everyone from mill workers to schoolchildren could hop a trolley and arrive at their destination in a fraction of the time of their previous commutes.

But the trolley changed more than the speed at which Eau Claire’s residents traveled. It changed how they traveled, too: together, side by side, in the city’s first attempt at public transportation.

Eau Claire was the fourth city in the U.S. to test electric-powered trolleys, and — in an innovation that could only have come from our city’s tundra-like conditions — was the first in the nation to heat trolley cars with electricity.

In 1879, trolley travel seemed such a novel idea that Eau Claire was only the third city in Wisconsin to try it. Over the next decade, almost every mid-sized city in the state followed, with tracks laid in places such as Madison, Sheboygan, Beloit, and Janesville. By 1885, the Eau Claire operation expanded its route service, employing 18 men and 44 horses to pull its seven trolley cars throughout the city at 20-minute intervals.

By the late 1880s, horses were replaced by mules. And by the end of the decade, the mules, too, were replaced — this time, by electricity.

Eau Claire was the fourth city in the U.S. to test electric-powered trolleys, and — in an innovation that could only have come from our city’s tundra-like conditions — was the first in the nation to heat trolley cars with electricity.

A decade after our city’s first horse-drawn trolley ride, the electric trolley embarked on its own maiden voyage. In the fall of 1889, local officials boarded the electric trolley for a 20-minute ride from Shawtown to the depot, cutting the mule-drawn travel time in half. Crowds gathered yet again, only this time, all beasts of burden were back in their barns. Power now flowed from the 50,000-watt dynamo power station near Dells Pond, which directed current through the overhead lines above the track. The mules ought to have been grateful; while their trolley cars weighed 1,100 pounds, the electric cars were nearly triple the weight. More sturdy than sleek, the trolley cars were nonetheless a marvel to behold. Each of the six was lit by incandescent lights, prompting one onlooker to note that the cars resembled “a pleasure steamer full of people rounding up the pier in the night-time.”

The city’s transition to the latest in public transportation wasn’t without setbacks. It took a while for both drivers and passengers to warm to the new and improved electric trolleys. More than a few folks missed the mules, whose body language better telegraphed their impending action. “You could tell by the lay of (the mules’) ears just the minute when they were going to start and balance yourself accordingly,” one passenger remarked. “The frisky electric current doesn’t stop to consider, like the mule, but just ‘yanks’ the car from a dead standstill clear into the middle of the next block before you can tell whether you have dislocated your neck, or only stubbed your toe on your chin.”

While most welcomed the electric trolley, others considered it a menace. If it wasn’t dropping you to the floor with its herky-jerky motion, it was colliding with horse-drawn wagons. Or as was the case for Mrs. E.D. Holton in June 1890, dropping live wires into the laps of unsuspecting carriage riders. “At the time that the wire fell Mrs. Holton was holding a shopping bag,” the Weekly Free Press reported, “which was all that prevented the wire from striking her hands and giving her a shock that would have at least stunned her.”

Two years later, an unnamed Eau Claire man was not so lucky; he was killed by a jolt from a live trolley wire at the corner of Second Avenue and Bridge Street (near the modern-day site of Court’N House Bar and Grill).

In the Summer of 1896, a new “Society Fad” swept the nation: Trolley parties. People could rent a trolley, invite their friends and enjoy a private evening ride around town.

Nationwide, trolleys became notorious for causing bodily harm. So much so that by 1895, the verb “trolleyed” entered the American lexicon. “It is shorter and easier to say than ‘run over by a trolley car and killed,’ ” reported the Chicago Tribune. America’s trolley problem was even referenced in America’s favorite pastime: the Brooklyn Dodgers were initially called the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers.

To minimize the risk, in 1896, all Eau Claire trolley cars were equipped with a “pedestrian catcher,” a large fabric scoop that — when triggered by external pressure — automatically unfolded to “scoop” the pedestrian rather than crushing them beneath its wheels.

Thanks to such innovations, trolleys began to reveal their gentler side. They could be more than a form of transportation, but a form of leisure, too.

In the Summer of 1896, a new “society fad” swept the nation: trolley parties. People could rent a trolley, invite their friends, and enjoy a private evening ride around town. On June 22, 1896, Mr. C.W. Lockwood, vice-president of Eau Claire Savings Bank, hosted what may have been the city’s first. The trolley company outfitted its finest open-air car for the occasion. “The car was handsomely lighted, fully half a hundred incandescents being added to the regular number,” reported the Eau Claire Leader. “No part of Eau Claire’s extensive system of tracks was left unexplored, and the streets from the Omaha Depot to Shawtown and to the Putnam Park made radiant and musical.”

Radiant by way of the incandescent lights, and musical by way of the Mandolin Club, whose songs emanated throughout the trolley’s interior, accompanied by the night noises just beyond.

