Please Note: Rail trolley service currently suspended because of social distancing guidelines.
Track the Trolley
Like a lot of the French Lick Resort treasures, the trolley’s history spans many decades, starting in 1903. In 2014, trolley service returned more than 100 years after it was first launched in French Lick and West Baden.
In 1903, the roads were dirt and horse-drawn carriages were the norm. When electric trolley service began, guests could catch the streetcar at the steps of West Baden Springs Hotel and go all the way (a whole mile) into downtown French Lick.
The trolley was a raging success, and in 1916 it set a record for carrying 250,000 people in a single year. At a nickel a ride, that’s over $300,000 in revenue in today’s world. Not bad for what was billed as the “world’s shortest trolley line.”
According to Railway Historian Alan Barnett, the electric cable car offered “ping-pong” service because it was not designed to make turns. When the car reached French Lick, the conductor would physically move the overhead power line around the back, allowing for the return trip to the depot at West Baden.
The advent of the automobile put the brakes on the trolley service in 1919. That is, until Barnett and the folks at the Indiana Railway Museum resurrected the idea in 1987. They were able to find Trolley Car #313 from Portugal, the closest thing they could find to the original 1903 car.
The trolley is making rounds again, thanks to a partnership between the resort and the Indiana Railway Museum. The museum worked with the Indiana Department of Transportation to draw up plans to redo the original track and secured a $200,000 grant.
Simultaneously, craftsman Dan Ping took on the daunting task of restoring the old trolley car. The decay was extensive and the years had not been kind to #313. He saved as much of the original material as possible, including the interior components and the undercarriage. He built a brand-new cupola atop the trolley and added some “juice” with a diesel engine and hydrostatic transmission. The end result is nothing short of a work of art.