The Intersection of Southwest Michigan: Kalamazoo's Railroads

Michigan Railroad Map, 1876

An 1876 map of Michigan Railroads reveals Kalamazoo as one of the hubs of railroad activity.

It was the advent of the railroad that truly made Kalamazoo a crossroads of Southwest Michigan. Steam railroads connected the city to the large urban centers of Chicago and Detroit while Inter-urban rail lines connected Kalamazoo to the rural goods and residents of the hinterland. By 1918, over fifty trains were arriving in Kalamazoo daily.

Michigan Central train arriving in Kalamazoo, 1887

Michigan Central train arriving in Kalamazoo, 1887.

The Rapid Rise of Railroads

Southern Michigan’s population was steadily increasing in the early nineteenth-century, as easterners purchased land in hopes that it could be profitably resold. Encouraged by eastern land speculators, Michigan legislators in 1836 began funding the construction of three railroads which would cross the state, the Michigan Northern, Michigan Central, and Michigan Southern. The Michigan Central began in Detroit in 1837 and was eventually to connect to Chicago. The line arrived in Kalamazoo in 1846 to great fanfare.  In that same year the state of Michigan, struggling to fund further rail construction, sold the Michigan Central for $2 million to Boston investors. The now privately owned Michigan Central Railroad completed a line from Kalamazoo to Chicago in 1850, and Kalamazoo quickly became the transshipment point for surrounding villages and rural areas seeking access to Chicago or Detroit. A second railroad, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern reached Kalamazoo in 1867, connecting it to Schoolcraft, Three Rivers, and the Michigan Southern line.

Encouraged by the state of Michigan and the federal government through land grants, a number of private firms began constructing railroads in Southwest Michigan. Kalamazoo’s rail connections steadily grew between 1870 and 1900. The Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad Company, funded by investors seeking access to northern timber, connected Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids and Mackinaw City by 1882. Equally desirable to Kalamazoo businessmen was access to a Lake Michigan port; hence, the Kalamazoo and South Haven Railroad Company connected Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan in 1870. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, no town equivalent in size was handling as much freight as Kalamazoo.

Though these early railroad connections were usually conceived by Kalamazoo businessmen, they were owned by outside investors. The first locally financed railroad began operations in 1889 as the Chicago, Kalamazoo, and Saginaw Railway. Traveling northeast and connecting to the Pere Marquette Railroad in Woodbury, the line received most of its income by providing passenger service for the numerous resort communities it traveled through.

Michigan Traction Company interurban car passing over the Michigan Central line near Galesburg

A Michigan Traction Company interurban car climbs an overpass, crossing the Michigan Central Railroad's mainline near Augusta.

Interurban Railroads

Interurban lines connected almost every medium and large city in Southern Michigan by 1915. Interurbans brought greater changes not by their connection to other urban areas but rather their access to the outlying countryside. The quick and affordable service provided by interurbans created a greater link between Kalamazoo and surrounding rural villages such as Comstock. Residents could easily make day trips to and from the city, a convenience that would alter economic and social patterns.

Though many interurban lines were proposed for Kalamazoo, only two electric interurban railroads were ever constructed. The Michigan Traction Company connected Kalamazoo to Battle Creek, Augusta, and Gull Lake using electric rail in 1901. The route to Battle Creek allowed Kalamazoo residents access to interurban lines connecting to Detroit. By 1914 Grand Rapids was also accessible via interurban electric rail.

Viewing interurbans as competition, traditional steam powered lines sought to hinder the progress of interurban firms. The Michigan Central and others prevented aspiring interurban lines from crossing traditional railroad right-of-ways. With downtown Kalamazoo encircled by traditional railroad firms, access became cost-prohibitive for all but the most well-funded interurban companies. Firms with enough capital, such as the Michigan Traction Company, hastily constructed rollercoaster like trestle bridges across mainline railroads. Another obstacle was large railroad companies’ refusal to allow upstart interurban firms connections permitting the transfer of freight to Michigan’s greater railroad network. These practices impeded numerous proposals for other interurban lines.

The multitude of interurban companies in Michigan consolidated as larger investors purchased profitable lines. Kalamazoo’s interurban lines were acquired in 1905 by the Michigan owned Michigan Traction Company which was purchased six years later by investors from New York and Philadelphia. By 1914 nearly all of the interurban lines outside of Detroit were owned by eastern investors.

Drivers delayed by a train on Kalamazoo Avenue, 1970s

Motorists wait for a freight train on Kalamazoo Avenue, 1970s

The Decline of Rail

Competing with the automobile was difficult for interurban railroads and traditional railroads alike. Local roads and highways were publically funded, so automobile manufacturers had a clear advantage over railroad companies. Automobile and real estate associations lobbied for greater government support for roads and funded campaigns advertising the romance and benefits of automobile travel. By the 1920s, the growing popularity of the automobile and competition from buses began to cut into railroad profits nationally. In Kalamazoo, all the firms operating electric interurban lines had converted to buses or went into receivership by 1928. Also struggling were the Michigan Central and Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroads. As trucks and roads improved, railroads struggled to retain freight customers. The two companies were leased by the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad (respectively) in the first quarter of the twentieth century. With profits steadily declining, these firms merged to form the Penn Central in 1968 but became insolvent in 1976. The popularity of passenger service out of Kalamazoo had been dwindling since the 1950s, and with the failure of Penn Central it ceased almost completely. In 1975 the federal government financed Amtrak which restored passenger service from Kalamazoo to Detroit and Chicago. Freight service was taken over by even larger railroad conglomerates such as Conrail, Norfolk & Southern, and CSX.

A 1981 proposal to ease the conflict between automobile and railroad traffic at Kalamazoo’s eastern corridor.

A 1981 proposal to ease the conflict between automobile and railroad traffic at Kalamazoo’s eastern corridor (click image to enlarge).

The railroad, once celebrated by Kalamazoo citizens, was now loathed for backing up downtown traffic, often at the most inconvenient hours. Local officials consulted planning firms for a solution, but proposals, both elaborate and expensive, did not come to fruition. Concerns lessened as many of Kalamazoo’s downtown industries moved to suburban locations or out of the region; railroad spurs were abandoned and removed.

Sources

Books

Michigan Railroad Construction, 1836-1875 

  • Meints, Graydon
  • H 385 M514.1

Michigan Railroads and Railroad Companies 

  • Meints, Graydon
  • Michigan State University Press, 1992
  • H 385 M514.5

Next Stop Kalamazoo! A History of Railroading in Kalamazoo County 

  • Hager, David C.
  • Kalamazoo Public Museum, 1976
  • H 385 H144

Kalamazoo and How it Grew 

  • Dunbar, Willis F.
  • Western Michigan University, 1959
  • H 977.418 D89.1

Kalamazoo, the Place Behind the Products 

  • Massie, Larry B. and Peter J. Schmitt
  • Windsor Publications, 1981
  • H 977.418 M417

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Railroads 

Subject File: Interurban Railroads 

Websites

MichiganRailroads.com