The Ferry Yard Turntable

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1992,
Novermber 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

When trains hauled everything from freight to football fans

Ann Arbor's streetcars

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1995,
November 1995

Author: Grace Shackman

Linking town and campus at the turn of the century

Streetcars and interurbans appear in many photos of old Ann Arbor, moving along tracks down the middle of major streets and powered by overhead wires. The smaller streetcars, called "dinkies" or "Toonerville Trolleys" (after a comic strip) were used within the city limits. The beefier interurbans used streetcar-type tracks to carry passengers and freight between towns.

Ann Arbor's first streetcar track was laid in the summer of 1890. The system was originally designed to be horse-powered, but just a few months before opening it, the developers switched it to electric power. (The first successful electric-powered streetcar system had opened only two years earlier, in Richmond, Virginia.) A year later, in 1891, the state's first interurban began operating, running down Packard between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Ann Arbor had two streetcar routes. The Depot Line ran from the Michigan Central Railroad station (now the Gandy Dancer) to downtown, then east on William to State Street. There the line divided to encircle the U-M campus. The north branch went up North University to Washtenaw to Hill, then to the car barn on Lincoln Avenue near Burns Park. The south branch went on Monroe to East University to Hill, then to the car barn. The second route, the Packard-Huron Line, ran from what is today Vets Park to downtown, then southeast on Packard to the city limits (then Brooklyn Street) near Burns Park.

Dr. Karl Malcolm recalled that when he lived at the corner of Cambridge and Martin Place, he could catch either the north or south branch of the Depot Line on Lincoln Avenue when he was headed downtown, since either one would get him there. Malcolm remembers the streetcars being heavily used: when he went shopping with his mother, the cars would often be full, with people standing, especially near five o'clock or in bad weather.

Bertha Welker sometimes took the streetcar to Forest Hill Cemetery, where her family had a burial plot. Elsa Goetz Ordway usually walked from her home on First Street to the high school on State Street (now the Frieze Building), but would catch the streetcar on William in really bad weather. Morrie Dalitz generally relied on his bike for transportation but sometimes caught a streetcar at Hill and Washtenaw, near his home on Vinewood.

The trolley cars were the same on both ends; front and back were defined by the direction they were going. At the end of the line, the motorman would get out and reverse the trolley attached to the overhead wires, then remove the control wrench from the accelerating switch at one end of the car and connect it to the switch at the opposite end. The detachable headlight was moved from one end of the car to the other. Inside, the conductor would walk down the central aisle flipping the seat backs down so they faced the other way. In summer, the trolley companies switched from closed cars to open ones with running boards, which the conductor used to collect fares since there were no aisles on the summer cars.

Photograph of summer trolley car at Main
& Washington, Ann Arbor

An open summer trolley car pauses to pick up a passenger at the corner of Main and Washington early in the century. (The old courthouse tower is in the background.) The large white sign on the front of the car advertises a 10 cent round-trip fare to a baseball game at the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park).

Except in rainy weather, the open cars were more enjoyable. On hot summer nights, the lines offered special 3 cent runs (the usual price was 5 cents) that people would take just to cool off. Malcolm says they were a great treat. "We would beg our parents to take us," he recalls. The special rides also provided a pleasant, inexpensive date.

The first car barn was on Detroit Street between Division and Kingsley. After a fire in 1894 destroyed the building and five of the six cars, the barn was rebuilt at the edge of town, on the corner of Wells and Lincoln across from the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park). The new barn faced Lincoln but ran along Wells, with an empty lot in back where the summer cars were stored. Malcolm remembers the car barn as "just an old shed sort of thing, wooden, open most of the time, with a couple of tracks running into it." The car barn was managed by Theodore Libolt, who lived across the street.

Two of the most famous streetcar employees also lived in the neighborhood: motorman James Love lived on Wells and conductor Marion Darling on Olivia. Milo Ryan, in View of a Universe, wrote, "Everyone enjoyed the joke of [their names], even they. When the car was ready to start up, leaving a switch or whatever, the motorman would sometimes call out, 'Ready, Darling?'
"'Yes, Love.'
"It alone was worth the nickel. But it startled newcomers fresh off the train in this college town."

Carol Spicer remembers Love as a very friendly driver. When his streetcar was forced to wait while another passed in the opposite direction, he would announce a "rest stop" and pass the time entertaining the riders with stories. He was willing to pick up people between official stops or to let them off right in front of their houses as he passed by.

