Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railway
"The Fruit Belt Line"
The story of the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railway, better known as “The Fruit Belt Line,” is a rather long and twisted tale of “wishful thinking and hoped-for wealth” (Meintz) during a time of America’s great westward expansion. Originally planned as an efficient electric interurban line, the Fruit Belt Line was designed to connect Kalamazoo with the lakeside ports in South Haven, where passengers could board excursion steamers, and produce and package freight could be shipped by boat to Chicago and beyond. After years of contract disputes and property right-of-way issues, the line ultimately opened as a rather roundabout steam road that rambled through Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties toward the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Michigan Central Railroad
The story begins with the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR), the first major railroad line to provide service across southern Lower Michigan. Originating in Detroit, the MCRR reached Kalamazoo in 1846, then continued under private ownership toward the west through the village of Oshtemo and on to Mattawan, Lawton, Niles, and New Buffalo. Except for the portion between Kalamazoo and Mattawan, Amtrak still operates along much of the same route today.
When the Michigan Central line was initially built west of Kalamazoo, it followed a route somewhat south of its current location along what would later become Stadium Drive. When the original tracks reached the north side of Asylum Lake, the line curved sharply toward the southwest and continued through the village of Oshtemo and on toward Mattawan.
As freight and passenger service increased on the Michigan Central line, steep grades west of Kalamazoo and again near Mattawan became difficult for the heavier trains to negotiate. Michigan Central solved the problem in 1905 by rerouting its tracks farther north along KL Avenue, then back southward near 8th street. The tracks west of Mattawan were then elevated to eliminate the steep grades there. The old portion of the road between Kalamazoo and Mattawan was to be abandoned.
Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Traction Co.
Meanwhile, Kalamazoo-based fruit and produce magnate Samuel J. Dunkley was making plans to build an electric interurban line between Kalamazoo and the Dunkley-Williams boat docks in South Haven. Interurban trains (essentially large electric streetcars) typically were faster than their steam road counterparts and offered swift passage between urban centers. Foregoing the carload freight business, Dunkley instead chose to concentrate on passenger traffic, package freight, fruit, and produce, which supported his shipping and canning operations.
Passengers on such a route could enjoy fast local service between stops and if so desired, seek further rail and steamer connections to Chicago and elsewhere. Dunkley wasn’t certain what route his interurban would follow or how he would pay for it, but he was confident that such an undertaking would be a lucrative venture, so he formed the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Traction Company and set out to build his electric railroad line.
Fortune smiled upon Dunkley when the Michigan Central abandoned its old line through Oshtemo. Sensing an opportunity, he purchased the 11.3-mile stretch of the old Michigan Central tracks between Kalamazoo and Mattawan in 1906. This gave Dunkley the beginning of his interurban road.
Dunkley realized a second bit of good fortune when surveyors discovered an old 1857 railroad grade near Lawton that was designed for the short-lived Paw Paw Railroad but had never been used. All Dunkley had to do was arrange a lease with Michigan Central so he could lay tracks along its right-of-way west of Mattawan, then follow this so-called “calico grade” north into Paw Paw.
Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railroad
For a variety of reasons Dunkley’s electric line never materialized, but he did manage to get a small steam road up and running between Kalamazoo and Paw Paw by May 1906. With a used locomotive and a couple of passenger cars, the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railroad (KLS&C) was born.
Fortune smiled yet again in April 1907, when Dunkley was able to lease an older section of the Pere Marquette Railroad between Lawton and South Haven to complete his KLS&C “Fruit Belt Line.” With steam engines and passenger cars from the old South Haven & Eastern line, Dunkley realized his dream of freight and passenger rail service through Michigan’s rich Fruit Belt between Kalamazoo and South Haven.
“More than 400 went to South Haven over the Fruit Belt Line from this city and a number even went from here to Chicago over that line. There was also considerable traffic over this line to the lakes along its route.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 July 1907
Dunkley planned to have his Fruit Belt Line connect to a depot on Rose Street in downtown Kalamazoo, but crossing streetcar lines and running along city streets proved to be obstacles he could not overcome. Instead, the KLS&C railroad line would originate near West Main Street at a small passenger and freight depot designed by Kalamazoo architect Rockwell A. Leroy. The depot stood on the south side of West Main along the east side of the Michigan Central tracks near the city streetcar line. From there, the KLS&C followed the old Michigan Central roadbed (where Stadium Drive is today) to its first stop near the Michigan Asylum (Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital), where a water tank, coal yard, and turntable readied the locomotive for its trip. The train then continued westward to a stop at Colony Farms along the north side of Asylum Lake, and then on to a depot in the village of Oshtemo.