“No part of th Eau Claire’s extensive system of tracks was left unexplored, and the streets from the Omaha Depot to Shawtown and to the Putnam Park made radiant and musical.”

from the Eau Claire Leader

writing about the first trolley parties in 1896

Given the success of Eau Claire’s electric city trolleys, in 1897, A.E. Appleyard — who arrived in Eau Claire following electric rail line successes in Boston and Columbus, Ohio — began work on “the interurban,” an 11-mile trolley line connecting Eau Claire to Chippewa Falls. Beginning at the corner of Barstow & Grand, the interurban traveled east on Madison Street, then Omaha Street, before following the railroad north to its terminus in Chippewa Falls. By 1910, Lake Hallie’s Electric Park was the most popular stop along the route, a picnickers’ paradise with a dance hall, band shell, amusement rides, paddle boats, and outdoor movies. On summer afternoons, Eau Claire residents gladly paid their dime to take a leisurely ride to Electric Park.

One such rider was Lois Austin, who, one June morning in the early 1920s, boarded the interurban alongside her elementary school classmates for an end-of-the-year celebration. Each student brought a sack lunch (which, for Lois, included a leftover piece of angel food cake from her birthday), and off they went, speeding down the track en route to Electric Park.

Not even the drizzling rain could dampen their fun. Upon their arrival, the children chased one another around the dance pavilion, stopping only to sample their principal’s homemade lemonade. (“The formula was one to one,” Lois remembered. “One lemon to one pail of water.”)

“Ordinary friends seemed to acquire a romantic aura they had never had before as we sat together on woven reed seats and watched the wonders go by … our lives were measured by the streetcar’s rhythms.”

resident Lois Austin

remembering her youth in Eau Claire hopping the trolley with friends year-round to local parks, ice rinks, and movie theaters

On that June day, the romance of the trolley proved overpowering, even for its young passengers.

“Ordinary friends seemed to acquire a romantic aura they had never had before,” Lois recalled, “as we sat together on woven reed seats and watched the wonders go by.”

While the interurban made for an enjoyable weekend excursion, daily travel occurred on the trolleys. During the winter months, Lois would peer out the window of her family’s Putnam Street home in search of the trolley’s headlight cutting through the blinding snow. She’d race out to meet it, slinging her skates over her shoulders, and hopping aboard for a ride to Half Moon Lake’s ice-skating rink. In the summer months, the destination was different: she and her dates most often paid their nickel fare for a ride to the movies.

Where they went was determined by where the trolley went.

“Our lives,” Lois reflected, “were measured by the streetcar’s rhythms.”

Just a trolley ride away was Doris Mitchell, who lived on the corner of Randall Park. Doris, too, enjoyed a childhood among the trolleys, which she recounted in her 1987 memoir, Remembering Eau Claire.

As a young girl, a favorite pastime for her and her friends involved laying a pair of crossed pins on the track, which, when flattened by a passing trolley, became a miniature pair of doll’s scissors. “We sat on the horseblock, waited for the streetcar, and rushed out to collect the bits of metal,” Doris remembered.

The trolleys, which passed by her home every fifteen minutes, could sweep her off to destinations nearly as adventurous as the trolley itself: for a malt at Ted’s Olympia, or a chocolate from The Palace of Sweets.

“A trolley ride was faster than walking,” Doris wrote. “We lived in the Twentieth Century, and a good time was had by all.”

Doris Mitchell (photo courtesy Arnold family)

This included longtime trolley conductor Art Hall, a stout man of medium height with brown eyes and, in the latter half of his life, a shock of gray hair beneath his cap. On shift days, he rose early, kissed his daughters and wife goodbye, and left his home in Shawtown — not far from the “car barn” where the trolley cars were kept — to board his own assigned trolley. The man cut a stately figure in his conductor uniform, which in winter months meant four layers consisting of a shirt and tie, a wool vest, a sweater, and an overcoat. Summers slimmed him to a single shirt and tie.

At 95, Art Hotvedt (Art Hall’s grandson and namesake) still recalls a memory or two from his grandfather’s trolley days. Most notably, his grandfather’s omnipresent conductor’s watch, often cinched to his pocket, which helped him keep to his schedule.

Art Hall (right)

Trollies could transport folks almost anywhere in town, but on warm summer nights, their main destination was always the baseball field. On those nights, Art’s trolley doubled as a billboard; a sign near the headlights read “Baseball Tonight,” along with the game’s start time.

Not a bad way to spend an Eau Claire summer evening. And Art’s trolley had room enough for all.

Few alive today remember riding the Eau Claire trolley. The way the electric heat burned through the cars on the winter nights, or how, come June, the piney air filtered through the windows. How fireflies lit the routes on the darkest nights. And how young girls like Lois placed pennies on the tracks, marveling at their transition to “fragile medlions.”

