Streetcar Service in Kalamazoo

The “Horse Car” Era (1884-1893)

Driver John Wall with his horse-drawn streetcar on South Burdick Street, 1889. Kalamazoo Public Library photograph file P-851.

Walking Cities

Mass urbanization during the 19th century ushered in a world of new opportunities, but it also created significant challenges. Because public transportation was both expensive and inconvenient, industrial communities became “walking cities” where life and labor took place within walking distance, especially for the working class.

For Kalamazooans, certain change began in 1882 when a pair of businessmen from Jackson put forth a plan to build a street railway system in the Celery City. Their proposal was short lived—the Jackson parties withdrew, as did Battle Creek developer Henry H. Brown, who followed with a similar proposal—but the seeds had been sown. Like other major cities, Kalamazoo would soon have a street railway system.

East Main Street in Kalamazoo before streetcars, c.1869. Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-169

In early 1884, Jerry W. Boynton, a driving force behind the street railway in Grand Rapids, submitted his proposal for a horse-drawn streetcar system in Kalamazoo. Boynton’s initial proposal consisted of four routes: Main Street (Michigan Avenue) between Rose Street and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (LS&MS) railroad depot at Porter Street, a second along Portage Street to the fairgrounds (where Stockbridge Avenue is today), a third along Rose Street from Main to Vine, and a fourth on West Street (Westnedge) “southerly as far as it may be practicable to operate street railways” (Gazette).

Kalamazoo Street Railway Company

The village trustees liked Boynton’s proposal and the Kalamazoo Street Railway Company was organized. Major stockholders included former Grand Rapids mayor Edmund B. Dikeman, Grand Rapids alderman John P. Creque, Grand Rapids developer Loomis K. Bishop, contractor Thomas Martin, and superintendent J.W. Boynton.

On 3 March 1884, Ordinance No.55 was approved by the village trustees, which allowed the Kalamazoo Street Railway Company to begin construction. The ordinance expanded the original proposal to include nearly seven-and-a-half miles of track over six routes: (Route #1) along Main Street from Douglas to Seminary Street (Riverview); (Route #2) along Burdick Street from Frank to Burr Oak; (Route #3) from Davis Street to the LS&MS depot (Porter Street) via Vine, West, and Main streets; (Route #4) from Rose Street to the fairgrounds via Main and Portage; (Route #5) from the LS&MS depot to the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) depot via Main and Burdick; and (Route #6) from Woodward Avenue to the LS&MS depot via Kalamazoo Avenue, Burdick and Main Street. Boynton was given two years to have the full system in place.

Laying streetcar tracks on Main Street, 1884. Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-247

Construction Begins

Kalamazoo was incorporated as a city in April 1884 and its first mayor, Hon. Allen Potter, was elected. Meanwhile, construction of Kalamazoo’s new streetcar system had finally gotten underway. Riders could purchase tickets in advance from the drivers in packs of 22 for a dollar, or $4 per hundred at the company office.

In May, Boynton traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, where he purchased the first shipment of enclosed cars from the Brownell and Wight Car Company. Boynton also contracted with a firm in West Troy, New York (most likely J.M. Jones & Co.), for a dozen open-sided cars to be used during warm weather. To house the system’s 26 cars and 40+ horses, the Kalamazoo Street Railway Company purchased two acres of land along Portage Street near the fairgrounds where a 150-foot horse barn was to be constructed, along with other buildings to house the cars and supplies. By mid-June, portions of the first few lines were up and running.

Expanding Service

Additional ordinances followed, which granted extension of the lines along several additional streets. (Approval from the city council was necessary each time route additions or changes were made.) Kalamazoo City Ordinance No.34 (June 1884) amended the original village ordinance (No.55). It extended Route #1 westward to Thompson Street near Mountain Home Cemetery, rerouted a portion of Route #2 onto Rose Street, extended Route #3 from Forest Street to Seminary Street (Riverview Drive) via West Street (Westnedge), Main Street (Michigan Ave.), and East Avenue; redefined Route #4 via Portage Street from Main to the Race Bridge (roughly where Stockbridge is today); rerouted Routes #5 & #6 onto Rose Street instead of Burdick; and added Route #7 from Asylum Avenue (Oakland Drive) to the MCRR depot via Lovell and Rose.

