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Williams Station

Ghost Town on the Kalamazoo & South Haven Line


Williams Station, looking west c.1900. Postcard views, courtesy Tom Maas and Sue Hodap.

The community once known as Williams is now a ghost town in northwestern Kalamazoo County. You’ll find it where the Kal-Haven Trail crosses North 2nd Street. But don’t expect to find much, there’s not a lot there. A little over a century ago, however, Williams was a busy rail stop along the Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad line with more than a hundred inhabitants and an abundance of commercial activity.

Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad

Chester Williams (b. 1825) and his wife Catherine (b. 1830) came to Michigan from Mount Morris, New York, in 1854 and settled on an 80-acre farm in Section 30 of Alamo Township along the west side of North 2nd Street, just south of Schoolhouse No.4 where the road meets DE Avenue. When the Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad line came through in 1870, Chester sold a 5-acre strip of land along the southern portion of his farm to the railroad developers. That area became known as Williams Crossing or Williams Station (later simply Williams) and several businesses soon appeared, thanks in part to the booming lumber industry.

Alamo Township c.1873. Chester Williams, Peter and John Dobbin, and John Cooper grist mill properties are highlighted. Local History Room

Catherine Williams passed away in 1871, not long after the railroad line came through. Chester soon met and married Harriet Tallman and as the village grew he became the local postmaster. When the Williams family home burned in January 1881, Chester built a stately new home in its place just north of the crossing. The Williams home is one of the few original structures in the area that still stands today.

A passenger train on the Kalamazoo & South Haven line chugs through the countryside east of Williams Station, c.1910. Alamo Township Museum.

Williams Station

Williams soon became an important stop along the Kalamazoo & South Haven (Michigan Central) railroad line. In 1876 Williams saw passenger trains four times a day (except Sunday); the morning westbound passed through about 8:30 am on its way to South Haven, the morning eastbound came through about 9:45. Passengers at Williams could meet the afternoon westbound at 4:30 pm, or catch the final run of the day back toward Kalamazoo around 5 o’clock. These early trains only stopped in Williams if they were signaled to do so. This later changed as traffic on the line grew.

“The Kalamazoo & South Haven Division is being economically worked, and with fair results, in view of the fact of its location through a new and sparsely settled timber section.

Mills have been erected this season which are turning out the finer qualities of lumber, of which 1,200 carloads are now contracted for and moving to the Eastern markets, all paying good rates to this Company. Under recent arrangements with the Chicago and Michigan Lake Shore road, lumber is coming forward freely from that line destined to points south and west of Chicago.”

The Railroad Gazette, July 8, 1871

Cooper’s Gristmill

One of the earliest industrial operations in Williams was the local gristmill, a large two-story building—roughly 70 by 25 feet—located on the south side of the tracks along the west side of 2nd Street. The mill, including a sawmill and large grain elevator, went into operation soon after the railroad came through and lasted but a few years. The mill was originally built and operated by local farmers as a cooperative on a plot of land owned by John Cooper. Elijah and Milton Post bought the mill about 1873 and ran it for another three years before it closed.


Lumber Mills

Lumber-related industries dominated the local economy around Williams for many years. The swamps west of 2nd Street were rich in high quality elm, ash and oak timber. The railroad line allowed lumber to be shipped eastward into Kalamazoo, and west to ports along Lake Michigan, where it could be loaded onto boats destined for Chicago and beyond. “A large amount” of tamarack (green pine) was cut into blocks at Williams and used for early street paving in Kalamazoo. William Garton shipped loads of white oak and ash from Williams to Boston, while Price & Company specialized in oak used for railroad ties. Griswald & Crawford extracted 16-inch diameter logs up to 40 feet in length from the swamps near Williams for shipment to New York City where they were used for building the massive boat docks in New York Harbor.

By the 1890s the town had become a bustling village of 75 inhabitants. “Large quantities of wheat, potatoes, tie, lumber, coal, stock, etc., are being shipped from Williams and Alamo Center,” wrote the Gazette in 1890. Several trains passed through each day as passenger traffic flowed freely between Kalamazoo and lake shore resorts. Thomas Enright worked as the town’s railroad and express agent at the time, providing express freight service, Western Union, and telegraph services at the depot.

