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Grand Rapids exhibit details rise and fall of interurban electric rail system at turn of the 20th century

Imagine a series of regional electric rail systems that allow convenient, environmentally friendly train travel between key points in Michigan. That might sound like a vision of the future, but this is a story about Michigan's past.

Grand Valley State University recently installed an outdoor exhibit at its Pew Grand Rapids campus to detail the history of West Michigan's interurban rail system, which was created in the 1890s.

Nathan Kemler is the director of galleries and collections for the Art Gallery at GVSU. Matthew Daley is a history professor at the university. Kemler and Daley worked on the outdoor exhibit and spoke with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition about the project.

"The technology of the future"

In the late 1800s, very few people owned cars. Local travel often involved horses. Most roads were dirt. There were traditional trains, but Daley says there was also excitement about the possibilities of electric power.

Ticket - Grand Rapids, Holland, and Lake Michigan Rapid Railway.jpg
Collections of Grand Rapids Public Museum
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This pre-1915 ticket for the Grand Rapids, Holland, and Lake Michigan Rapid Railway shows the stops along the route. Riders would transfer from the interurban to Grand Rapids’ streetcar system.

"Electricity was the technology of the future, and it was just coming really of age. People were seeing it in their homes, and it was this sort of wonder technology that [today] we really take for granted," Kemler said. "Part of the idea was to start a railroad in Holland and interconnect with a streetcar system, but then to reach out to the growing industries. It really connected [the Lake Michigan] shore with its tourism, with hotels, with shipping traffic to Chicago."

The interurban was more nimble than traditional rail lines in the region, and cleaner.

"Their power plants created coal smoke, but you don't get dirty when you ride on [interurban trains], and they could also haul freight. There was a direct competition to the traditional railroads: the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, the Michigan Central," Daley said.

The growth of interurban systems

Daley noted that West Michigan wasn't the only place in the state with an interurban system.

"There [were] a whole host of them, especially in southeast Michigan, near Detroit. And at one point, they ran all the way up to Bay City, over to to Lansing, to St. John's, and all along essentially ... [what is now] I-94 reaching into points all the way to Indiana and Ohio," he said.

It's one thing to lay down hundreds of miles of track for a traditional train with cars that are self-powered. But creating an electrical system for trains in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be difficult. Streetcars in cities ran on overheard wires, as did the route from Grand Rapids to Holland, but designers also relied on other methods.

"When you left city limits, they had a third-rail system just like a subway, and one of the challenges was they had to plow [snow off of] the lines. They had endless problems with fencing, and animals wandering onto the tracks, getting electrocuted," Daley said. "But it was considered to be the most efficient and the least susceptible to wind damage, which is something that we still struggle with in the present."

In article promoting the installation, Kemler wrote that the Interurban was an "early, sustainable transportation method that was rooted in equity." Prices fluctuated, but a trip from downtown Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan cost about $5 in today's money. Not cheap, but not out of reach, either.

"This is what's so great about this is that this was open to everybody to use, and so you could use this as a pedestrian travel rail, you can use it like you would any other public transportation. Today, you wouldn't need to walk, and you wouldn't need to own your own car," Kemler said.

"Today, you wouldn't need to walk, and you wouldn't need to own your own car."
Nathan Kemler, director of galleries and collections at GVSU

Daley noted that the system was not segregated officially.

"I imagine they followed a lot of the same sort of cultural practices that went on at the turn of the century, but I have images of the integrated passenger travel. And there were African-American freight workers on the interurban system," he said.

The decline of the interurban

After a strong start, interurban ridership declined rapidly in the mid-1920s. It's no coincidence that Henry Ford's Model T was already very popular by that time. But it wasn't just the loss of passengers that hurt the private companies that owned the various systems across the state.

"Once ridership begins to decline, it really takes its toll on the system as a whole. Freight will [also] increasingly go away from the system. Freight work at the various factories and companies really subsidizes the passenger traffic. And once you begin to lose that, you begin to have that tearing away of the underpinnings of the finance," Daley said.

"Americans really chose automobiles. My students oftentimes think of it as sort of a conspiracy that [General Motors] took [the interurban trains] out. And my response is, 'No. We liked cars,'"

Daley noted that the rise of the automobile's popularity created other problems for electric rail systems.

"In 1919, the gas tax will be implemented to improve road construction, and public policy really favors funding for roads for private vehicles, and certainly was not going to give money to a private interurban network that was increasingly viewed as something out of the past," he said.

GVSU Interurban Railway Exhibit.jpg
GVSU University Communications
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Photographer Kendra Stanley-Mills
GVSU Interurban Railway Exhibit

Remembering and looking to the future

Today, there is still some of the original track, roughly 100 years old, in the ground at the site of the new exhibit in Grand Rapids. The two pieces are between 8 and 10 feet long. Daley and Kemler believe they're the last remaining interurban tracks in West Michigan.

"They're in the bricks, in the road where they originally were. When Grand Valley started on this project of changing over Mt. Vernon Street to a pedestrian mall, Father Dennis Morrow, [a former] pastor of the Saints Peter and Paul Parish [in Grand Rapids], wrote a letter and said, 'Please consider saving these tracks. These are important for our community,'" Kemler said.

The installation on the GVSU Pew Campus comes at a time when many people are thinking about climate change and reducing fossil fuel use. Automakers are unveiling all kinds of new electric vehicles.

Kemler and Daley said the story of the interurban is a revelation to GVSU students concerned about the planet's future.

"Most students are stunned. They tend to think of [electric transportation] as more of a modern phenomenon, that this is a brand-new, innovative technology that we're still developing," Kemler said.

"That's, in part, why this story is so important for our community to understand. We are continuing this narrative. We are building upon past knowledge and experience and learning from the past, just as much as we are learning by looking forward and taking risks and being innovative."

Lauren Talley contributed to this story.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

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