City Ordinance No.36 was added in July, which introduced Route #8 along Burdick Street from the northern city limits south to Burr Oak. New horse barns and company offices were built on East Water Street directly behind the Kalamazoo House. Interestingly, the Street Railway Company also petitioned the city council for a line from the MCRR depot to the Michigan Asylum (State Hospital) via Rose, Lovell, and Asylum Avenue (Oakland Drive) but that effort was referred to committee due to zoning issues and was eventually abandoned. (Service to the Asylum would again be addressed when the lines were electrified in 1893.)

Street Railway Excursion, 13 September 1884. Kalamazoo Public Library photograph files P-167 and P-340.

A Free Ride

Kalamazooans young and old were invited to take a free ride on the new cars on Saturday, 13 September 1884, to celebrate the opening of the city’s new streetcar line. With the city band leading the way, a 22-car procession traveled a five-mile route along Main Street from the Burdick Hotel to West Street (Westnedge), and then on to the fairgrounds and back via Portage Street. After its first year of operation, the Kalamazoo streetcar system was declared “a complete success, financially and in every other way” (Gazette).

“…the procession, with a band in the first car, and all the others packed with adults and happy-faced children, presented a sight worth more to Kalamazoo than all the circus processions which ever passed through the streets of Kalamazoo, and meant more in solid progress for the city and any procession of any kind ever meant.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 September 1884

But the period of profitability was evidently short-lived. As the streetcar line struggled financially, a rift began to grow between the city council and Boynton’s streetcar company. The company failed to meet its two-year construction deadline by March 1886, and requested a ten-month extension (until January 1887) to complete the prescribed work, which was granted. The company also was expected to pave between its rails along city streets, but Boynton flat out refused to do so, citing the exorbitant expense. This prompted the city to consider legal action, which would revoke the streetcar company’s charter should the prescribed work not be completed.

Another new ordinance in April 1886 (No.41) attempted to accommodate east side residents with the introduction of Route #9, which was to run along Seminary Street, East Avenue, and East Main from Gull Road to Rose Street, but this put yet more pressure on a company that was already struggling financially.

Horse-drawn streetcar on Rose Street c.1890. Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-204

In 1888, Jerry Boynton was elected company president while his struggles with Kalamazoo’s city council grew deeper. Boynton pushed for new and longer routes, but the company was having trouble paying its bills and failed to make the interest payment on its mortgage. In March 1889, the Kalamazoo Street Railway Company went into receivership. One year later the company, including its 26 cars, 42 horses, tracks, barns, real estate, and depots, was sold at public auction for $42,550, along with an accompanying request to convert it to an electric road.

“The conventional street cars, or otherwise known and called ‘horse-cars,’ must soon depart from the thoroughfares of Kalamazoo, and in their place an electric system is to be established if no great obstacle presents itself to the promoters of this gigantic movement.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 March 1891

Horse-drawn streetcar on West Main Street near Mountain Home Cemetery, c.1885. Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-408

A new company was formed called the Kalamazoo County and City Street Railway Company with F.H. Davies replacing Boynton as superintendent. Ordinance No.88 was passed in November 1889, which identified three additional routes around the city, including an extension of the South West Street line, tracks on North Street to Douglas Avenue, and additional tracks on North Burdick and Paterson streets. The existing property along Portage Street where the horse barns were originally located was sold for the development of the Edison neighborhood. Meanwhile, talk of converting the system to electricity continued.