The system reached its full extent by 1900, with six and a half miles of track and ten cars--two on each route and four spares--and covered most of the town that then existed. The depot line was cut back slightly in 1902, when the brakes on one trolley failed going down Detroit Street and it ran into the train station. From then on, the trolleys stopped at High Street, and train passengers had to walk down the hill to the station carrying their luggage. In 1913, to cut costs, the conductors were eliminated. The company bought new cars with only one entrance and a fare box near the driver.

Male U-M students seem to have considered the streetcars fair game. Stories abound about their neglecting to pay, or riding the fenders, or starting fires, or derailing the trolleys by jumping up and down or by lifting them off the tracks. But motormen got their revenge after the trolleys were finally equipped with air brakes: they could stop the car fast enough to send a rider sprawling off.

In early January 1925, a fire destroyed the Lincoln-Wells car barn. Although the trolleys were saved, the fire hastened a civic discussion already in progress about switching to buses. The city was growing, and as more townsfolk acquired cars, streetcar ridership was falling off. Margaret Sias, who lived on a farm on Traver Road, remembers that on the last day the streetcars ran, her mother took her for a ride from downtown to her aunt's house on Hill Street. On January 30, 1925, the streetcars, displaying banners that proclaimed, "Good-bye folks! The scrap heap for me," led a parade that included twelve new buses. In the first bus, a band played funeral dirges.

The interurban stopped running in 1929, but for many years the tracks that the trolleys and the interurbans shared remained. Finally, toward the end of the depression, WPA work crews began removing them. But every now and then, when road work is being done, remnants of the track will be found and puzzle younger workers who don’t know that Ann Arbor ever had a trolley system.

Ann Arbor’s “Other” Railroad

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1997,
December 1997

Author: Grace Shackman

Though it was overshadowed locally by the Michigan Central, the little Ann Arbor Railroad once carried the city’s name all across lower Michigan

A century ago, railroads were Ann Arbor’s lifeline. Just about everyone who came to the city, and virtually everything they needed to live here, arrived by train. Though most of those passengers and goods were carried by the Michigan Central Railroad, the route more closely identified with the city elsewhere in the state was its namesake, the little Ann Arbor Railroad.

The Michigan Central ran east-west, linking Ann Arbor to the big-city worlds of New York and Chicago. Known affectionately as “the Annie,” the Ann Arbor Railroad ran south to Toledo and northwest to Frankfort, Michigan, stopping along the way at small towns such as Whitmore Lake and Owosso.

Photograph of Ashley Street Station in
1896

Horse-drawn carriages met trains coming in to the station in this 1896 view. The Old West Side, discernable in the background, was still sparsely settled.

Ann Arbor’s two train stations, built just three years apart, testified to the Annie’s junior status. In 1886, the Michigan Central spent $33,000 to build a grand station on Depot Street. As the Gandy Dancer restaurant, the elaborate stone building remains an Ann Arbor landmark to this day. By comparison, the Ann Arbor Railroad spent only $4,400 to build its new station in 1889. Today, few people even realize that the Doughty-Law Montessori School at 416 South Ashley Street was once one of the gateways to the city.

Though modest, the Ashley Street station possessed a simple elegance. The waiting room had a fireplace, detailed woodwork, and pew-like wooden benches on wrought-iron frames. A telegraph operator and a stationmaster, both wearing green eyeshades, sat in a bay window overlooking the tracks, where they could see trains coming and going. Originally, a baggage shed stood to the south of the station, across an open stretch of platform; the two buildings were connected in the 1920s.

Until the station was built, Ashley Street was known as East Second Street. Even today many people are puzzled that Ann Arbor has Fourth and Fifth streets, on the Old West Side, and Fourth and Fifth avenues, downtown. But the original names were even more bewildering: the avenues were also called streets, and the only way to tell them apart was to specify “east” or “west.” The new name eliminated the confusion with West Second Street, just two blocks away, while simultaneously recognizing the Ann Arbor Railroad’s builder, “Big Jim” Ashley.

Born in 1822, Jim Ashley was a flamboyant character with strong opinions. He was described by Henry Riggs, a chief engineer of the Annie who went on to become dean of the U-M’s Engineering School, as “a very large man, probably six feet tall and very heavy. His abundant white hair was worn long, down nearly to his coat collar in the style affected by Henry Ward Beecher." Like Beecher, Ashley was a passionate abolitionist. He was elected to Congress from his home state of Ohio in 1858 and helped to guide the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through Congress in 1865.

