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Lyle Zapato

Carpetbagging Monorailists: A Cascadian Tradition

Lyle Zapato | 2005-11-29.2150 LMT | Monorail Danger | Cascadia | Technology | Retro

There was a story on Evening Magazine last night about "The Northwest's 10 Greatest Unsolved Mysteries". Besides yet again bringing up D.B. Cooper -- whom you should all just forget you ever heard about -- it had one topical mystery I had somehow missed: the details surrounding a prototype monorail built on the Tacoma tideflats in 1910 or 1911.

William H. Boyes monorail prototype, from monorails.org

Pretty much all that's known about it can be found in this article from 1995. It was created by the Seattle-Tacoma Monorail Co., founded in 1910 by William H. Boyes and two other unnamed men to provide high-speed rail service between Puget Sound cities. Boyes was not a Cascadian, he came from Brooklyn, New York and lived in Seattle out of a hotel. The photo above appears to be part of a publicity campaign for their company, and was likely no more than a fanciful mock-up, although if it worked it may lay claim to the dubious title of the first true monorail ever built. Details about it are scarce.

As is typical with monorails, the whole deal went south. The first posts were erected in 1911 for what was to be an actual line in Edmonds, but a skunk fell in one of the post holes and died, stinking up the site. Materials never showed up. Eventually there were -- what else? -- money problems when it was learned that Boyes spent $10,000 of $15,000 of stock investments on himself. The line was never finished. That's where the known story ends.

Since there isn't much information available about the monorail or its creator, I did some digging in patents and found some more tidbits.

(Side note: I had to find these patents sideways by looking for references in post-1976 patents as the USPTO doesn't have in-text searches for pre-1976 ones. There have been a lot of "Boyes" referenced since then, and I only grabbed the ones with obvious titles that I noticed by skimming, not to mention patents that weren't referenced, so there might be other interesting patents from our man Boyes still to uncover.)

Boyes, along with one Erwin F. von Wilmowsky, was issued US patent #867,007 in 1907 (filed 1900) for a "System of Railroads and Appliances Pertaining Thereto." From the patent:

Our main object is to provide means to travel with increased speed and in a smooth, noiseless manner. For this purpose, we have devised what may be called an autobalancing system of railroads; it is a true one-rail railroad, and consists preferably, of an elevated track-girder of special construction and a half-bisected car which is sub-divided into sections and fitted to ride on said girder.

In other words, a monorail. They go on to claim that previous "one-rail railroads" all used some sort of hidden extra rails for balance or other cheats, and that the system they are introducing is the first true monorail (although that name isn't used).

Figure 1 from patent #867,007

As can be seen, the monorail in the mock-up photo at the beginning is a rickety, cheap version of the one in the plans.

Apparently Mr. Boyes didn't limit himself to monorail malfeasance. The Evening Magazine piece mentioned Boyes later started a failed airship venture, and when searching for info on him I found a few vague mentions of a Boyes Airship Company in New Jersey from people with old stock certificates. Sure enough I also found US patent #2,070,854 issued to Boyes in 1937 (filed 1929) for an "Air Vehicle":

Figure 1 & 2 from patent #2,070,854

The only thing I found on his airship company is an anecdote from a dot-com motivational speaker who uses one of the Boyes Airship Fund certificates as a prop to make some sort of business point:

... the huge four-chambered lighter-than-air ship was the marvel of Monmouth County, New Jersey, which had a thriving industry in dirigibles. But it was too big to get out of the hangar, so the company went bankrupt.

And to tie this in with recent pre-monorail-crash posts, I have found references to an Erwin von Wilmowsky being an experimenter working at one of Edison's chemical laboratories in 1887-1888 on lamp filaments and photo batteries. No idea if its the same one who co-patented the monorail with Boyes, but Edison was in New Jersey, as was Boyes' airship company. It's a small world after all?

UPDATE: The links to the USPTO images don't work, so I substituted them with ones to the text landing pages for the patents. Click the "Images" button to get to the images. Hopefully those links won't time out. If they do, go here and search for the numbers yourself.

End of post.