The Interurban Era

The era of the electric train in Michigan was brief, owing in large part to the development and mass production of the automobile. Because of the short life of the electric interurban train very little documented history exists, despite the enormous impact the trains had on areas such as the Godfrey-Lee community. From 1920-30, the population of Wyoming township went from 6,501 to 16,931, nearly triple. Most of this population was concentrated in the Godfrey-Lee, Godwin and Kelloggsville school areas.  In fact, you might say the Godfrey-Lee or "GUB" area grew up with the Interurban since it provided relatively easy and inexpensive transportation from the commercial center of Grand Rapids to the rural and gradually suburban area of north Wyoming Township.  As Grand Rapids residents rode the Interurban to Holland and beyond, they might have taken in the sites of the GUB and decided to move out away from the bustle of city life.


As early as 1895, there were many discussion about the need for an electric railway between Grand Rapids, Holland, the Macatawa Bay resorts, and Saugatuck. That year, several groups were in the area taking a serious look at the 45-mile route. However, it was at least another four years before any serious propositions were considered. Even then, the fledgling Holland & Lake Michigan Electric Railway company, which was already operating between Holland and Macatawa bay, struggled to obtain rights to operate on existing tracks within the city of Grand Rapids. The company battled with the city council for many months before an agreement was reached and the road opened, with the first car running out to Jenison on July 9, 1901.

Interurban grade separation near Grandville

It would be several months before passengers could ride the interurban to Lake Michigan on a regular basis. The line angled through Wyoming township along a corridor that would later be known as Lee Street, with stops at Nagel Avenue, Beverly, and Wyoming Park before heading to Grandville. Once it got to the Ottawa- Kent boarder, it headed due south to Hanley before angling through Jamestown and following the Byron road corridor to Zeeland. From there, it went straight into the city of Holland where it connected to the lakeshore resorts. In 1904, work began to extend the rail so travelers could ride the electric train clear to Chicago but the work was soon halted and the route was never finished. Instead, travelers could board a steamer from Holland to Chicago.

The Holland Sentinel reported on the start of regular service that began on October 1, 1901:

"The first regular passenger car went over the line last Monday afternoon. It left Holland at 1 o'clock in charge of Superintendent Kinch, Motorman Stewart, and Conductor Harris and was well filled with passengers from Holland and intermediate points. Over some parts of the road a speed of 40 miles per hour was maintained.

"Cars are now running regularly between Holland and Grand Rapids on the G.R., H.&L. M. electric road.... Trips are made every two hours. The last car leaves Holland at 10 o'clock and returning leaves Grand Rapids at eleven.  The fare to Grand Rapids is 49 cents."

The interurban train terminus in downtown Grand Rapids was located
where the Civic Auditorium would be built several years after the trains
ceased running. This is a view from the interurban bridge which still
exists today, but is used as a foot bridge from the DeVos Hall side of the
Grand River at Lyon Street to the President Ford Museum.


This view is taken from the interurban bridge looking west at what someday
would be the site of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. The tracks curving
to the left headed in the direction of both the Holland and Kalamazoo routes.

Not everyone was excited about the coming of the "high-speed" noisy electric trains. There were reported attempts to block the tracks and disrupt service, particularly in the rural regions of Ottawa County. However, one incident occurred in the GUB, according to a newspaper report in January 1901:

"Hendrietje Kamp, the woman who resisted the Grand Rapids - Holland Interurban employees who attempted to lay track through her Wyoming Township farm (the tract of land that is now bordered by Burton, Havana, Johanna, and Lee Street), was released from jail Monday after being confined since Friday. Her bail was fixed at $300. When furnished with an interpreter Monday (she only spoke Dutch) she proved herself to be an intelligent woman and reasonable too. Had she understood the nature of the officers' visit, and the object of the company to pay her, it is not probable she would have made any disturbance. She stated that she had heard nothing about court proceedings and supposed the company was a trespasser on her land, but that she had a right to defend her own. The examination is set for January 16."

Today, there are streets north of Burton and west of Godfrey named after Mrs. Kamp, although Hendrietje Street was later changed to Hendricks.

In August 1902, a second track was completed between Jenison and Zeeland allowing a car to leave Grand Rapids for Holland every half hour. There were even early morning special express cars that catered to the resort trade in Holland, bypassing the stops along the way, including the GUB. In October, a store front in the Eagle Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids was leased so patrons would not have to wait on the streets for the next car.
  
