Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

If you grew up in Rochester in the last quarter of the 20th century, there’s a good chance you took at least one ride on the monorail at Midtown Plaza.

Midtown’s monorail figures prominently in the holiday memories of many Rochesterians, but as it happens, the mall’s elevated train was not made locally, nor was it unique to Rochester.

monorail-duo

The colorful monorail in 2007. Photographer: Ira Srole.

The first kiddie train of this kind was developed in the 1940s. Illinois-based inventor, Clinton B. Clark, got the idea for the tot-sized tram while working for a department store in Milwaukee. The company’s president expressed the desire for a train that would run above the store’s display cases, thereby conserving floor space for retail items.

Clark put his tinkering skills to work at his home in Oak Park (that’s a suburb), and in 1942, filed a patent for his overhead monorail train.

He spent the 1940s and 1950s hanging monorails from the ceilings of the toy departments of several major retailers including Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Sears in Chicago, and Rich’s in Atlanta. Clark claimed that his invention attracted about 100,000 riders to each store annually (and by gum, it put them on the map!).

Clark’s monorail instantly attracted Midtown Plaza’s promotional manager when he saw one on display at the convention of the International Council on Shopping Centers in 1968. As Robert M. Fender explained to the Democrat & Chronicle, “The other items displayed for promotional purposes were ice shows and puppet shows and similar items…Then I saw this monorail and just knew Midtown couldn’t go through another Christmas without it.”

Apart from being infinitely more exciting than a puppet show, the monorail bore additional advantages to retailers.

Not only did the overhead train allow stores to maximize their floor space for purchasable goods, but it also gave its little passengers a panoramic view of these same products.

Clark maintained that the monorail would attract repeat visits from children, who, in turn, would draw their pocketbook-toting parents into the store.

Construction on Midtown Plaza’s bonafide electrified monorail began in September 1968, and its last piece was put in place mere minutes before the store opened for the train’s grand debut on November 29th.

monorail_line

Children lining up to ride the train in 2007. Photographer: Ira Srole.

Featuring two trains of two cars each, Midtown’s monorail accommodated 32 passengers at a time, and traveled three miles an hour along a circular route above the mall’s central concourse. The elevated train became an instant fixture of the holiday season in Rochester, drawing thousands of children every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

monorail_track

The monorail gliding above the central concourse during its final season in 2007. Photographer: Ira Srole.

The ride was briefly retired in the late 1990s, but resurrected during the 2000 Christmas season.

The revival was short-lived.

The train made its final stop on Christmas Eve 2007, two months after the plans to demolish Midtown Plaza were announced. The monorail was dismantled piece by piece and placed in a storage facility, where it sat untouched for years.

During the demolition of Midtown Plaza, the City made arrangements with the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation and Historic Preservation, which allowed the City to donate the train as long as it was exhibited in a publicly accessible space and not used for profit. The City offered the artifact to a variety of local institutions, but the train had no takers until this year.

This past summer, City Council voted to send the relic railcars to the New York Museum of Transportation in Rush, NY. A car will also be on display at the Roc Holiday Village in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park this December.

Though the monorail won’t run again–it wouldn’t meet the current electrical code–visitors can catch a glimpse of the timeworn train and relish in the memories of rides past.

-Emily Morry

 

 

 

Published in: on November 21, 2018 at 9:49 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this great memory! I actually rode this monorail with my daughter Michelle once.


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