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Electric railways of future past

Oct 19, 2015

First interurban cars on the Detroit, Almont and Northern Railroad. Almont, Michigan, July 1, 1914
Credit flickr user Wystan / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Construction of the M-1 streetcar line continues along Woodward Avenue in Detroit running from downtown to Grand Boulevard in Midtown.

The new streetcars won’t be up and running until sometime in 2017.

Meanwhile, many are left wondering what it would be like to hop on an electric train in Detroit and get whisked to Port Huron, Ann Arbor or Toledo.

It may sound like the future, but it was actually happening a hundred years ago.

Metro Times managing editor Michael Jackman recently posted a map from 1915 of Detroit’s Electric Rail system.

Jackman tells us the map shows the city’s “dense network of electric street car lines.”

“100 years ago the Detroit United Railway operated more than 800 miles of electric track,” he says. “And we’re of course excited about our 3.3-mile line that will be built in two years.”

A map of the Detroit United Railway network from 1904
Credit Public Domain

So what happened to this expansive network of rail lines? Jackman blames the formation of the State Highway Commission in 1901.

“It’s little-remembered today, but road building was a huge enterprise in the first few decades of the 20th century,” Jackman says.

He explains that laying down concrete and asphalt lifted cars out of the mud and the muck, and allowed them to compete more easily with the interurban lines, “which had significant operating costs.”

Jackman adds that the ability to travel independently appealed to both individuals and auto companies, an attitude that was backed up by a growing view that trains were old-fashioned.

“It’s a funny thing,” he says. “Across the world other cities and countries found a way to keep their electric rail systems.…  America seems to have been unique in sort of throwing away a whole mode of transportation because it was regarded as obsolete.”

Detroit’s new 3.3-mile line is expected to begin operation sometime in 2017, and Jackman has “a bit of fun” in his article pointing out how long it’s taking to build.

“If we are really building rail at the rate of one mile per year, then we’ll be all caught up with 1915 sometime in the 29th century,” he says.