Streetcar Service in Kalamazoo
Electric Cars & Interurbans (1893-1932)
“Indications look bright for an electric line to take the place of the old horse car line.”
—Street Railway Review, January 1892
“The New Era”
In January 1893, a Port Huron representative of the General Electric Company named Wilbur F. Davidson purchased the Kalamazoo City and County Street Railway Company for $32,000 (roughly $1.1 million today). The days of embarrassingly slow once-an-hour service from Jerry Boynton’s old horse-drawn streetcars would soon be a thing of the past. Plagued by financial woes and disrepair, Kalamazoo’s antiquated horsecar system was to be converted to modern electric power and its service area expanded. Kalamazooans viewed this as “the beginning of a new epoch in Kalamazoo history,” dawn of “The New Era” (Gazette).
Citizens’ Street Railway Co.
“By unanimous vote of the city council” (Gazette), a franchise was granted to the General Electric Company in February 1893. Articles of incorporation were filed in Lansing on March 21st, establishing the Citizens’ Street Railway Company with Theodore P. Bailey, president; George J. Kobusch, vice president; Edwin E. Downs, secretary, and superintendent; James W. Johnson, treasurer; and George K. Wheeler, general manager. Horsecar service was stopped, and work was soon underway to convert Kalamazoo’s existing streetcar system to electric power.
Some 500 workers were hired to lay the twelve miles of new track, adding more than four miles to the existing horsecar lines. Four routes were originally mapped, which included (Route #1) Riverside Cemetery to the Michigan Asylum via Seminary Street, East Avenue, Main Street, West Street, Vine Street, Austin Street, and Asylum Avenue; (Route #2) Mountain Home Cemetery to the fairgrounds via Main, Portage, and Washington streets; (Route #3) Pitcher Street to Reed Street via Paterson, Burdick, Main, Rose, and Burr Oak streets; and (Route #4) Douglas Avenue at the city limits to Main Street via North and Burdick.
Route #1 was changed almost immediately when it became evident that the electric cars could not negotiate the steep grade of the Austin Street hill. A more roundabout route was instead chosen that would follow Asylum Road (today’s Oakland Drive) southward from Michigan Avenue, then up the hill past the pear orchard where Western Normal School (Western Michigan University) would later be, to a terminal in front of the asylum’s main entrance.
Lake View Park
To boost evening and weekend trade, this line (called the Asylum Line) was extended southward to a new terminal at Woods Lake where Lake View Park was established. For a nickel’s fare each way, the car company could then provide a fun and refreshing ride through the countryside to a place where it could host concerts, picnics, and other outdoor activities.
To power the new system, a 400-horsepower Lane & Bodley steam engine and four Thompson-Houston generators were installed at the Kalamazoo Electric Company’s plant on East Water Street. Power poles were erected, overhead electric wires were strung, and the old standard gauge “strap” rails were replaced with heavy duty “T” rails that would accommodate the heavier and faster new electric cars.
“The Citizen’s Street Railway Company begins operations today, the cars running on the open lines for the accommodation of the public.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 June 1893
Thirteen new motor cars, sixteen feet long with seating for 22 passengers (although they often carried many more), were scheduled to arrive from St. Louis by mid-May, along with a dozen open-sided trailers. The bright yellow and red electric cars ran for the first time in Kalamazoo on 18 June 1893, the extension to Woods Lake opened a week later. On July 3rd, the Citizens’ Street Railway Company hosted a massive ox roast at Recreation Park (the old National Driving Park and Fair Grounds on Portage Street) to celebrate. A crowd of 25,000 attended the event.
Growth and Consolidation
Electrification of the Kalamazoo streetcar lines took place during a time of considerable growth and consolidation within the street railway industry. In 1888, less than 100 miles of electric road existed in the United States. A decade later that number topped 20,000 miles. But while the miles of electric road in the United States would effectively double between 1895 and 1902, the number of electric traction companies declined by nearly twenty percent during the same time. Regional conglomerates bought out cash starved local lines, only to themselves succumb to the bankrolls of still larger syndicates.
Michigan Traction Co.
