“I remember, . . .” began the old man.
The streetcar sits high in the air, click-clacking across the tracks. A long bridge, with eight buttresses, wood and steel framing, and exposed sides stretches out in front. There is no idle creek running below, instead, Merle Hay Road heading north to Camp Dodge. Snow is clumped on the ground furthest from the sun. The streetcar, perched over Merle Hay, is heading west toward Urbandale. The infamous Merle Hay Trestle.
“What made the trestle so neat? When the conductor would go zipping across there, it was a blast. I was always looking for the trestle from my seat on the trolley. We’d go across it so fast, I wanted to go back and do it again. 35-40 mph tops. It seemed like 100.”
Earl Short is edging 80 years old. He’s a big man. Tall and broad with a strong, deep voice and attentive eyes. Streetcars, their history, and the people who were part of that era are his passion.
“My father started as a streetcar operator in 1923 and retired in 1961. Streetcars in Des Moines ended in March of 1951. Trolley buses ended in 1964.”
Earl Short’s path was different from his father’s.
“I worked at the Des Moines Register in the mail room for 22 years. Then as realtor for 26 years. I retired in 2003 and just turned that page in my life.”
And that is when his adventures started. In chasing down his father’s past, he discovered a whole world of streetcars and the people who were affected by them. Word got out that he was collecting stories and photos. Before long, folks wanted to hear what Earl Short discovered of this bygone era. He obliged, taught himself PowerPoint, and now has 50 presentations lasting an hour-and-a-half each. He estimates that he has spoken to 150 groups.
Standing room only at the Franklin Library on a recent afternoon. At the front of the room, Earl Short speaks about the various streetcars and their routes throughout the metro. He tells us how the streetcars worked, who operated them, the people who used them, the businesses that thrived along the routes, the remnants that still exist in hidden-away spots, and the hope for the future. We sit mesmerized, while the old folks nod in memory.
Later, he and I sit and talk in his home office. His computer is alive with old photos, lecture notes, and e-mails from folks around the country interested in streetcars.
“I was so young when I crossed the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember we were frequently going out to my father’s garden near the Urbandale Loop. I remember playing in the garden. My dad would get on the streetcar carrying gunnysacks full of potatoes on his shoulders. One hundred pounds on both shoulder. His arms reminded me of Popeye.”
Pictures of his dad, the Urbandale Loop, the location of the garden, are all backdrop to more stories, more pictures, and then more stories with pictures. All told by Short with great passion. And so the afternoon passes.
Listen, folks, I know that horses and buggies no longer promenade down Grand Avenue; that the dime stores and the downtown Younkers are wisps of smoke; and that great-grandma’s mac-and-cheese has been replaced by a macaroni Zombie Burger. But perhaps these old stories and photos are what keep us rooted to our lives as our world becomes a collection of apps and tweets that spin across our screens and dissolve with lightening speed.
Earl Short digs up more photos from his computer.
“Streetcars are really my passion. I spend so much time at this. My wife, God bless her, she puts up with it. Because she knows that this really keeps me busy and keeps me mentally going. I’m very content.”
Earl Short pauses.
“Now, Joe, back to the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember . . .”
The Merle Hay Trestle as it appears today.