Postcard views of Williams c.1910. Courtesy, Sue Hodap and Tom Maas.

Williams took on the character of a full-fledged village when Lyman Parmalee opened his general store on the east side of 2nd Street near the tracks. Elmer E. Cavanaugh, who served as the town postmaster for nearly 50 years, bought the general store in 1886 and ran it for several decades before selling out to Oscar Hutchins in the 1930s. The building remained in use as the town Post Office and General Store for several years thereafter.

Harrison’s Sawmill

In 1891 William Harrison put up a large sawmill in Williams, with help from many of Kalamazoo’s most prominent machinists, steam fitters, plumbers, and builders. John Parker was the sawmill superintendent and oversaw its construction. By 1900, William Grice was head sawer at the mill in Williams, August Fralick was a contractor, Albert Keller a sawer and Fred Nichols a wood chopper. According to the 1900 census, Edgar Williams, Albert Johnson, Frank Ames, Charles Hamdon, William Reicheldufer, Bert Morrison, Leslie Morrison, William Grenn, and John Overacher were all sawmill laborers in Williams at the time. By 1902 the mill was operated by Park & Heathman and running 10-hour days year-round with three employees.

Wagner & Stewart established their flour and feed mill in Williams in 1895, where local farmers like Horace Coykendall and others could sell their produce and secure feed for their animals. Roundsville & Greenway brought power to the community with their steam driven electric plant in 1896, H.S. Sleeper opened a sizeable charcoal manufacturing operation in Williams, Otis E. Hopkins and A.L. Garrison were local builders at the time, Francis P. Williams worked as a town blacksmith and wagonmaker, O.E. Harmon, H.S. Platt, and M.J. Spencer were merchants.

Visitors and day laborers were able to seek refuge at Jennie Gren’s boarding house. The village was without a church building at the time, so a minister from the nearby village of Kendall sometimes held services at the boarding house. “The dining room makes a good church and it was packed full,” wrote the Gazette in 1891. Children of the community walked to Williams School, the old District No. 4 school at the corner of DE Avenue, just a mile north of the village.


Brickyards

Natural clay was abundant in the banks along nearby Pine Creek (now known as Sand Creek) and close proximity to the rail line made shipping practical. During the final quarter of the 19th century Peter Dobbin, Patrick Shields, and the Deal brothers all ran sizable brickmaking operations out of Williams Station.

Peter Dobbin

The first such operation near Williams was established by Peter Dobbin (Dobbins) in 1880. Dobbin, an Irishman born in 1843, began manufacturing handmade bricks known as “slop” brick near the creek on the lower part of his farm south of EF Avenue. Six men worked the operation and each 10-hour day produced roughly 7,500 bricks. Clay was drawn to the brickyard by oxen, then pressed by hand into sanded wooden six-brick molds. The bricks dried in the sun for several days, and were then fired in large handbuilt kilns, several thousand at a time. This was labor intensive outdoor work and highly dependent on the weather, so kilns were fired just three times each season. Each firing took approximately two weeks to complete, and required around-the-clock attention. One of Dobbin’s former employees later recalled roasting chickens and sweetcorn on the kilns while he was tending the fires. Finished bricks were then hauled by wagon to the tracks and loaded onto railroad cars. Despite the hard work Dobbin ran a successful operation for nearly a decade.

Foster & Morgan Deal

Dobbin’s neighbor to the east was Foster Leroy Deal (b. 1859), who along with his brother, Morgan Williams Deal (b. 1856), began a somewhat smaller brickmaking operation on his property about 1890. Like Dobbin, the Deal operation was located some distance from the tracks so the bricks had to be transported by wagon to the railroad line.

Patrick Shields

Another Irishman named Patrick Shields (b.1843) established his brickmaking company in 1887, just as Dobbin’s operation was beginning to wind down. In addition to their farms near the creek, Peter Dobbin and his younger brother, James, owned the property along the south side of the tracks when the railroad first came through. They later sold the upper portion of their land to Orleans L. Jordan and James M. Davis, a pair of Kalamazoo lawyers/speculators, who attempted to run a mechanized “hard” brick operation which failed. Shields, who worked in a brickyard in nearby Kendall, bought the lawyers out and began a successful “slop” brick operation on the land. Shields eventually started manufacturing dry-pressed brick with the aid of horses. With the addition of a steam engine Shields doubled his production and with 15 workers was soon turning out up to 20,000 bricks a day.