Today, such sepia-toned memories signal a bygone era, though in 1903, much of the country believed the trolley was the ride of the future. In July of that year, the Eau Claire Leader published an article titled “The Rise of the Trolley,” which made the case for the state’s long-term investment in the latest in travel technology.

“Wisconsin is about to see the greatest development in its history,” the article proclaimed, “through the means of the interurban lines.”

Local trolleys played their part, though the article’s main goal was the advancement of interurbans. “(The interurbans) supply the heretofore missing link in the economics of travel…” the article continued. “Towns and villages that were isolated are being brought into closer touch with business centers and made to feel the quickening touch of progress and prosperity.”

The article likened the “era of the electric railroad” to other recent technologies that had sought to close the distance between people: the steamship, the telegraph, and the telephone.

But like all advancing technologies, it’s always just a matter of time before the “new thing” becomes the “old thing,” rendering even the “new thing” obsolete.

By the mid-1920s, the trolley’s greatest problem was the trolley itself. It, too, had been left behind. Throughout that decade, ridership had declined precipitously, as did the company’s profits. In a last-ditch effort to save the trolley, in November 1930, Eau Claire’s trolley-faithful circulated a petition asking that the lines be preserved until a referendum vote. Those in favor of modernizing the trolley lines to bus lines circulated their own petition. But no number of signatures could outweigh the truth: buses were faster, cheaper, and required no tracks. Not even a ride as quaint as a trolley dared stand in the way of progress.

The interurban between Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls was the first casualty, its last ride occurring on Aug. 7, 1926. “The old iron horse creaked out of its barn on Menomonie Street, rocked over town to Barstow Street, puffed up the Madison Street hill to Omaha Street, swung north on Starr Avenue to begin its 11-mile trek to Chippewa Falls,” reported the Eau Claire Leader, “a journey that ended at the loop in Irvine Park.” This came shortly after the death of Lake Hallie’s Electric Park, which shuttered in 1925.

Trolley Conductors - including Art Hall

The city trolley wound down as well, its final ride occurring on Saturday, April 9, 1932, at 12:10am. Mr. and Mrs. Chris Luebkeman and Dr. and Mrs. George W. Beebe rode car No. 307 from the Ninth Ward to the car barns on Menominee Street. “Yesterday for the first time in Eau Claire history,” the newspaper reported, “buses served all parts of the city, covering an area many times as great as the first street cars ‘way back when…’ ”

In the same way the electric trolleys had returned horses and mules to their stables, the electric trolley, too, had been put out to pasture. The clang of the trolley gave way to the beep of the bus, though in the years to come, the bus, too, would lose passengers in a return to individual travel by way of the automobile.

As passengers adapted to the changes in public transportation, so too did the drivers. Following his final shift as a streetcar driver, Art Hall took his turn with the buses. Art Hotvedt recalls his grandfather’s bad habit of honking his bus horn at passing women until one of them filed a complaint and halted his horn for good.

Times were changing both in transportation and beyond. The people of Eau Claire, and the country at large, were destined to change along with them.

Traces of the trolley remain, though only if you know where to look: in the remnants of a shelter station in Irvine Park, along the bike trails parallel to the railroad tracks. Once the lifeblood of our community, today the trolley is mostly reduced to memory.

Or was.

This summer, after nearly a century hiatus, our city’s trolleys will ride again. The Chippewa River Trolley Co. (disclosure: a new venture of Volume One) will soon offer an array of trolley tours, highlighting our region’s history, culture, scenic beauty, and more. Not only will it give locals a fresh look at our city, but it will also give tourists one more reason to come to town.

In its 21st century debut, the Eau Claire trolley will serve as a perfect bridge between the old days and today: It will ride like a bus, but it will look like a trolley. Much like the early days of trolley travel, the new trolley will again change the speed at which we move — only this time, by slowing us down. It will ask passengers to pause, peer out the window, and enjoy a more leisurely pace.

Imagine it: the clanging and dinging of the trolley returning to modern ears.

Like an echo from our city’s past.

Or perhaps, a whisper from our future.

BJ Hollars

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Go West Young Man: A Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail. He is an associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire. His website is

The Trolley Reborn

New Chippewa River Trolley Co. offers historic, modern-day tours

Nearly a century has passed since the last trolleys clattered along tracks laid throughout the streets of Eau Claire. Now, a vintage-style, 21st-century version of the trolley is set to ding ding ding its way around the Chippewa Valley. The Chippewa River Trolley Co., a new venture from Volume One and The Local Store, will offer history-themed and modern-day tours. Here’s a rundown of the fun, nostalgia-infused trips through Eau Claire and beyond.

For more information visit: