Iowa Trolley Heads for China

Jun 15, 2015

Among other things, Iowa is famous for corn, insurance and presidential campaigns. Perhaps the state’s most unknown creation is almost ready for shipment abroad. Iowa Public Radio’s Rick Fredericksen reports from Ida County.

A former National Guard Armory is where relics of history are resurrected on the edge of Ida Grove. Wood workers are trimming, routing and varnishing rafters and decorative trim for an old fashioned trolley car, the kind of transportation that used to be common. Grant Godbersen is Vice President of Gomaco Trolley Company.

Grant Godberson is Vice President of Gomaco Trolley Co.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“(We) Truly have been a country that hasn’t had these trolleys that run in service for well over 60 years. The buses generally started taking over more and more of the routes in the cities and the trolleys were phased out.”

Gomaco is short for Godberson Manufacturing Company, an international giant best known for building other things; from bridges to paving equipment. One of the family patriarchs was obsessed with restoring cars; one thing led to another, and they won their first bid to refurbish trolley cars in 1982. The startup business has been on-track ever since.

They’ve built about 40 trolleys, including this one in Mount Pleasant that has carried many thousands of Iowans during the Old Threshers Reunion. John Kallin is sales manager.

Wooden parts are hand made in the workshop
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“Restoring a trolley car is very labor intensive because you dismantle the car, you take all the old stuff off and then at some point you finally get to the point of putting it all back together.”

Depending on the project design, a trolley can cost anywhere from a half-million dollars to nearly two million.

“But if you are building a new car most of the labor is in the wood, as you’re making each piece to fit, they’re all hand made.”

Contemporary trolleys have the advantage of current innovation and technology, like Gomaco’s version of a Prius trolley; a renovated car from Australia that runs on battery or electric power. Their latest replica will be shipped to Taiwan; the company’s first overseas export. It will move Chinese passengers between an amusement park and a shopping mall.

Sales Manager John Kallin in the driver’s seat
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“That car is 100 percent battery. They ordered their car with extra batteries to get longer run time. They’re hoping to start in the morning and run for 12 hours before they need to re-charge again.”

The company’s staff of 13 even makes the brass components in the onsite foundry.

“Right now the temperature gets up to about 1,800 to 1,950.”

Carl Shable casts the shiny overhead grab-rails, the whistle and conductor’s bell.

Gomaco does not compete in mass transit, or manufacture buses that look like trolleys. Nothing on rubber tires, according to Grant Godberson, just vintage style cars that ride the rails. And a number of cities are bringing them back to revitalize their down towns.

2nd and Grand in Des Moines, 1939
Credit Michael O'Brien

“One of the big problems the Iowa cities are going to have is it requires so much federal funding to do these projects, the infrastructure work, the laying of tracks the moving of utility lines and a lot of these projects get into the hundred to 200 million dollar range there.”

Gomaco is also rehabilitating a vintage rail car for a tourist train in the Black Hills, which started out as a pile of rotting boards and rusted parts. Only a few companies specialize in this business, which survives in part on nostalgia, a half century after most trolley car tracks were ripped out and forgotten. In Ida Grove, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.