Kalamazoo Depot of the Michigan United Railways

167 Portage Street between Bates Ally and Bates Street, Kalamazoo


There is one clear indication that this was once an interurban depot:  the large opening on the ground floor.  Interurban cars coming from Battle Creek ran on Portage Street and then made the sharp right turn to enter this building.  No steam railroad equipment could make such a very sharp 90-degree turn. A freight house was located behind the red stone building you see.

Investors found great profits in building railroads in Michigan before the financial panic of 1893.  A few additional lines were laid down after the nation recovered from that great economic travail including the locally owned Chicago, Kalamazoo and Saginaw line from Kalamazoo to Pavalion, but most of the routes with great economic potential had already been built.  In the early 1890s, electric street cars revolutionized urban transit and allowed residential areas to be built away from downtown and industrial areas.  After about 1896, it was clear that the nation had survived the Panic of 1893 and was once again growing.  Capitol that had once flowed into building new steam railroads went into constructing interurban lines, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.  There was a great investment boom in interurbans from the late 1890s until the start of World War I.  Ohio, Indiana and Michigan led the interurban rail boom.

The population grew in the late Nineteenth Century and became more prosperous, but remained overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas and small villages, many of them close to larger cities.  Steam railroad provided extensive service but generally charged high rates for passengers and freight since their lines were costly to build and expensive to operate.  Interurban lines could be constructed with little capitol.  Often their tracks were laid down along rural roads or trails with little grading since an interurban car could go up a steep ascent.  Steam railroad bridges had to be very substantial to bear the great weight of trains.  Interurban bridges only carried the weight of an enlarged street car.  A railroad passenger train typically required a crew of five or six.  An interurban car requited just a motorman or, perhaps, a motorman and conductor.  Railroads faced the challenging of buying immense amounts of coal and distributing it to many points for the engines.  Interurbans ran on electricity.  Across the Midwest, entrepreneurs sought to build hundreds of interurban lines that would connect nearby cities with numerous stops at small hamlets or even crossroads.  Most interurbans ran a car every hour or even more often while steam railroads typically ran just two or three trains every day.  The increasingly prosperous rural population wanted to travel conveniently and at low cost to nearly cities.  Interurbans made that possible.  They also handled freight, much of it small local shipments.

In 1901, the Michigan Traction Company completed a line linking Battle Creek to Kalamazoo. Interurban often laid their own track from the limits of one city to the limits of the next but within lager cities, they used the tracks of the local street car line.  Municipal governments presumed that they had the authority to decide who would use city streets so, in many communities, there were prolonged negotiations as cities sought large franchise or user fees from street car companies.  When the interurbans sought to run on the street car lines, municipal governments sought, once again, to impose substantial new franchise or user fees.  Many residents of cities opposed the interurbans since the large intercity cars tended to block traffic and scare horses.  When the interurban line from Battle Creek reached Kalamazoo, they found that they could not use city streets. Kalamazoo officials put the kibosh on that.  They let passengers disembark at a stop at the city limits on Washington Street where they could board a Kalamazoo street car for a trip downtown.  Within a couple of years, Michigan Traction won the right—or paid the fees—so that they could enter downtown Kalamazoo.  After that, the line erected the large station that you see here.

Most interurban lines were built with little financiung.  They often used points near store fronts, drug stores or hotel lobbies as their “depots.”  The prosperity of Michigan’s interurbans allowed several of them to build substantial brick stations that survive to this day such as the one you see there, the one in Marne, Michigan and the one in Coopersville that is listed on the National Register.

The Portage Street station that you see pictured here may have been convenient for the railroad, but the passage of so many cars on this narrow downtown street irked many residents and the local merchants.  In 1906, Michigan United Railways became a corporation.  They owned an extensive network of interurban lines stretching from Jackson in the east to Battle Creek in the west and then, in 1915, they completed a new line to Grand Rapids—one of the last to be built in Michigan.  They also owned another major line north from Jackson to Lansing and on to both Owosso and Saginaw.  They also coordinated their service with the interurban line that stretched west from Detroit to Jackson so they offer uninterrupted freight and passenger service from the state’s largest city to Kalamazoo.

The building you see here served as a depot for only eight years.  Protests about street congestion led the Michigan United to purchase the impressive and still-standing Shakespeare Building at 241 East Kalamazoo in 1914 to serve as their freight and passenger depot.  Perhaps this was also chosen because of its location near the new Grand Rapids line. Shakespeare was a nationally known Kalamazoo firm producing fishing tackle.

Interurbans introduced the Midwestern populations to frequent, reasonably fast and quite cheap service from one town to the next or from a rural location to a city.  But they were no match for motor vehicles.  Shortly after World War I ended, Michigan began paving thousands of miles of roads.  The price of cars dropped sharply, thanks to Henry Ford and his competition, and once the oil fields of Texas were discovered, gasoline was available at low cost.  In the 1920s, almost all interurbans in Michigan were shut down after a few years of financial trouble.  Michigan United Railroads terminated their passenger service in 1929 and maintained freight service for just six months longer.

Date of Construction: 1906
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural style: vernacular
Use in 2011:  Loft building
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; November 6, 2011
Description updated: January, 2012

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