In 1895, Kalamazoo’s street railway superintendent Edwin E. Downs left to help establish electric street railway companies in Battle Creek and Lansing. Meanwhile, the undercapitalized Citizens’ Street Railway Company in Kalamazoo struggled to meet its obligations after just two years of service.
In the spring of 1896, Downs returned to Kalamazoo and successfully purchased the Citizens’ Street Railway from its parent company, General Electric. Later that year a new regional conglomerate called the Michigan Traction Company (MTC) was formed, with Major Loren N. Downs as president, Fred N. Rowley as treasurer, and Ed Downs as general manager.
Electric Interurban Railroads
Interurban trains (essentially large electric streetcars) typically were faster (as in 90-mph faster) than their steam road counterparts and offered swift passage between urban centers. The MTC hoped to consolidate the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek streetcar lines together with a planned interurban line between the two cities as part of a statewide electric railway network. The syndicate’s lofty (though never actually realized) goal was to create a network of electric roads in direct competition with the steam lines that would connect Detroit and Chicago to major markets in the southern Lower Peninsula; from Bay City to South Haven, Saginaw to St. Joe, with main arteries running through Lansing, Jackson, and Kalamazoo.
But Downs’s return to Kalamazoo proved short-lived. After accepting an “important position” (Street Railway Journal) helping to build an interurban road near Indianapolis, Ed Downs sold his controlling interest in the Battle Creek and Lansing street railway companies and severed his ties with the Citizens’ Street Railway Company in Kalamazoo. In the wake of his brother’s departure, MTC president Loren Downs took over as general manager of the Citizens’ Street Railway Company. Many welcomed the change, hoping it would bring stability and new life (along with some much-needed cash) to Kalamazoo’s troubled streetcar line.
Railways Company General
In 1899, the Michigan Traction Company was taken over by the Philadelphia-based Railways Company General, of which Major Loren N. Downs then became president. A year later, Railways Company General itself was absorbed by the Investment Company of Philadelphia, which then brought in its own management team to oversee the operation. Loren Downs resigned at that time.
Battle Creek-Kalamazoo Interurban
After two years of planning and legal wrangling, the interurban line between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek was finally opened in October 1901. By then, the streetcar lines in both cities were drawing power from the Kalamazoo Valley Electric Light & Power Company thanks to the newly completed Trowbridge Dam and power plant on the Kalamazoo River near Allegan.
A new streetcar depot was in the works for Kalamazoo, while construction continued on the planned Detroit-Chicago interurban run. Spearheaded by the Detroit & Chicago Traction Company, major portions of the line between Detroit and Jackson were in place by then. Plans were to continue building westward to Battle Creek where the line would then link up with the MTC’s road, which would offer electric rail service between Kalamazoo and Detroit by year’s end.
“Fruit Belt Line”
Plans were also in the works for an electric interurban line that would connect Kalamazoo with the Lake Michigan shoreline in South Haven (and ultimately Chicago). The Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Traction Company (the so-called “Fruit Belt Line”) opened between Kalamazoo and Paw Paw in 1906, and through to South Haven in 1907, but the route was never electrified. In 1911, the newly formed Michigan United Railways (successor to the Michigan Traction Company) leased the Fruit Belt Line for a period of five years, although it remained a steam road and never became the electric interurban it was intended to be.
While Americans were enjoying the convenience of “riding the rails,” Kalamazoo manufacturers were making a significant impact on the street railway industry itself. Most of the nation’s electric streetcars drew their power from overhead electric lines via a trolley system, many of which employed trolley harps and wheels that were made in Kalamazoo. In 1899, Kalamazoo-based Star Brass Works began manufacturing the “Kalamazoo Long-Distance Trolley Wheel” and other accessories for street railway use. By 1903 the company had become one of the largest suppliers in the country with more than 28,000 electric cars nationwide using its components.
In 1902, Kalamazoo inventor Fred N. Root patented a pair of devices that proved to be of great value to the growing street railway industry. The Root Spring Scraper Company found its niche with track scrapers and plow attachments for removing snow and ice from street and interurban railway tracks and overhead powerlines. In 1904, Michigan United Railways installed Root scrapers on its entire system. By 1915, nearly 20,000 of Root’s devices were in use on streetcars nationwide.
