Burbank’s Aerial Monorail of the Future

A bold vision for a propeller-driven train never quite got off the ground

J.W. Fawkes's "Aerial Swallow" circa 1912
J.W. Fawkes's "Aerial Swallow" circa 1912 Los Angeles Times

The city of Burbank, California was incorporated in 1911 with a population of just 500. Today the population is just over 100,000 and the city is best known as the home of big name movie studios (and the closest Ikea to my apartment). Leading up to the incorporation of Burbank there was a lot of discussion about transportation services. The newly formed city wanted to build an extension of the Los Angeles streetcar line. Local artist and inventor Joseph W. Fawkes had become the first person in the U.S. to patent a monorail in 1907 and set out to convince Burbank that rather than an extension of the streetcar line, what the city really needed was a monorail. Fawkes imagined that an aerial monorail would provide service from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles, beginning at his own ranch off Olive Avenue.

Fawkes built a prototype, which was photographed for the Los Angeles Times. The photograph above comes from the beautiful book, Imagining Los Angeles: Photographs of a 20th Century City. The image can also be found in the USC Digital Libraries collection. The caption from the Los Angeles Times book explains the hurdles for Fawkes:

The idea never found backers—but if it had, the public might be enjoying futuristic monorail travel through the air between Burbank and downtown. In 1910 inventor J.W. Fawkes built a propellor-driven aerial trolley that he claimed would haul passengers at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. To demonstrate, he hung a quarter-mile-long overhead track in his Burbank apricot orchard and invited passengers aboard. Dubbed the Aerial Swallow, the trolley was about 40 feet long and powered by a Frankline air-cooled engine, which turned the propeller. But the prototype topped out at three miles per hour, and investors kept their hands in their pockets.

Fawkes unveiled his prototype to the public on Independence Day, July 4, 1911 and though the monorail was christened as the Aerial Swallow, his prototype would eventually become known as Fawkes’ Folley. Fawkes was the first to patent the monorail in the United States, but his wasn’t the first to appear in the country. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 included a steam-powered monorail. A monorail also operated in Brooklyn in the summer of 1878 and in 1888 the city of South St. Paul, Minnesota built an overhead monorail. Perhaps inspired by the bicycle craze of the 1890s, Long Island’s “bicycle railroad” monorail began trial runs in 1894.

The early 1910s saw others across the country who were attempting to introduce monorails to U.S. cities. William H. Boyes built his monorail in Seattle around 1911. City Island, New York built a monorail in 1910 that was closed just a year after its first trip — which happened to involve it derailing. And in 1912 the U.S. Senate built an underground monorail to shuttle senators between the old Senate office building and the Capitol building, which was replaced in the 1960s by a trolley system that in turn was replaced by a subway system.

Early 20th century monorails in the United States were inspired by what was happening in Europe at the time. An article in the August 15, 1912 Fort Wayne Sentinel heralded the gyroscopic monorail of the future, with an illustration of one that was currently operating in Prussia. Decades later, Walt Disney would be inspired to bring a monorail to Disneyland in 1959 after he saw the ALWEG monorail on his trip to Germany.

You could also find other monorails that pre-date modern popular science fiction and yet were still fanciful illustrations of the future to come. The August, 1918 issue of science fiction legend Hugo Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine featured a monorail powered by two propellers.

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