Twenty-five minutes was all it took. To spin a round-trip journey from the American prairie to the Asian steppes to the boreal forest to the taiga. To watch animals roam in huge habitats. To marvel at the animal adaptations developed to thrive in the challenging climate of the northlands.

Twenty-five minutes a trip, for 34 years, hundreds of thousands of Minnesota Zoo visitors rode the Monorail. It was a distinctive Zoo experience and it always had a friend up front: the expert driver—and narrator—at the controls and on the microphone.

The Minnesota Zoo’s Skytrail staff, circa 1990s. Gina Goralski is lower right; Dave Silvester is in top row, wearing yellow shirt.

An Elevated Vision

From the first proposal in the late 1960s for a large modern zoo in the Twin Cities, artist renderings show huge outdoor animal habitats with a passenger train chugging around the perimeter.

“A day at the zoo… a world full of animals in a Minnesota woodland. Ride the puffing narrow-gauge train.”

Much of the proposal did not come to fruition—or is outdated for a contemporary zoo—but the goal to offer visitors an elevated perspective of “a worldful of animals in a Minnesota woodland” has endured, from Monorail to the new Treetop Trail.

The dream of that modern zoo was realized when the Minnesota Zoological Garden opened on May 22, 1978. And the next year, on September 20, 1979, the Monorail pulled out of the station with its first carloads of guests. It was also called the Skytrail to match the naming convention of the Northern Trail, Tropics Trail, and Minnesota Trail.

But as the Monorail aged it became increasingly difficult to source parts to keep it in good working order. Ridership also declined, and it made its final run on September 2, 2013, after more than 30 years of year-round trips.

Those who knew the Monorail best were the drivers who did far more than push and pull the levers. Through their knowledge of the natural world, connection to Zoo animals, and their engaging personalities, they elevated the Monorail experience for every guest.

Several of these drivers still work at the Zoo in an array of roles. Monorail driver was an entry-level, part-time job that provided a steppingstone to many Zoo careers in education, zookeeping, guest services–even graphic design. Here they offer their fond memories and unique insights into the Monorail.

Tight-Knit Team

On Dave Silvester’s first day of training on the Monorail in 1993, his assigned trainer was a bald, gruff, rough-and-tough-looking man.

“You know who that is, right?” a fellow rookie driver asked him.

It dawned on Dave: his trainer was none other than world-famous professional wrestler Baron von Raschke. AKA “The Claw.”

Dave learned that following Raschke’s retirement from the wrestling circuit, he became a substitute science teacher—and a part-time Monorail driver at the Minnesota Zoo.

But colorful characters were par for the course on the Monorail, where creativity was celebrated. Dave brought his theater and historical interpretation background to his Monorail narration, at one point crafting a “Furry History of Minnesota” class  in which he dressed as a fur-trading voyageur and took students on a “Canoe Ride in the Sky” aboard the Monorail.

Today, Dave is a Guest Services Lead, giving assistance and information so Zoo visitors can make the most of their day.

“I miss the Monorail terribly,” he says. “The work was a big part of my life for 20 years. The folks I worked with were such a great group to be affiliated with.”

Dave Silvester at the controls of the Minnesota Zoo’s Monorail, circa early 2000s. He has worked continuously for the Zoo since 1993 and is currently Guest Services Lead.

That group includes Cathy Schlegl, now a Zookeeper on the Tropics Trail. Her unconventional Monorail story begins with dressing in a giant cockroach costume and scuttling in the dark beneath the tracks.

She was a high school student at Lakeville High School and her drama club was enlisted as volunteers for a special Halloween event at the Zoo, complete with creepy-crawly creatures. Cathy returned to the Zoo as a college intern, and in 2001 was a temporary Keeper and drove the Monorail.

“Everyone loved being able to see the wildlife from the train,” she says. “Sometimes I would get out my binoculars to identify a hawk in the sky and get totally lost in that moment.”

“People loved seeing the movement of animals. The prairie dogs were always active, the beauty of the butterfly garden [where Russia’s Grizzly Coast is now].”

Cathy and Dave both shared how essential it was to learn from more experienced drivers, ride their trains, and share tips on what animals were active on a given day. Some drivers were songbird experts, Others could ID a tree even when its leaves had fallen or knew which flowers would soon bloom as the seasons changed.

“We found excitement in the gifts of others,” Dave remembers.

Narrating Nature

While drivers were provided a basic script that offered facts about every species and habitat, they were encouraged to fine-tune it—and improvise when something interesting popped up, as it did one year when a barred owl nested in a tree just feet from the track.

“You had to learn to adapt on the fly versus sounding really canned,” says former driver Shannon Klahr, now Graphic Designer in the Zoo’s Marketing and Communications department.

“It was really important to freshen up the script,” Shannon says. “When a driver put personality into their train, you could really hear it. It was authentic.”

“My theme was ‘Let’s go on a journey of imagination through the Northern Hemisphere,’” Gina Goralski says. She drove the Monorail part-time for six years, mixing in stints as a bird show intern, educator, and coordinator of a mentoring program that engaged urban youth at the Zoo. Today she’s Public Program Coordinator in the Education department.

“As I got more comfortable driving and knew all the fun facts about the animals in the order guests would see them, I added more observations and developed my own voice.”

She says she constantly did homework to learn the Minnesota flora and fauna in the “backwoods” portion of the trail.

Shannon Klahr, left, and Gina Goralski are current Minnesota Zoo staff who started their careers as Monorail drivers. They’re at the landing of the Treetop Trail where the Monorail station once stood.

“We all got really good at IDing wild animals and plants from 25 feet in the air,” Gina says.

That includes spotting a Bactrian camel giving birth in the habitat.

“I fully stopped the train,” Gina remembers. “We sat there for more than 5 minutes. The camel didn’t lie down, just kept walking around as the baby’s legs emerged. It was incredible for all of us on the train.”

All Aboard for Treetop Trail

Now the track is back in an all-new way. With the opening of the Treetop Trail in July 2023, Zoo visitors can again view animals from above.

On a preview day for employees, the former Monorail drivers were eager to return to their favorite overlooks.

“I’m excited to get on that path again,” Klahr says. “I think I’ll remember those shady spots where animals relax and are a little camouflaged.”

“It’s really the best way to see the size of the animals and the scope of their whole habitat—and it’s the coolest way to reuse all that metal!”

The Treetop Trail also offers the return of encounters with ambassador animals. Porcupines, skunks, snakes, and opossums will interact with guests daily at the trailhead. Naturalists and

Former Monorail driver Cathy Schlegl on the Treetop Trail in July 2023. She is now a Zookeeper on the Tropics Trail.

volunteers will share fascinating facts and answer questions about native Minnesota wildlife.

“I’m looking forward to people getting up close to animals,” Cathy says. “That’s when you learn more!”

Gina agrees that one-on-one connection between animals and guests makes a big impact.

“I’m so glad we’re bringing that back,” she says. “It makes the Minnesota Zoo really special.”

On his walks on the Treetop Trail, Dave will be watching for the wildest of animals, those he learned to be highly observant of as a Monorail driver. The waterfowl returning in springtime. Turtles basking on the Reflection Pond. Perhaps sighting a snowy owl snuggled in the snowdrifts, as he and his Monorail passengers witnessed one warm winter’s day years ago.

“I hope people enjoy seeing the Zoo through new eyes. Just set your own pace, slow down, and take it all in.”

The Treetop Trail is open daily and included in your Zoo admission. Learn more about this innovative reuse of the Monorail track and plan your visit today!