“Whereas, The Kalamazoo Street Railway company has failed to comply with the condition under which their franchise was granted. Resolved, that the city attorney be instructed to take the necessary legal proceedings to vacate said franchises.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 October 1892

Horse cars on South Rose Street, likely abandoned due to a storm c.1890, Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-310.

“The street railway horses have all been sold. The prices brought were very fair.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 1893

In 1893, after months of wrangling, Wilbur F. Davidson, a Port Huron representative of the General Electric Company, successfully purchased the Kalamazoo City and County Street Railway Company for $32,000. By unanimous vote of the city council, a new ordinance was secured, and a franchise was granted to build and operate an electric streetcar system in Kalamazoo. This brought the era of the horse-cars to an end and opened an entirely new chapter in the city’s public transportation system.


Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, August 2023

Horse-drawn streetcar on East Main Street in front of the American House Hotel, c.1885. Kalamazoo Public Library photo file P-330



“A street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 October 1882, p.4.

“It is said that Kalamazoo parties…”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 November 1882, p.5.

“The parties interested in the street railway project…”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 December 1882, p.5.

“Street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 December 1882, p.2.

“The village board”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 February 1884, p.5.

“Trustee meeting”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 February 1884, p.3.

“Street railway meeting”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 February 1884, p.3.

“Among the articles of association filed…”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 February 1884, p.6.

“Street railway meeting”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 February 1884, p.6.

“Within the next four weeks…”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 March 1884, p.5.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 March 1884, p.5.

“Ordinance No. 55”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 March 1884, p.2.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 March 1884, p.2.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 21 March 1884, p.6.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 2 April 1884, p.3.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 April 1884, p.1.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 April 1884, p.5.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 April 1884, p.3.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 April 1884, p.5.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 May 1884, p.3.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 21 May 1884, p.3.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 May 1884, p.1.

“Mr. J.W. Boynton has gone to St. Louis…”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 May 1884, p.3.


Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 June 1884, p.5.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 July 1884, p.3.

“The street railway”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 21 August 1884, p.3.

“The street railway excursion”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 September 1884, p.3.

“On a street-car”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 September 1884, p.3.

“Street car tickets”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 October 1884, p.3.

“Council proceedings”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 March 1885, p.3.

“Council proceedings”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 April 1885, p.2.

“Street railway routes”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 May 1885, p.1.

“The City of Kalamazoo Ordinance No. 34”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 June 1885, p.3.

“Ordinance No. 36”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 July 1885, p.3.

“The Kalamazoo street car system a complete success”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 July 1885, p.1.

“Ordinance No. 36”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 July 1885, p.6.

“Council proceedings”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 January 1886, p.5.

“Officers of the street railway co.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 January 1886, p.3.

“A facetious street railroad man”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 January 1886, p.3.

“The Kalamazoo Street Railway Co.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 February 1886, p.3.

“Jerry’s resolution”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 2 March 1886, p.3.

“The common council”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 March 1886, p.3.

“Street railway ordinance No. 41”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 April 1886, p.2.

“Street railway ordinance No. 41”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 May 1886, p.2.

“The Burdick St. line”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 June 1886, p.2.

“A new deal in offices”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 January 1887, p.4.

“The street railway company sued”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 March 1887, p.4.

“President Boynton”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 July 1887, p.4.

“It has never paid”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 February 1889, p.4.

“Sold to the trustees”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 May 1890, p.1.

“Live horse car system”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 27 May 1890, p.1.

“Ready to boom it”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 July 1890, p.1.

“New superintendent”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 September 1890, p.1.

“The street railway co.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 September 1890, p.1.

“Street railway co.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 September 1890, p.1.

“It is all settled now”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 September 1890, p.4.

“New street car barns”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 January 1891, p.1.

“It is coming! Horses to go from the street cars”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 March 1891, p.1.

“Electrician coming”

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.

Local History Room Files

History Room Subject File: Street-cars

History Room Subject File: Railroads

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