How Could I Remember a Monorail I Had Never Seen Before?
The former John Wanamaker store in central Philadelphia — now a Macy’s — has been a popular holiday shopping destination for over a century. The store’s center atrium features a 2,500-pound bronze eagle statue, a 1904 pipe organ, and the wonderfully retro Christmas light show. Yet the current store, while still charming and vibrant, evinces but a shadow of its former grandeur. The Wanamaker store I discovered when I first moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s included nine floors of retail space, with major departments — veritable stores within stores — dedicated to various product categories. The eighth floor housed the toy department and featured a monorail suspended from the ceiling that ferried children around the room to marvel at the toys below.
When I first saw this magical conveyance as a young adult, I was flooded with a sense of déjà vu. I recalled riding the monorail as a child many years earlier. But I didn’t grow up in Philadelphia. I had never been to John Wanamaker in my youth. I lived near Syracuse, New York, when I would have been of monorail-riding age.
As some quick research revealed, these kiddie monorails were installed in a number of department stores in major U.S. cities. In addition to the Rocket Express monorail in Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker, there was a monorail in the E.W. Edwards store in Syracuse — the monorail from my youth. There was also the Santaland Monorail at Meier & Frank in Portland, Oregon, and the Pink Pig monorail which traveled from inside the store out onto the roof of Rich’s in Atlanta, Georgia. There were kiddie monorails in the Kresge department store in Newark, New Jersey, the Herpolsheimers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and nearly two dozen other locations.
What spurred this flurry of department store monorails? How did so many different stores around the country all install ceiling-mounted conveyances for children around the same time in the post-war era? The answer, it seems, lies in the creative expansion of a product line from a 19th century farm equipment company.
Moving Hay and Manure
Born in 1841, William Louden, the son of Irish immigrants, spent much of his youth working on his father’s farm in Iowa. Louden was reportedly a frail young man, which may have set his mind on methods to reduce the physical burden of farm work.
In 1867, Louden was awarded his first patents for devices to help workers stack and move hay. His hay carrier attached a traditional hay fork to an overhead monorail with counter-weights to make it easier to lift. In 1870, Louden started the Louden Manufacturing Works to build his labor-saving farm equipment. The depression of the 1870s hit him hard, and the business failed in 1876. Louden persisted, however, constructing his equipment and traveling from farm to farm to demonstrate its benefits. In 1892, Louden, along with his brother Robert and an investor named J. C. Fulton, founded the Louden Machinery Company in Fairfield, Iowa.
One of the company’s most enduring inventions was a revolutionary barn door mechanism introduced in 1895. By adding wheels to hang barn doors on a railing, the heavy doors could be slid open and closed with relative ease. “Louden’s Everlasting Barn Door Hanger — It Runs on a Rod” declared an early advertisement. Most modern barn doors still use some version of the Louden system.
The Louden Machinery Company found other uses for its rail-and-wheel mechanisms, including facilitating the unpleasant task of hauling manure from inside the barn to a waiting wagon for transporting it to the fields. The Louden Machinery Company was awarded a patent on these manure haulers, which were euphemistically called “litter carriers.”
Louden found other uses for this type of transport mechanism. In 1919, the company developed a monorail conveyor system, and in subsequent years the company’s technology was deployed in a wide range of applications to assist manufacturing production. According to an article in a publication of the North American Hay Tool Collector’s Association, Louden’s monorail crane system assisted the manufacture of Boeing B-29 airplanes during the Second World War and aided materials handling during the development of atomic bombs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Riding the Litter Carrier
In the July 2005 issue of Farm Collector magazine, A. Clyde Eide recounts the tale of how, as a young boy on his grandfather’s farm in northern Illinois, he was fascinated by the Louden manure carrier that ran from inside his family’s barn to a post 80 feet outside. He was so intrigued that one day, when the adults were otherwise occupied, Eide and his two cousins decided to give each other rides on the monorail conveyance. Things went well until all three children climbed into the hopper together and got stuck when the device came to halt at a location too high to jump to the ground. The frightened children remained swaying in the manure carrier until Eide’s uncle Everitt finally heard their cries for help.
Apparently the notion that the Louden rail-and-wheel system could be used to transport children occurred to others as well. Sometime after the Second World War, monorail trains began appearing in toy sections of department stores around the U.S.
An article on Louden published by the Jefferson County Trails Council of Fairfield, Iowa, questions whether the finished monorail system was manufactured by Louden or another company such as Rocket Express Systems (which is credited in an 1950 article in The Billboard – the “Amusement Industry’s Leading Newsweekly” — as building the first outdoor kiddie monorail). But there can be little doubt that Louden technology was the basis for these department store rides. A December 24, 2002, article in the The Portland Tribune describes the Santaland monorail at Meier & Frank as a “Louden Supertrack monorail” and states that it is the “only survivor of 26 such conveyances built in Fairfield, Iowa.”
And, indeed, Acco (self-described as “a company for the 21st century“) — which was formerly the American Chain and Cable Company and a descendent of the Louden Machinery Company — still sells the Louden SuperTrack, “the pioneer heavy-duty monorail track section” which is “ideal for non-electrified monorail and crane systems with loads up to two tons.”
While most of these post-war monorails have long ceased operation, the Wanamaker monorail was saved from destruction and is currently on display at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum.
There’s something charming about a location-specific childhood memory that is shared by many others across the country — all from a 19th century technological breakthrough that became a source of continuous innovation in transporting hay, barn doors, manure, heavy machinery, and joyous children during the holiday season.
The image of the Wanamaker monorail is from the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives (via Humanities magazine). It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. The image of the Louden litter carrier is believed to be from a U.S. publication prior to 1923 and in the public domain.