“‘Oshtemo!’ shouted the conductor. ‘Five minutes to view the sights and lubercate.’”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 June 1906
After leaving Oshtemo, the train made additional stops in places then known as Brighton (or Brighton Crossing), Rix (also known as Rix Station), Walker (Walker’s Crossing), and Eassom (or Eassom Station) before reaching the village of Mattawan. Not exactly ghost towns, but important places on the land where commuters waited for the next train into town and farmers loaded baskets full of potatoes, melons, apples, tomatoes, peaches, and berries onto freight cars bound for produce markets or Dunkley’s canning factories. These places exist now as mere ghosts in the Kalamazoo County countryside.
“There are many places that would be benefited by the placing of a mail car on the Fruit Belt road, and the residents along it hope that favorable action will be taken by postal authorities.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 September 1907
West of Mattawan, the KLS&C line ran through Van Buren County along the south side of the Michigan Central right-of-way to a stop called Newbre, located on Frederick D. Newbre’s property near “Newbre Creek” (a well-known trout stream) and the MCRR bridge over Drape Road. This was where the Fruit Belt Line made a sharp turn and passed under the Drape Road bridge, before continuing westward along the north side of the Michigan Central tracks toward Lawton. A half-mile or so east of Lawton, the line then turned northward and followed the old 1857 “calico grade” into Paw Paw.
When Dunkley leased the old Pere Marquette road west of Paw Paw in 1907, it included a short section of roadbed that continued south into the village of Lawton. This alternate section of roadbed between Lawton and Paw Paw enabled Dunkley to remove his tracks from the “calico grade” so his trains could make a convenient stop at the depot in Lawton (which had been bypassed by the original route) before continuing northward into Paw Paw.
From the depot in Paw Paw, the line continued west another mile or so to a long-lost rail stop called Barrison, on or near the Albert “Bert” Harrison estate. Harrison was an early Paw Paw area settler and lifelong family farmer. The Barrison stop most likely provided rail access for local farmers and passenger service for those attending the Brummel schoolhouse near 39th Street.
The line then proceeded west to the Lake Cora Station on the north side of Lake Cora (a.k.a. Four Mile Lake) and a depot next to the Peninsula Summer Resort and Englehard’s Lake Cora Subdivision. From there it continued west into Lawrence to a depot on Paw Paw Street next to Halstead’s Lawrence Trading Co. The old tracks are still visible at the Paw Paw Street and St. Lawrence Street crossings.
The train continued through Hartford Township into the community of Hartford, where it passed the High & Doyle grain elevators, and the canning factories of the Carpp Company and the Dunkley Canning Company. Siding tracks near these establishments allowed cars to be taken off the main line for loading and unloading.
After crossing the Pere Marquette Railroad line, the Fruit Belt Line turned northward toward Bangor Township. Bypassing the community of Bangor itself, the line split in the extreme southwest corner of the township. The main line continued northward toward Covert, while a branch line to the southwest provided service to the popular resorts at Paw Paw Lake.
Continuing northward from Covert, the line crossed 24th Avenue and entered Section 34 of South Haven Township near the Leslie Schoolhouse. From there it passed another rural stop called Packard, most likely named for Alfred S. Packard, who was an early settler and local miller. The next stop would be Fruitland Station on 14th Avenue, which featured a proper depot and a special siding track where stone for roadbuilding could be unloaded. The line then continued northward to another rural stop called Carleton before entering the town of South Haven, where it followed Maple Street to a terminal at the Dunkley-Williams boat dock along the Black River channel.
The fifty-five-mile Fruit Belt Line remained in operation for some seventeen years, although it seldom turned a profit due to a myriad of contract disputes and property right-of-way issues. A large portion of Dunkley’s income it seems had been derived from his patent medicine business and a product called “Celerytone,” which made (largely baseless) claims of great health benefits until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 put a damper on it. The Fruit Belt Line was a lifelong victim of poor maintenance and inadequate financing.
