By Aaron Isaacs, TRRM editor
Photos by the author and Jim Vaitkunas
The Dakota trip continues
One of the more unlikely tourist railroads operates on the remaining five miles of the former Northern Pacific 127-mile Mandan-Mott branch line. The Fort Lincoln Trolley connects Mandan, North Dakota with Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, starting point for Lt. Col. George Custer’s expedition that ended in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The state park stretches along the west bank of the Missouri River and its tributary Heart River. There are preserved and reconstructed buildings from the historic fort, a reconstructed nearby Indian village, and bike and nature trails.
The trolley is a for-profit enterprise founded by brothers Jim and John Beck. They retrieved the body of former Grand Forks, North Dakota single truck streetcar #102 (American car 1911). The car had been sold to Bismarck, North Dakota, probably in the 1920s, where it ran until abandonment in 1931. Its body survived as a diner in Mandan until 1946. When the Becks found it in 1988, it was a dog kennel.
They had to replace the floor and sills. At least one of every kind of brass fixture survived, so they cast replicas as needed. They built simple, non-reversible wood seats.
They found an motorless Taylor truck on the Great Western railroad in Colorado, placed the car on it and powered it with an underfloor gasoline engine chain driven to one axle. This reanimated rig shared duty with a faux streetcar built on speeder frame. Daily hourly 10-mile round trips began between Mandan and the fort in 1991.
In the last few years #102 has been largely replaced in service by a home-built, battery-powered replica of a double-trucked open streetcar, and that’s what we rode a couple of months ago. It lacks the woodworking flourishes of the originals, but it truly captures the feel.
The line begins at a tiny depot on the southeast edge of Mandan. The car rolled in, a few passengers alighted and the woman operator sold us our tickets. In proper open car fashion, the seat backs flipped over so all the cross benches faced forward and off we went at about 12 mph. The car rode well and it’s a pleasant ride.
Shortly after leaving the depot the line crosses over the Heart River on a substantial through truss bridge. It then follows the west bank of the Heart, which flows into the Missouri just before reaching the fort. There’s also a second fairly large wood trestle along the line, which is owned by the state.
The track is in pretty decent shape except for the aftermath of a couple of washouts. These have been repaired with rickety looking shoeflies that would never handle standard railroad equipment, but don’t bother the little open car at all.
A mile or two south of Mandan is the pair of carbarns where the equipment is stored and maintained. It’s a pretty bare bones operation. If the brothers weren’t so handy, this thing would have never happened, let alone persevered for so long.
There are two stops in the state park, the last being near the main group of historic buildings.
The brothers are getting up there in age, over 70.
You have to wonder how long they can keep this running. Hopefully when they retire it will be sold to someone with the will and the mechanical expertise to carry on.