History does, it seems, repeat itself. City leaders now debate rebuilding the street car network that once served Grand Rapids. And county leaders are preparing to launch a task force charged with expanding modern mass transit regionally. So the time is ripe to look back to an earlier era and remember the profound effect the development of an innovative transportation system has had on the local economy, environment, and culture. This article, written and reported by Robert Samuel Gillespie, a Grand Rapids-raised train enthusiast and doctor now working in Texas, is the first in a two-part series.
Grand Rapids took a major leap forward in transportation technology on May 10, 1865, as the city's first street railway began operation amid great celebration. Speeches, music, food, and fireworks marked the occasion, and the new streetcar company offered free rides in the horse-drawn coaches. Initial service ran from the railroad station along Canal Street (now lower Monroe Avenue), taking Monroe and Fulton Street to Jefferson Avenue.
The new mode of transit was several years in the making. Throughout history, improvements in transportation have opened up new possibilities for commerce, leisure, and the development of Grand Rapids.
The city, like many others in the early 1800s, found itself largely isolated from other cities, connected only by rough dirt or plank roads that were often impassible during the winter months. Most people traveled within the city by foot, rarely venturing more than a few blocks from their homes. Those fortunate to own horses or carriages could travel farther, but still faced the elements and primitive unpaved roads.
The city’s isolation ended on July 12, 1858, when the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad steamed into town. To reduce construction costs, railroad surveyors chose the shortest routes and the gentlest grades for the rail line. These quirks of geography placed the station two miles from downtown, at the corner of Plainfield Avenue and Leonard Street. The general belief that town development would progress in the direction of the railroad did little to alleviate the difficulty of reaching the distant station over muddy dirt roads.
The First Horsecar Lines
Grand Rapids civic planners quickly proposed a horsecar line to the railroad station. Essentially a stagecoach adapted to run on rails laid in the street, the horsecar first was introduced in New York in 1832. But the outbreak of the Civil War initially interrupted plans for adding the new service in Grand Rapids. However, by 1863, halfway through the war, the need for more effective ways to transport soldiers, their families, and other travelers swelled to record levels.
The city could wait no longer, according to a citizen’s committee which convened and recommended the immediate construction of three separate service lines: one to the station, and two to the mines of Eagle Plaster Mills, about one-quarter of mile west of the Grand River.
Growing transportation demands prompted the GR Common Council to grant the city's first streetcar franchise in 1864. The strict conditions of the franchise required that the service be powered exclusively by horses, operating on a 30-minute schedule, at a speed not to exceed six miles per hour. The cars were to run 15 hours daily in the summer and 12 in the winter, meeting all passenger trains, for a fare not to exceed five cents.
Convenience, Not Comfort
The popularity of horse-drawn streetcars grew rapidly, both in Grand Rapids and across the nation. In the summer of 1873, a new company, the Division Street Railway Company, began service to the Michigan State Fairgrounds south of Hall Street. The streetcars replaced a traditional stagecoach service and the fare of ten cents in cash or a five-cent ticket was a considerable savings over the 50-cent fare of its predecessor.
The Grand Rapids and Reeds Lake Railway Company began service in 1875. Starting at the terminal on Sherman Street near Bridge Street, the cars took tourists to the popular Reeds Lake area, where an elaborate pavilion awaited picnickers. In 1877, the company replaced horses with a ten-ton steam locomotive capable of pulling three cars. The engine noise drew many complaints from residents along the line.
Early streetcars offered speed and convenience more than comfort. The cars lacked suspension and ran on four wheels mounted close to the center. During the frequent derailments, drivers often enlisted the passengers to help rerail the cars. Some huddled in one end of the car to raise the opposite end in a seesaw fashion, while other passengers stepped outside to lift it back on to the track.
The cars ran on strap rail, a primitive track consisting of long strips of iron fastened to wood beams. The iron strips buckled with temperature changes and showed an annoying tendency to spring from their wooden beds, puncturing the floors of the cars and injuring passengers. The cars had no heat in the winter, and when snow became too deep for the cars to pass passengers rode on bobsleds.
The Transit Business Booms
In 1883, a group of Cleveland and Grand Rapids investors bought the city’s four streetcar companies and consolidated them into the Street Railway Company of Grand Rapids. This merger unified a system of five lines, 180 employees, 120 cars, and nearly 500 horses. The company controlled some 26 miles of track and over $1 million in capital investment. The new company replaced the rickety strap rail with solid metal rails and added newer, more comfortable equipment.
The hill district near Michigan and Lyon streets included hills too steep for horse-drawn cars. The city of San Francisco, facing a similar problem, pioneered a solution in 1873 which became the city’s trademark: the cable car.
Developed largely by California wire manufacturer Andrew Hallidie, cable cars used a continuous loop of cable running through a slot beneath the street. Massive steam turbines at a central powerhouse kept the cable in constant motion, and the unpowered cars simply clamped on to the cable to be pulled along the street.
Citizens urged the newly merged Street Railway Company to build a cable car line serving the hill district, particularly the area near Michigan and Lyon Streets. When the company declined, yet another new company emerged to fill the void.
The Common Council granted a franchise to the Valley City Street and Cable Company in 1885, permitting the use of horse, cable, or “noiseless steam” power. Construction began in August 1887, and the first cable cars ran on Lyon Street from Canal Street to Union Avenue in April of the following year.
The Valley City Company also built a cable car line on Union from Lyon to Bridge Street. Its franchise authorized construction of three sides of a loop, and omitted the connecting link in Canal Street between Lyon and Bridge because the Street Railway Company obtained exclusive rights to the section. The Council later passed an ordinance allowing Valley City to build the missing link, leading to litigation between the two companies.
The cable-car company won and installed its tracks outside the double horsecar tracks, leaving four sets of tracks running down Canal Street. Valley City later extended the cable route and added several horsecar lines as well, investing over $1 million in the system. Meanwhile, a smaller player, the North Park Street Railway Company, was established in 1889. Its territory included a two-mile steam-powered route and the North Park recreation area.
Both Valley City and the Street Railway Company eagerly expanded and improved their lines near the end of the nineteenth century, running parallel lines along many routes. In 1890, the Valley City Company acquired and merged with the Street Railway Company. The Common Council approved the merger by means of a new franchise in 1891. The new company, renamed the Grand Rapids Consolidated Street Railway Company, gained operating efficiencies and removed the redundant tracks.
At its peak, horse-drawn public transportation covered nearly forty miles in Grand Rapids.
A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Michigan History magazine, a publication of the Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries.
Historical photographs of Grand Rapids are courtesy of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department - Grand Rapids Public Library.