Disneyland 1959: Secret Stories of the Monorail - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The iconic Disneyland Monorail celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Even after six decades, it still represents for many people the idea of the transportation of the future and is as much a symbol of the park as Sleeping Beauty Castle.

For Walt Disney, it was his hope that by demonstrating it successfully and dramatically at the park that the city of Los Angeles might consider it as a future public transit system option. It was officially dedicated on Sunday, June 14, 1959.

Monorail Red had been assembled on the beam way at the park just two weeks prior to the dedication ceremony on a spur line behind Fantasyland. Monorail Blue would not be ready for another two weeks or so until July 3, 1959. The two trains were identical.

Monorail Red had broken down every day after its assembly, so Imagineer Bob Gurr and Conrad Deller, the chief designer at Alweg, would spend time each night talking over the problems and drawing sketches for replacement parts.

The drawings were taken to the machine shop at the Disney Studios in Burbank where replacement parts would be made overnight and delivered the next morning, where they would be installed in the train. Monorail Red finally made a successful loop around Tomorrowland without breaking down the night before the dedication.

There was no time to train the newly hired Monorail drivers, so Disneyland wardrobe during the night shift made Bob Gurr a uniform and fitted him with it in the early morning. Gurr had eased Monorail Red carefully into the Tomorrowland station with the understanding that he only needed to drive it away after the ribbon cutting ceremony.

The idea was that even if the Monorail once again broke down once it was out of the station, the cameras would have seen it leaving and think it was up and running.

The Richard Nixon family would dedicate Walt Disney's Highway in the Sky. They had stayed at the Disneyland Hotel Saturday night in owner Jack Wrather's personal suite thanks to personal arrangements by Walt himself.

Walt Disney with the Nixon family at the opening of the Monorail in June 1959.

They arrived at the Monorail station at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday morning June 14 to pose for press photos for newspapers east of the Rocky Mountains who needed them for their Monday editions. The actual dedication with the family would take place later in the afternoon around 4 p.m. after the dedication of the Submarine Voyage.

At the photo shoot, Gurr remembered, "Walt wanted to show Nixon the inside of the Monorail cab. We turned on the 600-volt DC power so I could get the air conditioning to cool down the cab. In a few minutes, Walt had the entire Nixon family in the cab. The security personnel were on the platform."

"Now Walt could get very twinkly-eyed and excited when he was showing off something new, and he told everyone about his dream for modern transportation in America," Gurr said. "And he had it right now in Disneyland, and wanted to show it off."

Walt joked that he himself sometimes drove the Disneyland steam locomotives but that since this was something new, he let "Bobby drive the modern trains."

Gurr recalled:

"Walt was having a good time. When there's something that he's got, and nobody else has got it, he's like a very proud papa. He was in an extremely good mood. The eyebrows were up, and he was in one of those moods. He turned to me and said, 'Let's go!' and when Walt tells you something you don't hesitate or question it. You do it.

"I worried the thing might only have one good lap in it and I was saving that for later that day for the ceremony but off we went. When we passed over the Submarine Voyage waterfall, Nixon let out a four letter exclamation because all the White House Secret Service people were back on the station platform and they were all scrambling around. I had kidnapped the vice president of the United States!

"I was so grateful when we finally were heading back to the station but Nixon's two daughters eagerly wanted to go around again and Walt said, 'Bobby, give 'em another ride!' So I did but I had visions of the Monorail bursting into flames and we hadn't developed any rescue procedures. As we zoomed through the station, we didn't slow down and the Secret Service tried to jump into the train but didn't make it.

"Nixon just roared with laughter. Apparently, he was sometimes irritated by all the security he had around him. I didn't find any of it funny at all. When we pulled back into the station, Walt and the Nixon family all walked down the ramp and looked back up and the Secret Service were all in the train. They hadn't even noticed we had left and walked down. That made Nixon laugh, as well.

"You know they always have all these plans and this was something unexpected, something spontaneous and it took them by surprise. [Alweg's Chief Designer Conrad] Deller ran up to me shouting in a thick German accent, 'You crazy Disney people! Just because you get the train to run once, you put your vice president on this thing without knowing how it really works! You are a crazy person!' I agreed but you don't say 'no' to Walt."

Nixon laughed at his head of security, "You should have seen the expressions on your faces!" Then he left to take his mother to church while his wife and daughters stayed and enjoyed some of the attractions.

His mother had stayed with them at the Disneyland Hotel. Around noon, they all gathered for an informal lunch in Walt's apartment above the firehouse. Around 1:15 p.m., they rode in cars down Main Street to the viewing stands in the Hub.