After serving five terms, Ashley was defeated for reelection because he had supported the attempt to impeach president Andrew Johnson. Fortunately, he had ties to Ulysses Grant, who was elected president the same year. Grant appointed Ashley governor of the Montana Territory. He was known as “Governor Ashley” for the rest of his life, long after he retired from politics and returned to Toledo to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry.

Ashley’s inspiration to build a railroad north into Michigan came after he discovered that the only way he could visit his sons attending the U-M was to travel via Detroit. Even before the Civil War, some people in Ann Arbor had tried to create a north-south railroad that would compete with the Michigan Central, but the attempt had folded before any track was laid. Ashley bought up the stock in the defunct company, gaining control of the right-of-way it had acquired to the city. Then he turned around and resold stock to Ann Arbor business leaders to raise funds for construction.

The new railroad reached Ann Arbor at noon on May 16, 1878. After the workmen laid the track across South State Street, they were escorted by a band and a procession of citizens to Hill’s Opera House, where the Reform Club served them a temperance supper--Ashley, a deeply religious man, strongly opposed drinking. (During his tenure as president of the railroad, he also insisted that no trains run on Sundays.)

The railroad passed west of downtown along Allen’s Creek. Chosen because it was relatively flat, the route also turned out to be a good source of freight traffic because many factories had located along the creek to take advantage of its water. The tracks crossed the Michigan Central near Main Street, then spanned the Huron River on a wooden bridge (replaced twice since) and continued north toward Whitmore Lake.

Photograph of Ann Arbor Railroad crossing
the Huron River

The Ann Arbor Railroad crosses the Huron River at Argo Dam.

Over the next decade, Ashley gradually kept building northwest, town by town. For all of his show of religious piety, Ashley was no more scrupulous than other capitalists of the freewheeling Gilded Age. He once hijacked a shipment of rails being transported on the Annie for his own use and was briefly jailed before he paid for them. Other lawsuits filed against his business to collect unpaid bills were fought out in the courts clear into the twentieth century. And he sometimes resorted to quasi-legal shenanigans to secure right-of-ways. In one case, when a property owner refused to sell, Ashley sent him a notice to appear in court in another city--then built the tracks while he was out of town.

In a talk given to the Washtenaw Historical Society, Dan McClary, who has done extensive research on the railroad, commented that “except for Ann Arbor, [Ashley] missed every major city in the state. The reason he did was Toledo was a major port. They shipped a lot of commodities down there and he was tapping into Michigan’s products, especially grain, produce, livestock and timber.”

Finally, in 1892, at the age of seventy, Ashley purchased a small local line that connected the Ann Arbor Railroad to Lake Michigan at Frankfort. Such a move wasn’t the dead end it seemed. The resourceful Ashley had picked Frankfort for its excellent harbor, and he had already cut deals with railroads across the lake in Wisconsin and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He launched the world’s first open-water rail ferry service, hauling loaded freight cars back and forth across the lake. To attract even more traffic to Frankfort, he built a large tourist hotel, the Royal Frontenac, which drew vacationers from as far away as southern Ohio and Chicago.

Closer to home, Ann Arborites often took the Annie to Whitmore Lake to spend the day at the beach, or to attend dances at the town’s two major hotels. Families who owned summer places in the area could get off at Whitmore Lake or Lakeland (near Zukey Lake, which connects to the Huron River chain of lakes) and transfer to a commercial launch that would take them right to their cottages. Vacation traffic was so heavy that in the summer, the railroad scheduled eight trains a day between Ann Arbor and Whitmore Lake, dubbing the run the “Ping-Pong Special.”

Passengers also rode the train south to Ohio. George Koch remembers as a boy taking the train to Toledo, back when “you really were traveling when you’d go fifty or sixty miles from home.” People often came by train when they were referred to University Hospital for complex medical problems--it was fairly common to see patients taken off the train on a stretcher. And as Ashley had hoped, U-M students from Ohio used the Annie to get to school. Football Saturdays were an especially busy time for the railroad; when Michigan played Ohio State, the line carried fans from all over the Midwest.