Kalamazoo banker and businessman Stephen B. Monroe replaced Dunkley as president in 1908, although Dunkley remained with the operation for a brief time thereafter. Following three years of financial hardship, Dunkley’s canning company was forced into receivership in 1909, as was the Dunkley-Williams steamship operation. Dunkley parted ways with the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & South Haven company that same year. Michigan United Traction leased the road from 1911 until 1916, which turned out to be a peak time for the Fruit Belt Line, but passenger and freight revenues dropped sharply thereafter.
End of the Line
Samuel J. Dunkley, the person responsible for bringing the Fruit Belt Line to life, passed away in January 1923. After years of declining ridership, the Pere Marquette railroad took over the portion of the Fruit Belt Line between Lawton and South Haven in July that year, sending the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railway company into receivership shortly thereafter. The portion of the KLS&C between Lawton and Kalamazoo remained open with limited service until September 1924 when the state public utilities commission granted permission to abandon the line. The rails and ties were torn up a year later, marking the end of the Fruit Belt Line.
“The Fruit Belt line has been for years the principal transportation link between Kalamazoo and the prosperous agricultural section of southern Van Buren county. For years it was a very valuable feeder for that district. The road carried a heavy tonnage at one time, while its passenger traffic was considerable. The coming of the automobile and the motor bus and the construction of good roads between Kalamazoo and points on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan have undermined the business of the Fruit Belt line, especially passenger traffic, until at present it is but a mere tithe of its former total.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 August 1923
The old roadbed near Kalamazoo remained abandoned until 1938 when a “US-12 high-way cut-off” project was created in part to eliminate two blind “death crossings” on the Michigan Central, one where the railroad crossed Michigan Avenue (then US-12) near downtown Kalamazoo, and another at Miller’s Point west of the city near the Michigan Avenue/KL Avenue intersection. The new roadway called Stadium Drive for the most part followed the old railroad bed from Michigan Avenue near a newly constructed Waldo Stadium to a point where it rejoined US-12 (Michigan Avenue) west of Kalamazoo in Oshtemo Township.
“The Engine That Lost Its Whistle”
In 1945, roughly twenty years after the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railway closed, Genevieve Cross Burger, a Kalamazoo author and former first grade reading teacher, wrote and published a children’s book about the old Fruit Belt Line called The Engine That Lost Its Whistle. A 1931 graduate of Western Teacher’s College (WMU), Cross said the story was inspired by her father, who told of a time back when he was a child that a locomotive on the Fruit Belt Line lost its steam.
Cross personified the story with a smaller “insignificant” Little Switch Engine that came to the rescue, overcoming great odds to see that the goods got to market on time. The book sold more than 70,000 copies within the first few years. In November 1945 Cross donated two first edition copies of her book to the Kalamazoo Public Library’s children’s collection.
In a 1990 Kalamazoo Gazette article, former Kalamazoo Public Library Children’s Librarian Mary Calletto Rife recalled a conversation with Cross, who told about “the day that she as a little girl missed the train in Kalamazoo and had to run with her mother and uncle to catch it at the water tank a quarter mile down the track.” The Engine That Lost Its Whistle was reprinted by the Van Buren County Historical Society in 1988.
Van Buren Trail & Fruit Belt Rail Corridor
Today, most of the tracks are gone, as are “ghost towns” along the route like Brighton, Rix, Newbre, Barrison, and Eassom, yet traces of the old Fruit Belt Line still do exist. A portion of the historic Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago railroad right-of-way has been transformed as the Van Buren Trail State Park, a 14-mile linear multiuse trail between Hartford and South Haven. A second portion of the old KLS&C roadbed near Kalamazoo is currently being developed as an improved walking path called the Fruit Belt Rail Corridor. The two-mile path begins at Flesher Field off of South 9th Street in Oshtemo and follows the old railroad bed to the Texas Township line. In April 2022, Oshtemo Township was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Consumers Energy Foundation to help restore the trail’s ecological habitat. Listen carefully as you walk along those trails, and you can almost hear the old train’s whistle.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, April 2020. Updated and published August 2023.
Special thanks to David Kohrman, Charlie Brock, and Tom Maas for sharing their incredible photos.
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“Petition in for franchise”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 May 1904, p.8.