Walt rode with his grandchildren Christopher and Joanna in a 1906 Buick driven by E.J. Antonik. Mrs. Disney, who was notoriously shy, did not ride with Walt, but was in the stands along with Ron Miller and his wife Diane Disney Miller. Nixon and his family rode in a 1909 Cadillac driven by Barney Rademacher.

Looking at the early concept sketches for Disneyland's Tomorrowland, Imagineer Herb Ryman drew a suspended electric monorail zooming over the entrance to this world of tomorrow. While we think of such a vehicle as "futuristic," the truth of the matter is that the principle of mass transportation by elevated vehicles suspended from or carried on a single beam goes back to 1878.

In that year, a steam-powered monorail system operated between Bradford and Gilmore in the United States. In 1892, an electric car running along a single rail operated on Long Island.

Gurr said: "Up to Disneyland, the word 'monorail' usually referred to the Wuppertal Monorail in the town of Wuppertal, Germany. It was a mountain town with a curving river and the monorail was built because it was the easiest way to go up and down through this little town. They had pylons built on both banks of the river and the track hung down and the train swung freely underneath. It was very simple and practical. It was like a railroad car with the wheels above it, hanging on a rail. It had been running over 50 years by the time the Alweg Company started to do their work."

What made the Disneyland-Alweg system unique was that instead of being suspended by an overhead rail, the monorails straddle a beam and are supported and stabilized by vertical and horizontal wheels. It was referred to as a "saddle bag" system recalling the bags that cowboys would sling over the saddles of their horses.

According to Disney legend, after leaving the set after watching some filming of the live action feature movie Third Man on the Mountain (and that movie inspired Walt Disney to create the Matterhorn at Disneyland), in June 1958, Walt Disney and his wife Lillian ventured into Cologne, Germany, where, while driving along a country road, saw the test track and test train for the Alweg monorail.

As the story goes, Walt and Lillian had visited Germany years earlier and ridden the Wuppertal Suspension Railway that made Lillian feel queasy because of the swaying motion and sharp turns. As they were driving along this road, Walt rounded the bend into a clearing just as the Alweg monorail train passed above the road right in front of him.

He followed the train beams and found the offices of the small research group called "Alweg" based on the initials of its founder, Axel L. Wenner-Gren, who was a Swedish scientist who had his money "frozen" so it could only be spent in Germany after World War II to aid in the rebuilding of the country.

Angry, he used it to experiment with a prototype for future transportation that would make the Wuppertal monorail look archaic. Wenner-Gren had made some of his money by his investments in the ElectroLux Company that made vacuum cleaners that look today like retro rocket packs.

Walt took photos and got as much information as he could since he did not speak German and then returned to California and gave it all to Imagineer Roger Broggie to bring the monorail to Disneyland.

The Alweg Company had been operating their test monorail since 1952. Its beam way was on a long curve approximately one mile in length, without grades. However, if you map out the test site and the road for that year, it is clear that the test track never went over any road and the only road nearby was a small old country road so Walt would have had to have been very lost to be on it … or knew exactly where he was going and why.

So what is the real story?

Historian Todd James Pierce who has done some research on this matter got me to thinking that Walt may have known about the Alweg monorail long before he took that fateful vacation drive in June. There had been two articles in the Los Angeles Times the previous year that extensively talked about the Alweg monorail.

On January 3, 1957, the headline in the L.A. Times was "Monorail Will Serve Brazil Commuters" with the news coming from Cologne, Germany. According to the article: "The Alweg Corp. which for years has been demonstrating scale models of its futuristic monorail transit system has announced that the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo is going to try it…the Alweg Stadtbahn system's passenger cars look like something from Mars and have a cut-out wedge in its lower carriage which fits on a beam.

"Electrical impulses keep the cars going at speeds up to 180 mph. The cars carry 120 to 150 persons. The system was perfected by the Swedish multi-millionaire, Axel Wenner-Gren, who closed the deal with Vladimir de Toledo Piza, Sao Paulo Transit Commissioner. The city paid $1,500,000 for the system."

However, an article on March 3, 1957 in the L.A. Times has the headline "São Paulo Rows Over Rapid Transit System". Apparently, construction had not started on the monorail for several reasons including the fact that the Municipal Transport Co. of São Paulo had been bankrupt for some years and would have difficulty raising the funds for the multi-million dollar transit system. So, they were exploring other options including a subway or more buses.

According to the Reuters press release: "The Alweg one-track railway on stilts is the brainchild of Swedish financier Alex Wenner-Gren. The proposed São Paulo system would be 60 miles long. About eight miles would be underground and the remainder would run on a concrete track supported on legs or stilts. These stilts would keep the track high over the street level so that the railway would not interfere with road traffic.

