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Michigan's Interurban History: A Modern Electrified Network

Last revised: June 7, 2023

By: Adam Burns

Lower Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana comprised a tri-state interurban network of some 5,604 miles, 36% of the national total which peaked at 15,580 in 1916.  

Michigan boasted a network of 981 miles, much of which was concentrated between Detroit, Bay City, and Muskegon/Grand Rapids.  According to Dr. George Hilton and John Due's authoritative book, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America," Detroit's streetcar systems were some of the earliest put into service.

Michigan also contained some of the most modern and well-maintained systems in the nation at their peak; operations like the Michigan United Railway and Detroit United Railway, were notable in this regard featuring pristine rights-of-way and new equipment.

The state's decision, in the mid-1920s, to allow buses to directly compete against interurbans by utilizing publicly funded highways, brought the swift collapse of the network; nearly all were gone by 1930 with the final service ending over the Northern Indiana Railway's line to St. Joseph, Michigan in 1934.

2035826710285723580260927.jpgA postcard featuring the Detroit United Railway featuring the "Detroit-Orchard Lake Limited" near Orchard Lake, circa 1910.

Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti Electric Railway

The Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti Electric Railway took over the operations of the Ann Arbor Street Railway in 1896, which served the City of Ann Arbor.

It remained in service for only a few years before being reorganized as the Detroit, Ypsilanti & Ann Arbor Railway in 1901. Never a very profitable railroad streetcar service on the line was discontinued altogether in 1925.

Southern Michigan Railway

The Southern Michigan Railway served the Berrien Springs area. It began operations in 1906 and provided service until 1934 when it was abandoned.

Michigan United Railway

Another of Michigan's large interurban systems, the Michigan United began operations in 1906 through the formation of several smaller lines and served Lansing, Battle Creek, Owosso, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Flint, and Saginaw.

It was also another of the state's well engineered lines providing high speed service with heavyweight equipment. The company was even profitable enough to purchase the Michigan Central's former main line (a standard railroad) between Kalamazoo and Mattawan when the company realigned its route.

In 1911 the Michigan United leased a small standard railroad, the Kalamazoo Lake Shore & Chicago Traction, which was abandoned by 1925 due to lack of profits. Prior to this the company had also acquired another small line, the Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago Railway.

By 1923 the MU was in financial trouble and was reorganized as the Michigan Electric Railway. Profits continued to decline through the 1920s and service was finally abandoned by 1929.

Eastern Michigan Railways

Eastern Michigan Railways was created in 1928 from the Lincoln Park Coach Line, a route originally built by the Detroit & Toledo Shore Line Railroad in 1904. It remained in service for just a few years until 1932 when streetcar service was discontinued.

Grand Rapids, Grand Haven & Muskegon Railway

The Grand Rapids, Grand Haven & Muskegon Railway was funded and owned by Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Company.

It began in 1902 and eventually its main line connected Grand Rapids and Muskegon Heights with a branch to Fruitport.

It was sold in 1912 to the United Light & Railways Company; until the "Roarin' Twenties" made healthy profits. However, as automobiles and highways improved earnings declined. The GRGH&M was in bankruptcy by 1926 and abandoned altogether by 1928.

Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago Railway

The Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago Railway was created in 1904 from the reorganization of the Grand Rapids, Holland & Lake Michigan Rapid Railway of 1902.

It connected the cities of Grand Rapid, Holland and Saugatuck and operated until 1926 when streetcar service was abandoned.

Grand Rapids Railroad

The Grand Rapids Railroad served the City of Grand Rapids and remained in operation until 1935 when service was abandoned in favor of buses.

Detroit United Railway

The state's largest interurban, the Detroit United was created in 1901 through several small Detroit interurban systems thank to the Everett-Moore interests.

By 1915 the interurban had four major main lines that radiated away from Detroit serving Monroe, Toledo (Ohio), Almont, and Imlay City. The company was large enough and connected several towns of size that it operated by local service as well as through ("limited") service.

Its various main lines were broken down into separate named lines including the Detroit Monroe & Toledo Short Line, Detroit Jackson & Chicago, and the Rapid Railway.

