When blogger Gabe Emerson heard the old Minnesota Zoo monorail trains were being sold off, he didn’t envision an archaic machine soon to be discarded; he saw an opportunity.
For 34 years, a monorail looped above the animals at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, giving visitors a unique view of the exhibits below. Then in 2013, the zoo closed it down and put its three trains — each with six cars — up for auction. The zoo only managed to sell one.
“I thought it was unfortunate they closed it, but it gave me the opportunity,” Emerson said. So in 2015, he bought a whole monorail train.
Emerson even helped the zoo sell the remaining cars to a museum in New York. According to Emerson, the cars there have not yet been put on display in their new location.
A collector since birth
Being raised on an island in Funter Bay, Alaska, Emerson was used to repurposing just about anything. As a child, he was always working on projects, from a chicken coop to an airboat.
This “Alaskan attitude” followed Emerson as he went to college in the early 2000s. He went on to create over 10 do-it-yourself projects in his free time. All of those projects are documented on his extensive blog, SaveitforParts, which he started in the early 2000s.
“It’s a combination of art and maybe hoarding,” Emerson said. “A little bit of redneck engineering, too.”
Emerson now lives in St. Paul after moving to Minnesota for graduate school at the University of Minnesota in 2005. He works as the chief operating officer at Swan Leasing, a property management company based in Minneapolis.
From monorail to RV
With a master’s degree in computer science and a passion for putting old parts to new uses, Emerson couldn’t pass up the opportunity to own a unique piece of Minnesota history.
He paid the Minnesota Zoo $1,000 for the 1980s monorail train. He needed a crane to move it, a task that cost five to six times what he paid for it.
Emerson planted the train on his friend’s property in Pepin County, Wis., a place already home to underground tunnels, a human hamster wheel and a tree house. Now, Emerson and his friends can camp on the property in comfort.
“Raccoons have figured out how to open the doors, so it’s a fight to keep them out,” Emerson said.
The six cars on the monorail are similar in size to a recreational vehicle, creating the perfect shelter. Emerson decided to add drop-in furnishings that will not alter the original design of the car. Two cars are furnished by him and the other four are for his friends.
The most recent addition was a wooden “station” attached to the outside.
In one of the cars, Emerson gathered scans of old documents about monorails and collected relics mailed to him by other enthusiasts to create a private museum.
He posts about the history of monorails, along with updates on his projects, on his blog.
What’s next at the zoo
As part of a Minnesota Zoo revitalization project, a walkway called “Treetop Trail” could someday take the place of the monorail, said zoo director John Frawley. Think of the High Line in New York City.
The elevated walkway is the most cost-effective solution and serves as a way to preserve the unique monorail structure left behind, he said. It would provide a 1.3-mile loop over the zoo property.
“The monorail was a signature piece of the Minnesota Zoo when it opened,” Frawley said. “Many longtime zoo supporters were saddened when they learned of the monorail’s closing.”
The project is in the final stages of conceptual design, but the zoo hopes to select an architectural firm this year and secure funding. Once started, construction could take up to two years.
The project would cost $22 million, according to a presentation zoo officials made at the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year. Half of that is being sought from the state; the rest would come from donors. A $6 million donation toward the project has already been committed.