Football fans--and everybody else--began to drive their own cars in the 1910s and 1920s. But while passenger traffic on the railroad gradually declined, freight service took up the slack. In Ann Arbor, the track was lined with businesses that relied on it for deliveries of coal (from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee), lumber (from up north), or block ice (from the same lakes where people vacationed). Other firms used the railroad to ship their finished products, including organs, furniture, and flour.

The busiest shippers had their own rail sidings, where freight cars could be parked off the main track for loading and unloading. Cars bound for these sidings would be delivered to the railroad’s roundhouse behind Ferry Field, then delivered by a small switch engine the next day. All other cars were dropped at the freight house at William and First streets (now a parking lot) to be unloaded.

To get the best price on shipping, George Koch remembers that several construction companies would order building supplies together. Paul Lohr recalls that farm implement companies would send a single shipment destined for retail outlets in several towns; the owners would all go down together and help one another load their trucks. The late Frank Braatz recalled that he once ordered a Sears kit house that was delivered to the freight house on several cars; he went down with a horse-drawn wagon to pick it up.

One of Ashley’s original goals had been to make Toledo more of a rival to Detroit, and to some extent, he succeeded. Enough Ann Arborites were interested in what was happening in Toledo to provide a customer base for the Toledo Blade. In the late 1920s, Sam Schlecht used to meet the train from Toledo to pick up bundles of the paper, which he then delivered to the Ann Arbor drugstores and cigar stores that sold them. Before Prohibition, the Annie also delivered two Toledo-brewed beers, Buckeye and Green Seal. Distributor Fred Dupper would go down to the freight house with his horse and wagon to pick up the beer, along with the ice to keep it cold.
In the 1940s, the Annie carried oranges from Florida. A group of local investors owned an orange grove there and would sell their crop from a boxcar parked near the Ann Arbor Implement Company on First Street. They built a little orange-painted shed near the tracks to store leftover fruit for later sale.

The railroad also had spin-off effects on the local economy. For instance, train engineers provided jeweler John Eibler with extra business by coming in at regular intervals to have their watches cleaned and calibrated. Eibler’s grandson, also John Eibler, worked at the store and remembers the watches as “big, heavy things.” He explains, “By law they had to be cleaned regularly, whether they needed it or not, like airplanes today.”

Photograph of Ashley Street Station in 1997
as the Doughty-Law Montessori School

The station in 1997 as the Doughty-Law Montessori School.

Passenger service enjoyed a reprieve during World War II, when railroads were used extensively to transport troops. The Annie’s last passenger train ran in 1950. Freight traffic also declined after the war, as more and more shippers switched to trucks.

America’s railroads went through a wave of bankruptcies and reorganizations in the 1960s and 1970s. The former Michigan Central eventually emerged as part of Conrail, the government-backed freight line; Amtrak also uses the east-west track to carry six daily passenger trains between Detroit and Chicago.

The Ann Arbor Railroad ended up in the hands of the state government. The state still owns the northern section, which now runs only as far as Yuma, near Cadillac. In the 1980s, however, a private company bought the track from Ann Arbor to Toledo. The reconstituted Ann Arbor Railroad currently runs two daily freight trains carrying auto parts, finished autos, sand, cement, grain, lumber, produce, and agricultural products. By 1997, the only Ann Arbor stops were at Fingerle Lumber and Burt Forest Products, on Felch Street.

When passenger service ended, the Ashley Street station stood empty for a few years, then was used for short periods by various businesses: a beer distributor, a teenage nightclub, a counter shop. None lasted very long. In 1984, teacher Lyn Law bought the building for her Montessori school. Law did a sensitive remodeling, keeping the best parts of the waiting room and also restoring the original bay window. The school is now owned by Sherry Doughty, who operates under the name Doughty-Law. Doughty has done more work on the building, carefully preserving the original look.

Not all of the Annie stations fared as well. Don Wilson, of the Ann Arbor Technical and Historical Association, says at one time every town along the route had a station, but that today there are only a handful left. A few others also have found new uses: the one at Shepherd is now a museum, while Mount Pleasant’s is a microbrewery and restaurant. The advantages of saving an old building are apparent at the Doughty-Law Montessori School, where the children enjoy the railroad motif inside, while outside they climb on a slide made from an old caboose.