Michigan United Railways
In 1906, after months of dispute over the city’s taxation of its operation and years of struggling to keep up with overwhelming growth and antiquated equipment, the under-capitalized and often over-burdened Michigan Traction Company sold its entire holdings to a group of investors known as the Mills-Moore-Elliott syndicate (Myron W. Mills and George T. Moore of Port Huron, James R. Elliott of Lansing, and others). This group was then reorganized and incorporated as Michigan United Railways (MUR). The MUR already held the local streetcar lines in Lansing and Battle Creek, along with the connecting interurban roads. In June 1906, the streetcar lines in Kalamazoo were added to its roster, with Jackson slated to join the following year.
“There are few people in Kalamazoo who recognizes the deplorable condition this system was in at the time the new company got hold of it than the officers. Mr. Bramlette says it was one of the worst pieces of property he ever saw and he said further that it would take time to bring it up to the standard of other street railroads.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 August 1906
The sale of the Kalamazoo streetcar system in 1906 was a turning point for several reasons, and it would bring about many changes. As in the past, attracting riders during off-peak times was important, and the idea of using a resort area on the outskirts of town to boost evening and weekend trade was still widely endorsed. The MUR was already developing so-called “trolley parks” (amusement parks operated by the street railway companies) near Lansing and Battle Creek, and plans were soon underway to build similar parks near Jackson and Kalamazoo. In August 1906, MUR officials announced that Woods Lake near Kalamazoo (known then as Lake View) would be home to a new amusement and recreation area called Oakwood Park. Plans were in place to have the new resort open early the following year.
Michigan United Traction Co.
Formed in 1911 by William Augustine Foote and William A. Boland of Jackson, with help from some deep pocket investors in Philadelphia and New York, the Michigan United Traction Company (MUT) represented another step toward establishing an electric railway network across southern Lower Michigan. As part of its consolidation efforts in 1912, the MUT absorbed the holdings of the Michigan United Railways (MUR), which brought the local streetcar lines in St. Johns, Lansing, Jackson, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo (along with many of the connecting interurban lines) together under a single umbrella. The company planned to spend close to $1 million system-wide during the coming year, with nearly one third of that amount designated for Kalamazoo, “which [had] been left in a deplorable condition by the present administration” (Gazette).
Michigan Railway Co.
Still further consolidation took place in 1914 when the MUR property was acquired by yet another newly formed conglomerate called the Michigan Railway Company, a holding company controlled by Commonwealth Power, Railway & Light, under the ownership of William Foote, Anton G. Hodenpyl, and Philadelphia financer Enoch White Clark. This move resulted in a 546-mile system stretching diagonally from Bay City to Holland and South Haven, including Flint, Lansing, Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo Interurban
An integral part of the Michigan Railway Company’s system was a newly constructed interurban line that connected Grand Rapids with the Michigan United Traction Company’s streetcar lines in Kalamazoo. Opened in May 1915, this 50-mile stretch between the two cities, said to be “as fine an example of finished, modern electric railway construction as will be found in this country” (Electric Railway Journal), was the first 2400-volt direct current, third-rail line ever built (as opposed to the standard 600-volt overhead trolley wire), and was designed for unheard-of speeds up to 90 mph.
Trains on the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo line made eleven trips each day, including a class of service called the “Flyer” which made the 50-mile run in 49 minutes (including one intermediate stop). This became a popular trade route during Prohibition nicknamed the “Booze Express,” when certain areas like Grand Rapids remained “wet” while their neighboring communities like Kalamazoo went “dry.” But that’s another story.
“The War Changed Everything”
Life in Kalamazoo was changing rapidly. Within fifteen short years, the city’s population had doubled to nearly 50,000. More than 230 factories were in operation, led by the booming paper industry. No less than seven different railroad lines crisscrossed downtown Kalamazoo with more than 75 passenger trains arriving and departing each and every day.