Pat Shields Brickyard at Williams. Chauncy Ingold (far left), Will Stratton (seated front left), Pat Shields (standing center), Arthur Shields (standing back), John Shields (seated front), Merritt Roberts (standing right), others unidentified. Alamo Township by Florence Snow, 1958. H 977.417 S67

Clay in the area had a high iron content, which gave the bricks a rich reddish brown color when fired. Bricks from the various brickmaking operations in Williams were used to build homes and businesses from Grand Rapids to Dowagiac, including the Michigan Asylum (Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital) and several homes in Kalamazoo. Peter Dobbin and Patrick Shields both built their own homes of brick, the latter of which was a rather impressive twenty-room brick house just south of the crossing. Built around 1900 the Shields home was one of the largest in the township. According to Williams family historian Tom Maas, the Shields family often hosted Friday night dances on the spacious third floor of their house. The Shields home still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Alamo Township (western portion with Williams highlighted), c.1890. Local History Room

Barrel Factories

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, wooden barrels were the standard for shipping and storing everything from whiskey and pork, to fish, flour, salt, gunpowder, paint, and even nails. The barrels themselves were made by coopers (barrel makers), but the individual components were often made by separate operations like those in Williams and shipped out by rail.

By 1874 there was already a successful factory in Williams making barrel hoops (steel bands), headings (wooden barrel ends), and staves (wooden pieces that combine to the form barrel body), along with related barrel parts and hardware. At that time the company had six employees and $1,000 capital ($22,000 today), but thanks to the railroad and the booming lumber trade their business grew. George Speice & Company and the Williams Hoop and Heading Company became the area’s leading employers.

Williams Hoop & Heading Company employees, c.1900. Alamo Township by Florence Snow, 1958. H 977.417 S67.

Williams Hoop & Heading Company

George Speice was a sawmill operator from Ohio who established George Speice & Company in Williams during the 1890s. The company was listed as a manufacturer of barrel hoops in Williams until 1897 but evidently ceased soon after that. Speice also ran a similar operation around the same time in Tipton, Ohio, near Paulding. His son, Frank Speice, evidently stayed in Williams and helped established the Williams Hoop and Heading Company in 1896, which employed up to 60 workers at one point. Apparently operated by the Louisiana-based Sutherland-Innis Company, Williams Hoop and Heading saw great success for several years by manufacturing parts for barrels and shipping them to various coopers around the country.

Woodcutters in Williams harvested elm logs from the nearby swamps during the wintertime when teams of oxen could negotiate the frozen marshlands and piled them near the sawmill. Lumber was then sawed into strips and soaked in hot water until pliable, then cut and shaped to make staves for barrels up to six feet in height. Headings (barrel ends) were cut and shaped by hand, while company blacksmiths forged the barrel hoops (metal bands). All parts were then loaded onto railroad cars and readied for shipment. According to a former worker, the Williams crew harvested more than three million board feet of lumber one winter, which amounts to roughly 20,000 logs, or enough to build nearly 200 average American homes today.

Principle craftsmen during the company’s production peak in 1900 included Frank Speice, the company manager; Philoh Sheets, heading sawer; Robert King, heading turner; Byron Scribner, heading joiner; John McDonald, manufacturer; Daniel Johnson, wash boiler; and George St. Julian, stave cutter. Edward Morrison was a stationary engineer at the time, and James Neeson was a section foreman. Frank Bringard, Thullo Grenn, and Charles Jones were all teamsters, Erastus Davis and Gilbert Moore were carpenters. Other day laborers who probably worked in or around the plant at that time included William Scribner, William Hines, Henry Mason, Franklin Fox, Charles Anson, Nerideth Roberts, Joseph Eberline, Korry Williams, Elma Cavanaugh, Nelson Goodacre, Albert Garison, Delbert Garison, Chester Falilk, James Shepard, and William Aldrich.


Michigan Central South Haven Division

Williams saw more rail traffic than ever as the popularity of Michigan Central’s South Haven Division grew. By 1906 passenger trains were passing through the village up to eight times each day; four westbound runs toward South Haven and four eastbound back toward Kalamazoo, including a late evening Sunday run. In addition to the passenger traffic dedicated freight trains passed through Williams twice every day except Sunday.