It had to be exciting along the line in July of 1919 when a special Interurban car was chartered to transport some of the men of the famed "Polar Bear" division, World War I soldiers who had served in Siberia, to their homes in Holland. You can almost imagine the interest in the GUB as these heroes travelled through.

They were fast, but were they safe?

The trains were not risk-free and travelled at a fairly high speed for that era. There were forty-four fatal accidents along the Grand Rapids, Holland and Lake Shore line, and its successor lines, between 1901 and 1926 alone. Crossings were not marked very well in those days. One of the worst accidents occurred in June of 1920, killing five near Jenison according to this account from the Zeeland Record:

Interurban Kill Five Near Jenison Sunday - Bodies So Badly Mangled That Recognition Was Impossible. License Clue to Identity.

Zeeland, Michigan - Ottawa county was the scene at 6:24 Sunday evening of one of the most horrifying accidents which has yet occurred in this vicinity. The victims of the accident, in which five people lost their lives, were all Grand Rapids residents, and four of them were members of one family. For nearly two hours following the accident the bodies lay beside the track. They were too badly mangled for identification. At last the remains were taken to a Grand Rapids morgue and through a Grand Rapids license bureau, it was learned that the car which was wrecked belonged to John B. Polzin of Grand Rapids, a tailor employed in the Wurzburg store in Grand Rapids.

The victims of the wreck were finally identified as John B. Polzin, 54, Mrs. John Polzin, his wife, 54; Joe Polzin, aged 13, a son; Agnes Polzin, aged 6, a daughter and Ulric Host, aged 13, a neighbor lad who was riding in the car with the Polzin family.

The Ford car in which the party was riding was driven by Joe Polzin. As the motor car approached the crossing of the Holland Interurban line a mile south of Jenison, and near the farm of Cornelius Andre, former sheriff of Ottawa county, a limited train bound for Saugatuck over the Holland Interurban tracks bore down at the rate of 55 miles an hour. Aside from the motorman of the Interurban, Alex Wilson, no one is left alive to tell just what happened. Motorman Wilson, near collapse over the terrible affair, could state only that the car flashed into sight on the crossing but an instant before the collision.

He put on his brakes, but there was not time to save the motor party. Officials of the road declare the motorman made a remarkable stop, bringing the heavy car to a stop within 300 feet of the place where the motor car was hit.

The auto was dragged under the front tracks of the heavy steel interurban car for a distance of 240 feet south of the crossing before the interurban could be brought to a stop.

An investigation of the ground is said to have shown that the brakes were applied to the motor car, within 30 feet of the crossing. The automobile skidded ahead that distance and stopped directly on the track in the path of the swiftly moving interurban car.

Mrs. John De Winter, living near the crossing heard the Interurban car whistle for the crossing and saw the Ford car pass along the road. She did not witness the collision however. She stated that a boy of about 15 was driving the car at that time. "He'll never be able to beat the interurban to that crossing" she commented to herself as the car passed.

Two fatalities occurred within the GUB, itself.  One in particular was described in a graphic report from The Grand Rapids Herald of an accident on August 21, 1903:

"Miss Martha Doornbos was killed, and Edward Newhouse was seriously injured at 8 o'clock Saturday night near Burlingame Crossing near Grand Rapids (this would be the corner of Burlingame, Lee Street, and Beverly) by an electric car in charge of Conductor B. A. McCabe and Motorman B. W. Marlett.  Both were walking along the track usually used by southbound cars and paid no attention to the warning whistles of the northbound car, as they thought it was on the other track. But an accident on the line made it necessary to use the south track and, before the couple knew it, the car ran them down. Miss Doornbos was thrown by the fender and struck a second time. Her skull was fractured and both legs were crushed. Newhouse's left leg was fractured and bruised and his right arm broken."

On July 13, 1925, Harry Bos and Albert Boone were riding in an automobile on Nagel Avenue when the car was hit and both killed by an interurban train that was travelling down the Lee Street corridor.


The interurban bridge in 2002. In the background is construction of the
DeVos Center. At right is the Civic Auditorium. Only the front facade of
the Civic remains today, incorporated into the new structure.