But then, as former Oakwood Park manager Ed Esterman once said, “the war changed everything.” Automobile production in the United States grew quickly after World War I, especially in Michigan, and many of the most dramatic social changes in the aftermath of the war were driven by the automobile. As of 1907, there were just a few hundred auto enthusiasts in Kalamazoo, but that number grew substantially after the war. With improved technology and better road-construction techniques, 1923 became a tipping point when annual automobile production in the U.S. topped the three million mark.
“The automobile, with its offer of personal travel convenience was changing the everyday life of America. No more was the family with an automobile a slave to a railroad dispatcher’s timetable. People could come and go when and where they pleased.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 June 1999
Michigan Electric Railway Co.
With faster, more durable cars and better roads to drive them on, travelers were free to go wherever and whenever they wanted. But all this newfound freedom came at a cost. Americans were becoming less reliant on rail travel, which led to the rapid decline of the street railway and interurban electric rail systems. In 1923 the financially troubled Michigan United Railways (MUR) was reorganized as the Michigan Electric Railway Company. Still, profits continued to decline through the 1920s. The local streetcar system was sold to the Kalamazoo Transportation Company in 1929. By then, service had been abandoned on all interurban railway lines in and out of Kalamazoo.
End of the Line
During a city commission meeting in June 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, the president of the local streetcar company stated that electric streetcar service in Kalamazoo could no longer be maintained. Streetcars were pulled from service on 6 November 1932, when the Kalamazoo Motor Coach Company was given a permit to begin bus service. Busses were operated by the Kalamazoo City Lines (local subsidiary of National City Lines) from 1936 until 1967, when the City of Kalamazoo took control of the local bus system.
Today, little remains of Kalamazoo’s once vibrant street railway system, except for bits of steel rails that appear occasionally during city street repair, and the former depot on Portage Street that has found new life as the InterUrban Building. If you want a taste of the “old days,” take a trip over to the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, where you can travel back in time aboard restored Michigan interurban cars and enjoy a virtual train ride from downtown Jackson to the Wolf Lake Casino. “All aboard!”
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, September 2023
“A street railway”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 October 1882, p.4
“It is said that Kalamazoo parties…”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 November 1882, p.5
“It is coming! Horses to go from the street cars”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 March 1891, p.1
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 March 1892, p.1
“An immense enterprise”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 July 1892, p.1
“Salvation! Electricity will now propel our street cars”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 January 1893, p.1
“We soon walk. The street railway transferred yesterday”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 February 1893, p.1
“All over town. Electric street car routes selected”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 March 1893, p.1
“Two roads sold. The Kalamazoo and Battle Creek street railways”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 October 1897, p.5
“An industry expanding”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 December 1899, p.7
“Electric road bonds floated”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 February 1900, p.5
“Work is resumed on the Battle Creek-Kalamazoo interurban electric line”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 April 1900, p.9
“System will be almost new”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 August 1900, p.5
“Is Railways Company General behind it? Detroit-Chicago trolley line making progress”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 August 1901, p.5
“Through cars to Detroit”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 January 1906, p.5
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 April 1906, p.4
“Railway officials meet here today”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 April 1906, p.10
“Amusement park in Lake View grove”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 August 1906, p.9
“Consider extension of Michigan United”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 February 1908, p.8
“M.U.R. installs new Root scrapers on its entire system”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 December 1910, p.3
“Kalamazoo to become center of urban lines”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 6 March 1912, p.1
“Will expend $300,000 here”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 April 1912, p.1
“M.E.R. to seek state approval on refinancing”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 August 1923, p.3
“M.U.R. petition hearing Aug. 30”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 August 1923, p.2
“Commission considers 3 bus offers”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 November 1932, p.1
“Busses to start service here Sunday morning”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 November 1932, p.1
“Bus firm changes name”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 April 1936, p.27
“Bus pact okayed”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 May 1967, p.13
“Kalamazoo connected to the outside world”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 June 1999, p.46 (“Tales of the Century” series p.8)
Street Railway Journal
McGraw Pub. Co. (New York/Chicago) 1884-1908.
Street Railway Review
Street Railway Review Pub. Co. (Chicago) 1891-1906.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Local History Room Files
History Room Subject File: Street-cars
History Room Subject File: Railroads