In 2015, Gabe Emerson called up the Minnesota Zoo and asked to buy their monorail. It had been decommissioned two years prior and the zoo, apparently, didn’t know what to do with it. They had listed it for auction on what Emerson describes as “some obscure state surplus auction website” and were out of ideas. “They apparently,” Emerson quipped over email, “hadn’t heard of Craigslist.”
The zoo had not sold a monorail to Brockway, Ogdenville, or North Haverbrook at this point, and so it quoted Emerson a per-car rate for the genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail. But that sounded more like a Shelbyville idea to Emerson. He wanted the whole train. He offered them $1,000, a discount on the per-car rate. The zoo tried to get him to take the track, too, but with a chance the track could bend, Emerson declined, but assured them he was on the level.
Emerson, a 36-year-old Alaska native who is COO of a small property management company, moved to the Twin Cities for graduate school and wanted the monorail because he was tired of pitching a tent every time he visited his friend’s rural property. He wanted something sturdier and permanent, yet more unique than an RV or camper. At first, he wanted to buy a plane fuselage, but could only find them in airplane junkyards in the southwest desert.
“It turns out they aren’t too common in the midwest,” he observed, which is also true of monorails. But Emerson only needed one.
One of the first questions people typically ask Emerson, he says, is how he managed to move it. The train is about 100 feet long and weighs around 27 tons, but, as he wrote in a blog post detailing the moving process, “We were able to lose quite a bit of weight by removing the wheel bogies and drive motors, which was also required for uncoupling and removal from the track.”
The cars have small wheels on the sides so they could move onto the track above an inspection pit for repairs, which allowed Emerson to transfer the cars from the monorail track to the maintenance track for a (relatively) easier load onto a rented flatbed. With the help of some friends, they managed to move the cars one at a time. They then towed the cars very slowly with a rented heavy-duty pickup for two hours over back roads, getting passed by pissed off semi-truck drivers.
As for getting the cars off the flatbed and onto their final resting place, Emerson hired a crane and operator from a local cement plant, who Emerson says was “a real wizard.”
Overall, moving the monorail cost about five to six times as much as the sticker price. But a monorail for $6,000 still sounds like a steal.
Emerson credits his ability to orchestrate this move with his upbringing on an Alaskan island, where he says he has “experience moving silly things with third-world technology.” He once recovered a free sailboat by winching it out of the water in a similar fashion.
Unlike a plane fuselage which is one long interior, the monorail cars are essentially individual rooms with only a small panel for through-access, making each car more or less an individual cabin. Emerson built a deck and has done some work to clean up the interiors, but doesn’t want to remodel the inside too extensively and lose the historical character. Unfortunately, raccoons have figured out how to open the doors, so he spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning up after them.
But he has still found some time to enjoy it, whether it’s relaxing on the deck in the summer breeze or outfitting one of the cars with a projector for Monorail Movie Night where they watched—what else?—The Simpsons monorail episode.
About that. I had to ask: how often does he sing the monorail song while in the monorail? How does he resist the urge to make constant Simpsons references while working on it? I was heartened to hear he, his fiancee (who he says has been very supportive of the monorail scheme), and friends absolutely do not resist the temptation.
“We definitely make Simpsons references a lot!” he wrote. “There are intercom panels in each car, and I keep threatening to hook them up to play the monorail song if you push the button. I haven’t gotten around to that just yet.” They even outfitted the operator’s cabin with a plush possum named Bitey.
He has camped out in the monorail a few times, fulfilling the original intention of the purchase, even if it wasn’t so much easier than the tent, all things considered. But the results were largely positive: one night, a big thunderstorm rolled through would have destroyed the tent, but the monorail merely rocked slightly, presumably because of its advanced anchoring technology.
Emerson’s now looking to upgrade to bug screens, raccoon-proof doors, and installing solar panels for small lights and phone chargers, because he has apparently not learned anything. That is, if he can find time between his other projects like motorizing a canoe with an old weedwhacker.
To the disappointment of monorail enthusiasts around the world, Emerson has no plans to rent out the monorail on Airbnb or any other platform once outfitted. For him, it’s just a hobby and a fun place to hang out, knowing he didn’t take the easy route of buying an RV. He says he just likes the idea of having something different.