The company was able to provide through service to such far away cities as Cleveland, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Ann Arbor thanks to connections with the Lake Shore Electric, Michigan United, and Cincinnati & Lake Erie.

It also owned a Canadian line, the Sandwich, Windsor & Amhersburg. Unfortunately, with little freight traffic profits fell apart after 1920. It slowly cutback services for the rest of that decade and was gone altogether by October, 1932.

Lake Superior District Power Company

The Lake Superior District Power Company operated streetcar railroads of Ashland. This line was originally known as the Ashland Street Railway, which at first used horses for power.

The railway was merged into the Ashland Light, Power & Street Railway Company and electrified in 1893. In 1922 it became known as the Lake Superior District Power Company and services lasted for another eleven years before being discontinued in 1933.

Jackson & Battle Creek Traction Company

The Jackson & Battle Creek Traction Company completed half of a route which connected Battle Creek and Kalamazoo (the other half being the Michigan Traction Company). In 1906 the company became part of the expansive Michigan United Railway.

Detroit, Jackson & Chicago Railway

The Detroit, Jackson & Chicago Railway began operations in 1907 from the Detroit, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor & Jackson Railway (which had its beginnings as the Detroit, Ypsilanti & Ann Arbor Railway of 1897).

Serving Dearborn the railroad remained until 1928 when it became known as the Eastern Michigan Railways. A year later all streetcar service was abandoned.

Ludington & Northern Railway

The Ludington & Northern Railway dates back to the Epworth League Railway of 1895, which changed its name to the L&N in 1901.

It served Mason County connecting Ludington and Epworth Heights and operating only two miles of trackage. Interestingly, the L&N remained in service hauling sand until 1982 when it was abandoned.

Michigan Electric Railway

The Michigan Electric Railway began operations in 1923 on a railroad route constructed by the Jackson City Railway of 1882.

Over the years the interurban was known by different names such as the Jackson Street Railway, Jackson & Suburban Traction Company, Jackson Consolidated Traction Company and Michigan United Railways before known as the Michigan Electric.

It remained in operation for only five years before being renamed the Jackson Transportation Company. Streetcar service ended soon after in 1936.

Benton Harbor & St. Joe Railway

The BH&StJ dated back to two small interurbans that began service between 1906 and 1911 serving Benton Harbor, Dowagiac, Coloma, Watervliet, Paw Paw Lake, and Eau Claire on a system that stretched about 44 miles and connected to the Pere Marquette Railway.

The company relied significant on steamboat traffic coming to and from Benton Harbor. It passed into the hands of different owners in the early 1920s until the American Gas & Electric Company sold off or abandoned most of the system later that decade. The remaining portion was abandoned in 1935.

Saginaw-Bay City Railway

This interurban began service in 1896 as the Inter-Urban Railway between Saginaw and Bay City on a 13-mile route.

In 1899 it was renamed as the Saginaw Valley Traction Company and gained its final name in 1910. In 1914 it came under the control of the Michigan Railway but lack of serious freight or passenger traffic caused the system to enter receivership by 1921.

It fought with the city of Saginaw over fare increases and ended service completely by that August. In 1923 a new system the Saginaw Transit Company tried to restore service but eventually gave up altogether by 1931.

Escanaba Traction Company

This small interurban served its namesake city and Gladstone on an 11-mile system that opened in 1910. In 1920 it was renamed as the Escanaba Power & Traction Company but was completely abandoned by May, 1932.

Houghton County Traction Company

Another small interurban that began life as the Houghton County Street Railway serving Houghton, Mohawk, Keweenaw, Peninsula, Red Jacket, and Hubbell on a 31-mile system.

The history of the company dated back to 1901 and in 1908 was renamed as the Houghton County Traction. It first went bankrupt in 1921 and ended services entirely by 1932.

Other Interurbans

Detroit & River St. Clair Railway

Escanaba Electric Street Railway

Kalamazoo Street Railway

Michigan Railway

Mt. Clemens Fast Line

Owasso & Corunna Traction Company

Port Huron & Gratiot Street Railway

Royal Oak, Birmingham, Bloomfield & Pontiac Railway

Saginaw Valley Railway

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