“Kazoo as hub of railways”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 June 1904, p.2.
“Autos may be used into city”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 May 1905, p.1.
“Title for road is selected”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 June 1905, p.11.
“Will soon begin work”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 June 1905, p.8.
“Actual work begins”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 June 1905, p.5.
“Selection of officers made”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 June 1905, p.4.
“Construction work going on”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 July 1905, p.2.
“Work is progressing”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 July 1905, p.8.
“Mile of road finished”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 July 1905, p.3.
“Buys the old road”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 August 1905, p.1.
“New electric railroad”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 August 1905, p.6.
“Are willing to sell”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 September 1905, p.8.
“Kalamazoo may lose traction road”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 October 1905, p.1.
“Purchase new rails”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 November 1905, p.6.
“Ready for the ties”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 December 1905, p.9.
“Cars run over line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 January 1906, p.1.
“Electric road is progressing”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 January 1906, p.5.
“Knocking at the door”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 January 1906, p.6.
“Traffic not started”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 March 1906, p.2.
“Work train busy on new railroad”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 April 1906, p.6.
“About two weeks”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 April 1906, p.8.
“Complete to Paw Paw”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 April 1906, p.2.
“Regular train service tomorrow”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 May 1906, p.8.
“Uncle Bill Bibbins’ trip”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 June 1906, p.3.
“Straightening the curves in track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 August 1906, p.5.
“To all whom it may concern”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 October 1906, p.7.
“Trolley interest is being aroused”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 December 1906, p.3.
“Electric railroad to Benton Harbor”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 February 1907, p.8.
“Change of time on Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 June 1907, p.12.
“Out going trains packed yesterday”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 July 1907, p.9.
“S.B. Monroe replaces President Dunkley”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 September 1908, p.5.
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 July 1910, p.10.
“M.U.R. secures Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 April 1911, p.1.
“M.U.T.Co. may select new route into this city for Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 November 1912, p.1.
Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 July 1915, p.20.
“M.U.T. to give up Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 May 1916, p.11.
“Old railroad to be discontinued”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 October 1918, p.1.
“Closing of road to be protested”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 October 1918, p.8.
“Fruit Belt Line to be continued”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 November 1918, p.1.
“Melville Dunkley wed on dying request of father”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 January 1923, p.1, col.4.
“Plans gas cars for Fruit Belt”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 February 1923, p.27, col.1.
“The end nears”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 March 1923, p.4, col.3.
“Mattawan. Fruit Belt railroad has discontinued depot service…”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 June 1923, p.16, col.6.
“Will take over Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 June 1923, p.1, col.6.
“Fruit Belt is minus coaches”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 July 1923, p.1, col.8.
“Hiram Swayze made receiver for Fruit Belt”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 August 1923, p.1, col.3.
“Fruit Belt puts on new train schedule”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 November 1923, p.2, col.4.
“Fruit Belt asks permit to sell line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 December 1923, p.1, col.6.
“Urges plan to electrify Fruit Belt”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 January 1924, p.1, col.2.
“Plans M-17 route along riverfront”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 July 1924, p.1, col.3.
“Invite Rogers to view River Drive route”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 July 1924, p.1, col.4.
“Abandoned Fruit Belt cars used as hotel; five jailed”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 September 1924, p.1, col.3.
“Lets Fruit Belt abandon its line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 September 1924, p.1, col.2.
“Remove tracks ties of Fruit Belt Railroad”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 August 1925, p.2, col.7.
“Progress toward U.S.-12 cut-off here stalemated”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 February 1938, p.23, col.2.
“Re-routed U.S.-12 to eliminate ‘death crossings’”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 March 1938, p.1, 2, col.1.
“Local woman’s book tells of Fruit Belt Line’”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 November 1945, p.20, col.6.
“Gone, but not forgotten”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 December 1969, p.52, col.1.
“Well-hidden historical Fruitbelt Depot to be torn down”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 March 1972, p.13, col.1.
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Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 July 1995, p.40 (D2), col.2.
“Steam locomotive pulled trains on the Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 June 1996, p.18 (B2), col.2.
“A passenger train pauses on the old Fruit Belt Line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 June 1996, p.14 (B2), col.2.
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Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.
Call Number: G4113.K2G46 1861 .G4
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Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.
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