Alamo Township c.1910. Local History Room

By the turn of the 20th century Williams had reached its population peak of 125 residents. During the years that followed, several factors contributed to the community’s economic downturn. In 1903 there was great excitement in the community when the Williams Hoop and Heading Company—which employed 45 workers at the time—was sold to the Victor Cooperage Company. The excitement didn’t last long, however. In 1904 a group of treecutters filed suit against the company for unpaid wages. In July 1905 when the Michigan state labor inspector came through, there were still 39 workers employed at the site, including two under the age of 16. A year later when the inspector stopped by there were only six men working in the Williams plant. It closed soon after.

Williams family picnic at Fish Lake c.1907. Man in the center with the hat is Harry Williams. The woman to his right is his mother Harriet, Chester Williams’ second wife. Their daughter Belle Grice is on her right in the back. Lizzie Dobbin ran the general store for a time. She is standing on the far right holding her nephew, Bernard Dobbin. Photo courtesy, Tom Maas.

Final Years

As lumber in the area became scarce, production slowed and workers sought employment elsewhere. The sawmill was dismantled and moved to Whitehall. By 1910, only the farmers and the railroad workers were left; William and James Neeson were track men at that time, H.W. Phillips was a railroad telegraph operator, Manford Reynolds was a telegraph lineman, and Frederick Nichols was a steam engineer.

During the 1930s improved roads and better automobiles brought about a sharp decline in rail service on Michigan Central’s South Haven Division. Passenger service on the line through Williams ceased in 1937; freight service was discontinued during the 1970s and the line was abandoned. One of the last surviving businesses in Williams was Glen Henry’s Grocery Store, which he and his wife opened during the 1930s. The store survived under various ownership for a couple of decades before finally closing in the early 1950s. That was the last remaining business in the town of Williams.

Atlas and plat book, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, c.1928. Library of Congress

Williams Today

Thanks to the Kal-Haven Trail you can still visit Williams today, but you might not recognize it. All that remains of the once vibrant industrial village are the two remaining “family” homes along North 2nd Street, and a handful of picture postcards that help tell the story of Williams Station.


The basis for this article was a now defunct website (2002-2016) called “Williams, Michigan: Kalamazoo County Ghost Town,” administered by Tom Maas, Chester Williams’ great-great-grandson. Photos used here originated from that website unless credited otherwise.

Special thanks to Tom Maas for allowing us to use his material and photos. You may contact Tom directly at: tommaas [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Compiled, edited and updated by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, May 2019.

Sources

Books

Alamo Township, Most Northwest Corner of Kalamazoo County, Michigan : Past and Present
Snow, Florence. Kalamazoo, Mich. 1958
H 977.417 S67

Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory
R.L. Polk & Co., 1897


Articles

“Michigan Central Railroad”

The Railroad Gazette. July 8, 1871, p.171.

“Chancery Sale”

Kalamazoo Daily Gazette. September 8, 1872, p.3.

“Railroads”

Kalamazoo Gazette. April 27, 1876, p.2.

“Five Days in the Country.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. October 9, 1878, p.4.

“Alamo.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. April 11, 1890, p.1.

“Extensive Lumbering.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. March 5, 1891, p.1.

“Harrison’s Big Mill.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. March 13, 1891, p.1.

“Died In His Wagon.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. August 19, 1894, p.5.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. March 25, 1900, p.6.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. January 27, 1903, p.6.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. March 21, 1903, p.5.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. September 27, 1903, p.6.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. November 18, 1903, p.9.

“Alamo.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. January 21, 1904, p.8.

“Williams.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. January 28, 1904, p.4.


Reports

“State of Michigan Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Seventh Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1900

“State of Michigan Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1901

“State of Michigan Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Ninth Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1902

“State of Michigan Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Twelfth Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1905

“State of Michigan Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1906

“State of Michigan Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Fourteenth Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1907

“State of Michigan Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Including the Fifteenth Annual Report of the State Inspection of Factories.”
Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics – 1908


Websites

Williams, Michigan: Kalamazoo County Ghost Town – EarthLink. (2002-2016) (defunct). Retrieved May 16, 2019, from http://home.earthlink.net/~tommaas/Williams.htm (via Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

 

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