"Most of its 124 stations would also be above street level. The track for this railway is a large rectangular concrete beam which is supported by the stilts in the same way as the cross bar of a trestle is supported by the legs. The coaches of the Alweg railway straddle this beam. The coaches run on two sets of wheels. The first set run on top of the concrete beam and carry the weight of the coach. The second set are placed each side of the beam and steady the coach."

These articles were well placed in the newspaper, so it is reasonable that someone at WED, and perhaps even Walt himself, could have seen them. The Brazilian deal was not the only project that Alweg had in the works. There was also a deal with the UK (for a monorail from London out to the airport), with the city of Cologne (for basic mass transit) and with British Columbia (Canada) for a monorail system moving to the northern part of BC.

Articles about these projects do show up in the New York Times and many other papers. None of these deals work out, but they were all reported on and it is interesting to contemplate whether the world would have been different if Disneyland was not the first location of an operating Alweg monorail system.

So, with these articles appearing in newspapers, the full-size Alweg test monorail train was not exactly a secret waiting to be discovered by serendipity on a lonely German country road.

Author Bob Thomas interviewed Admiral Joe Fowler for his book Walt Disney: An American Original and here is an excerpt:

"When I first came to Disneyland he (Walt Disney) wanted a monorail. He had some plans that had been given him by some of the authorities in Los Angeles. He asked me to look at them. Well, my God, they were just…A high school senior in manual training could have done a better job. There was nothing there to put your teeth into. No evidence of anything that would be at all satisfactory from an engineering point of view. I explained that to Walt and he said, 'All right, but keep on the lookout.'

"Well, in 1957, I went to Europe and met him at the Octoberfest. I had four of the most wonderful days of my life there with Walt and Lilly and my wife and myself. I told him that I had heard of this monorail in Cologne, Germany, which was running on an experimental basis on a mile long track, and I was going to look at it.

"He said, 'Fine.' I did and I got all the data [I had all the pictures and everything] and I came back to the Studio and I told Dick [Irvine], 'Dick, if we show these to Walt, we're sunk. He's going to build it, I'm sure.' And he did. And that was the beginning of the monorail."

The "on vacation" in Europe falls about the same time that Walt sent Fowler and Roger Broggie to Brussels to set up Expo '58 and to scout for new material for Disneyland. Disney helped with the American Pavilion at this Brussels' World's Fair. That trip would be about April 1958, which sets up Walt's trip to Europe in June of 1958 to see (or accidentally discover) the Alweg test site pretty nicely.

Here is a quote from the book Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years published by the Walt Disney Company and sold in the park in 1990. This is from page 57:

"Since the early days of Disneyland, Walt had wanted to include a train of the future. After much research and study, Disney engineers returned from Cologne, Germany, where they had been impressed by an experimental monorail developed by the Alweg Company. After recommending the system to Walt, Disney designers joined with the Alweg staff in 1958 to develop a basic plan that would lead to a working prototype. From there, the trains were designed and built at the Disney Studios in Burbank and the Disneyland Monorail became the first passenger-carrying system of its kind in the Western Hemisphere."

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in December 1986 designated the Disneyland Monorail System a "National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark." The monorail system was the 84th engineering landmark to be designated since the program began in 1973. Each landmark represented a progressive step in the evolution of mechanical engineering and its influence on society.

According to the document accompanying the dedication ceremony:

"Since the time he first conceived the idea of Disneyland, Walt Disney was interested in the possibility of installing a practical monorail system there. During a visit to Europe in the Summer of 1957, Disney's engineering group examined the experimental monorail developed by the Alweg Corporation, near Cologne, Germany. After further investigation, the group reported to Disney that this design appeared to offer the best prospects for economy, stability, and all-around practicality, not only for Disneyland but for municipal transportation systems in general. Disneyland and Alweg joined efforts in the summer of 1958 to develop the basic system into a working prototype for use at Disneyland."

Both Pierce and I agree that the story of Walt discovering the monorail by "accident" probably began with Roger Broggie, who was maybe remembering a visit Walt made to the German site to see Fowler's recommendation and got a little lost trying to find the place. Gurr often tells the story of Walt "discovering" the monorail but said he got it from Broggie not Walt.

Diane Disney Miller told me it was quite in keeping with her father's personality to go off on exploring adventures to discover things. She wrote to me that "I first heard from Bob Gurr the story of how dad, while driving with mother in Germany, encountered the monorail, and chased it to its home. It really sounds like him. He was given to those sorts of spontaneous adventures. But if maps show that was not possible?"

Whoever first discovered the Alweg monorail in Germany, the important thing is that Walt wanted it at Disneyland and its introduction resulted in the general public seriously considering the possibilities of it as a transportation system. It became more than just a novelty. It made history.

Next Week: In Part Two, the rest of the story about the first Disneyland monorail.