The Michigan Central depot

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1991,
May 1991

Author: Grace Shackman

When the railroad was the city's lifeline, it was Ann Arbor's grand entrance

The elegant 1886 Michigan Central Railroad Station at 401 Depot Street, now the Gandy Dancer restaurant, testifies to the importance of train travel a hundred years ago. No expense was spared to make this massive two-towered stone building what the Ann Arbor Register called "the finest station on the line between Buffalo and Chicago."

Access to a railroad line could mean the difference between life and death for a struggling young town in the mid-nineteenth century. Before the Michigan Central reached Ann Arbor in 1839, a trip to Detroit was a difficult all-day affair on horseback. On the train, it could be done comfortably in two and a half hours. The movement of freight improved even more dramatically. The depot swiftly became the funnel through which virtually all traffic in and out of the city passed.

The Michigan Central was putting up new depots all along its route when the Ann Arbor station was built, but each had its own unique design. Ann Arbor's was designed by Detroit architect Frederick Spier (who also designed the Kelsey Museum and St. Thomas Catholic Church) in the then-popular Richardson Romanesque style. It was built by Gearing and Sons of Detroit of glacial stones quarried from Four Mile Lake between Chelsea and Dexter and cut at Foster's Station on Huron River Drive near Maple Road.

The inside was elegant, with stained-glass windows, red oak ceilings and trim, and French tile floors, and even separate waiting areas for men and women. Ivy grew up the side of the building, petunias and carnations were planted around it, and a fountain spurted at the point of a triangular garden just east of the baggage shed, where the Gandy Dancer's valet parking lot is now. In the 1880's, gardens were considered an important element in railroad station design--after all, the station was the first impression visitors received of the town.

Freight operations were handled out of a smaller stone building to the west of the main station. In those days, before trucks, trains carried goods of every description, from food (for instance, bread from the Ann Arbor Home Bakery was delivered to the western part of the state) to kit houses. Whole train cars were devoted to mail, which was sorted as the train moved and then thrown out onto station platforms as the train whizzed by. Mail service was often faster than it is today: a letter mailed at the Ann Arbor station in the morning could be delivered in Chicago that afternoon.

Postcard of Michigan Central Depot

No amount of fine detailing—stained-glass windows, French tile floors, and even its own garden and fountain—could mask the depot's location in what was then a gritty industrial district. The dark mass looming on the left in this early postcard was the huge illuminating gas plant on Broadway.

Even after the automobile came into general use, people took the train for most long trips. In 1915, there were thirteen Detroit to Chicago passenger trains a day, plus other, shorter runs. Many Ann Arborites commuted daily to jobs along the route. Others used the train for excursions. Kathryn Leidy recalls day outings with friends to Hudson's in downtown Detroit. And of course the beginnings and endings of university semesters found the train station crowded with students, the more adventurous of whom had slid down State Street on their trunks.

Celebrities and artists arrived by train and were met at the station by committees of dignitaries. Alva Sink, whose husband, Charles Sink, was head of the University Musical Society, greeted countless musicians, including Ignace Paderewski, who arrived in 1933 in his own sleeping car. Former U-M bands director William Revelli often provided the escort as they left; among those he saw off at the depot were Victor Borge, Meredith Willson, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Pablo Casals.

As late as World War II, when rationing of gas and tires made car travel difficult, the depot hummed. Betty Gillan Seward, who worked as the station's accountant during the war, remembers it as a very busy time. In addition to the regular trains, there were extras for troop transport. Art Gallagher, retired editor of the Ann Arbor News, remembers traveling to Kalamazoo during the war to visit his father and often having to stand the whole way because the train was so crowded with soldiers and civilians.

The depot's last hurrah came in 1960, when both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon addressed rallies from their campaign trains. They were the last in a long line of politicians to make whistle-stops in Ann Arbor, running back to William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, and William Jennings Bryan.

In 1970, the depot was sold to Chuck Muer, a restaurateur with an interest in historic restoration. By then the trickle of passenger traffic that remained was easily accommodated in the former freight building to the west and later in a small station built by Amtrak west of the Broadway Bridge. Muir, who later did similar remodeling of an historic fire station in Cincinnati and a railroad station in Pittsburgh, kept the building intact. The original stone walls, slate roof, stained-glass windows, red oak ceilings, fireplace, and baggage scale are still there. He added a kitchen in the open area between the baggage building and waiting room, windowed in the platform area, and changed the color of the outside trim, from green to dark mauve. Muer named his restaurant the Gandy Dancer, after the laborers who once maintained the tracks.

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