Railroad Fever

Andy McFarlane has been recreating/interpreting a set of color tours originally mapped by Michigan Travel on his Michigan in Pictures blog. Today’s entry runs the tour right by my house, which of course means I’m pretty familiar with most of the places he mentions. This item was provoked by that entry, which mentions the Paul Henry-Thornapple Trail, but mostly it’s unrelated to the tour.


I returned to Macalester College as a 31-year-old senior in January of 1981. One reason for the mid-winter start was Mac’s January term, which would let me get my feet wet in a differently-demanding fashion than a fall start would have entailed. I signed up for Jim Stewart‘s one-off course titled 1877; the course description amounted to “1877 was an interesting year. We’ll read newspapers from the time on microfilm, and will make presentations about what we learn.”

For some reason the 1877 microfilm wasn’t available, so Jim fell back to a set of early 1869 newspaper films Ernie Sandeen had acquired for some other project. This changed the focus just a bit, but the main class objective was unchanged: We were learning a particular set of research tools, and practices. We were set to exploring for the first week; the class sessions began with observations about the mechanics of reading microfilm, then moved to discussions of such things as evolving newspaper layout, editorial emphases, and advertising practices. For the second week, Jim assigned us stories to track down without consulting modern sources; we talked in class about how the story-as-reported differed from the story as we recalled it from history textbooks, and what those differences might mean.

The third and fourth weeks were self-assigned projects. My third week project was about newspaper organization; specifically, I compared the layout of the Detroit Free Press as of 1869 with three other papers, and speculated a bit about why they differed. My final week’s project was about Railroad Fever.

The entire nation had the Railroad Fever in 1869. Most newspapers in the collection routinely included notes and articles under that rubric, clearly because everyone recognized the symptoms. Michigan was nursing two outbreaks: Promoters were raising money to build a more direct line (an “air line”) between Detroit and Chicago which would roughly follow the route of the Chicago Road, and actual construction was occurring for a line connecting Jackson and Grand Rapids. Both remain interesting, for different reasons.

The Air-Line promoters touted their project as a competitor to the Michigan Central line which already connected the terminal cities; MC was widely seen as a monopolist and therefore widely despised. When the microfilm ran out, the project was unsettled–but the fund-raising effort worked. Jackson and Niles were connected by rail in 1871, and an existing line was purchased to complete the Chicago connection. Worth noting: The promoters promptly leased the new line to the Central; indeed, it seems quite likely that they were Michigan Central agents from the start. (I’ve left out a lot of detail; see Wikipedia’s account of the railroad for those.) I gather this rail has been pulled up, but that’s a relatively recent occurrence; it still had regular traffic a couple decades ago.

The 1869 news about the Grand River Valley Railroad was always about celebrations. The line reached Morgan, on Thornapple Lake, early in January; by the time our newspapers ran out there were parades and parties in Hastings. GVRR was already a Central captive, but these towns were pleased just to find themselves on the map. It may be that they later learned to hate the monster.

The Valley branch remained in use under the Michigan Central/New York Central/Penn Central/Conrail succession into the 1970s, with CR ceding the line to the State of Michigan in 1979. The State leased the line to the Kent, Barry, and Eaton Connecting Railway until that road failed in 1983, at which time the line was abandoned. The track would soon be pulled up, but obvious remnants of the right of way were left along the entire route. Those remnants are the basis of the Paul Henry-Thornapple Trail.

Which takes me back to Andy’s color tour. Life is often circular, as are my tales.