Interurban train stop in Wyoming Park



This 1907 map of the GUB area shows the route of the interurban train.

It didn't take long before the automobile began competing with the interurban. Shortly after 1905 more and more automobiles were showing up at people's homes. This led the state to enact the "Good Roads Plan" and the clock began ticking on the life of the electric train. No one at the time saw it coming despite Safety Motor Coach Lines becoming the first commercial enterprise to run regular trips to Holland and the resort area. This company was later known as Central Greyhound Lines. In 1926, after struggling to keep a number of shorter routes open, the Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago line was abandoned. According to an article in the Holland Sentinel:

The last trips were taken Monday, Nov. 15, 1926. The Sentinel reported: “For a quarter of a century the big green interurban coaches had been rolling through Holland every half hour, either one way or the other, over the main arteries of travel. This morning the clang of the interurban was silenced and the rumble of the wheels was stilled. At 4 o'clock this morning the last car passed through the city on the way to the car barns at Virginia Park. Today there is not a car running over the 43 miles of track extending from Grand Rapids to Saugatuck.”

Interurban superintendent Clare Taylor of Holland, a 23-year employee, said at least 100 men were out of work. Fifty of those laid off were from Holland and 15 from Virginia Park. The annual payroll was at least $150,000 and about $2,000 a month in taxes.

At least 49 people were killed in fatal accidents involving the trolley beginning Sept. 1, 1901. The last mishap, an automobile-train collision at Andree's Crossing in Jenison occurred Sept. 13, 1926, killed Lewis Mosher and Martin Van Oss.

Interurban tracks near Grandville

In his book, The Interurban Era in Holland, Michigan, author Donald L. vanRenken quotes a nostalgic newspaper article that ran on September 9, 1926:

"In few instances can changes wrought by a quarter of a century be more accurately recorded than in the history of the Grand Rapids, Holland and Chicago railway, which was to be sold at auction by Kirk E. Wicks, master in chancery of district court this morning at 10 o'clock. For it was 25 years ago today that the first car was run over the completed tracks of the Grand Rapids, Holland and Lake Michigan Rapid Railway Company, its forerunner.

"Then the driving of the last spike in the ties, at Jamestown, and the initial trip, when the officials, headed by Vice President Benjamin S. Hanchett, were justly jubilant, was an event heralded in a manner befitting the new era which was being ushered in.

"For it meant to Grand Rapids the opening up and contact with sprightly villages and rich farming territory, and to the farmers it meant ready markets. Holland, a growing city, was no longer remote from Grand Rapids, and took pride in the possession of an asset the eclipse of which was beyond the imagination.

"On the first trip, City Clerk Joseph C. Shinkman, of Grand Rapids, instrumental in obtaining the franchise for the road, recalls that a horse had to be engaged when the power suddenly failed.

"Those familiar with the present situation of the road express the hope that the bondholders may organize and continue the operation of the road."



This 1926 geologic survey map clearly shows the interurban line running diagonally through the GUB, Beverly and Wyoming Park. 
The Pere Marquette is shown running parallel to the Grand River with the roundhouse and yards on the top edge.

A group did temporarily revive service between Jenison and Grand Rapids, calling it the United Suburban Railway, and business was good until it was forced to discontinue service in 1932.  However, the golden age of the Interurban was long past but the period between 1901 and 1932 saw incredible growth in the Galewood-Urbandale-Burlingame area largely due to the electric railroad.


One last look at an era that had a tremendous impact on the growth of the Galewood-Urbandale-Burlingame community.



Sources:

The Evening Press, Grand Rapids, MI. Editions of January 14, 1895, February 28, 1899, March 1, 1899, October 18, 1899, October 19, 1899, January 27, 1900, July 9, 1901

Sanborn Fire Maps, 1912

The City of Wyoming-a History, Charles Vaughn and Dorothy Simon. 1984.

Godwin's Past (website), http://godwin.bobanna.com/iii.html#[II-20], retrieved 10/15/11 (Errata: the reference to the A and B bus lines in the last paragraph should have a date of 1928, not 1982 as it states)

Holland Sentinel, http://www.hollandsentinel.com/lifestyle/x776446558/COLUMN-82-years-ago-areas-electric-train-stopped, retrieved 10/15/11

vanReken, Donald L. The Interurban Era in Holland, Michigan. 1981


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