by Thomas G. Peck
in-ter-mez-zo: "…a short movement separating the major sections of a lengthy musical composition or work." -The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1982).
Except for observations or experiences relating to buses that have operated in this region since the early part of the 20th century, those of us who were born in the mid-1950s or later have no first-hand recollections of mass transportation in southeastern Michigan.
Other major American cities have, presently and/or previously, employed a number of different motorized transportation systems (besides buses) to move their commuting workers, residents and visitors about on a daily basis. These systems include(d) cable cars, electric streetcars, elevated trains, ferryboats and subways.
Detroit and its suburbs cannot claim the diverse number of mass transit systems that such cities as New York or San Francisco have employed for decades. The last major competitors to the buses in Detroit were the streetcars that ceased operating in 1956. In the decades since their demise, urban planners, newspaper editors, politicians and commuters alike have decried the lack of any alternative forms of mass regional transit to the existing city and suburban bus systems, and complaints (most often involving the DOT) about dirty, run-down buses, ill-behaved and sometimes violent passengers and generally poor service are longstanding and depressingly familiar.
The recent commencement of construction of a light rail track along Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit to the northern city limits at 8 Mile Road has, in general, been applauded by the citizenry, private sector spokespersons and governmental officials alike, most of whom no doubt share the conviction that the project is long overdue.
Many of these same individuals would likely be surprised to learn that, for a relatively brief period dating back more than a century (from the early 1890s to the mid-1920s), the greater metropolitan area was serviced by a light rail system (often collectively referred to as the “interurbans”) that connected 159 communities within a 75-mile radius of Detroit. 1
Originally consisting of several separate light rail companies that were later consolidated under the name of the Detroit United Railways (DUR) in 1901, at its peak in 1916, this network tied the city to its northern, eastern and western suburbs with 981 miles of track. Its cars made some 330 runs per day, reaching speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour on straightaway. 2
Radiating outward from the downtown Interurban Station at Jefferson Avenue and Bates, the lines ran along major thoroughfares such as Fort Street, Gratiot, Grand River, Jefferson, Michigan and Woodward Avenues. One of the main eastward routes, originally called the Shore Line, was completed in 1900, and traveled through Grosse Pointe to Mount Clemens along Jefferson. It was eventually extended along the St. Clair River to Port Huron. 3
In August of 1897, the Detroit, Lakeshore and Mount Clemens Railway began construction of an interurban line from Detroit to Mount Clemens. The 26-mile route followed Lake Shore (Jefferson) from the Macomb County line to the Village of Grosse Pointe Farms. The route left Lake Shore at Weir Lane and traveled on a right of way to what is now Kercheval. It then took Kercheval to Moross Road and Moross east to the new highway (Grosse Pointe Boulevard), which it then followed to Fisher Road. After moving west on Fisher Road, the route turned south on Mack Avenue, and crossed into Detroit at the Alter Road city limit. 4
The route did not follow Jefferson in its entire traverse across the Grosse Pointe section due to a lawsuit that certain residents of Grosse Pointe Farms, whose summer homes were situated on Jefferson, had commenced in the Wayne County Circuit Court against the Detroit Citizens Street Railway in 1893. The DCSR had proposed to extend its Mack Avenue to Fisher Road section of line out to Jefferson, and the residents objected to an electrified rail line along Jefferson, presumably because of the increased amount of traffic that it would bring. Consequently, the new highway was constructed from Fisher Road to Moross, running parallel to Jefferson. In the interim, the Detroit, Lakeshore and Mount Clemens Railway had acquired the rights to build the new section of electric rail line. (The lawsuit, which was transferred to the Michigan Supreme Court in August of 1897, seems to have been settled shortly thereafter.) 5
In 1999, a Michigan Historical Marker commemorating the Shoreline Interurban Railroad was erected at 24800 Jefferson in St. Clair Shores.
The sleek and elegant-looking rail cars boasted creature comforts that today's urban bus, elevated train or subway rider would react to with utter disbelief and envy.
The amenities included green plush passenger seats, a "men only" smoking section containing brass cuspidors and black leather seats, and, on the deluxe chair car used by DUR executives on inspection tours (which was fitted out in 1922 as a club car on the Detroit-Pontiac run), two separate compartments for card players, one of which was equipped with permanent card tables and 13 lounge chairs. 6
In the years immediately following World War I, competition from bus lines deeply cut into the profits of the interurban companies. By the mid-1920s, all of the remaining interurban lines in southeastern Michigan were in receivership, and the last such line in the state (which ran from St. Joseph and Benton Harbor to South Bend, Indiana) closed down in 1934.7
In all likelihood, another factor contributing to the reduction in the number of interurban passengers was the increasing number of automobiles on Michigan roads. Vehicles such as Henry Ford’s Model T were being manufactured by the millions, and were now affordable to the working classes, and to others who had previously relied upon light rail transit lines for transportation.
One of the few remaining buildings used by the long-vanished interurban system located in the metropolitan area is the former power plant that was constructed by the DUR at the junction of Grand River Avenue and what is now known as Orchard Lake Road, in present-day Farmington. Footnote 8
The DUR's Farmington facilities also included a car barn located across the street from the power plant and a depot. The power plant ceased operating in 1930, and the building was taken over by the LaSalle Wines & Champagne Company in 1933. The company expanded the building in 1941 and in 1956, and operated it until 1970. Footnote 9 The massive structure, now known as the Farmington Winery, is owned by the J.S. White family, which has converted it for use as office and retail space. Footnote 10
The Detroit area's first experience with a high speed, light rail commuter train system had been exciting, but of short duration-a transitory link between the horse-drawn streetcar era of the late 19th Century and the automobile age that was to transform America’s transportation landscape (as well as many other aspects of American life) by the first few decades of the 20th Century.
Again invoking the musical analogy from the beginning of this article, should the light rail system that is now under construction be able to operate successfully throughout the region within the next few years, it may turn out to be not merely an intermezzo, but a major section in its own right.
1 Don Lochbiler,, Detroit’s Coming of Age: 1873 to 1973
(Detroit: The Detroit News, Inc,.,1973) 275.
2 Lochbiler 272-273, 275-276.
3 Lochbiler 272, 275.
4 Unpublished manuscript on Detroit area transportation, 1991.
5 Unpublished manuscript.
6 Lochbiler 272, 276.
7 Lochbiler. 277.
- "Farmington Winery"
- Lochbiler, Don. Detroit's Coming of Age:1873 to 1973. Detroit:The Detroit News, 1973.
- "Michigan Railroads"
- Unpublished manuscript on Detriot area transportation, 1991.