Back track

Mar 29, 2006 at 12:00 am

Sitting in the darkened den of his Westland ranch house, shuttling through slides from a collection that numbers more than 40,000, Richard Andrews stops the projector on a shot from a bygone era.

Andrews is a rail fanatic. At 80 years old, the retired AAA employee has photographed rail lines all over the world. He's also co-authored several books about the Detroit streetcars that helped spawn his transit fascination as a teen decades ago.

So its not surprising when he lingers on a projected image of downtown Detroit during rush hour taken sometime during World War II.

The afternoon streets are clogged with traffic and the sidewalks throb with life as people head home from the office, rush to catch a meal or a show, or make their way to work the night shift at plants operating in high gear to keep the war effort fully supplied.

Amid all this bedlam are streetcars, nosing their way through heavy traffic to crowded rail stops, where throngs of Detroiters line up to board the electrified, emission-free vehicles. Able to hold more passengers than the buses, the streetcars whisk thousands of people an hour into and out of downtown.

About a decade after this shot was taken, Detroit's streetcars clanged to a permanent halt. April 8 will mark the 50th anniversary of Detroit's final streetcar run.

This anniversary occurs at a new juncture for light rail. Of all the accolades that flowed following the staging of Super Bowl XL here, the one shortcoming almost universally recognized was the need for a comprehensive rapid transit system to serve southeast Michigan. Once at the forefront of steel-wheeled transit — Detroit at one time could boast of having the largest municipally owned street railway system in the country — this region now finds itself virtually alone among America's metropolitan areas, which are pushing ahead with new light rail programs designed to rein in sprawl, move people cleanly and efficiently, and spur economic development.

But Detroit's status as a modern light rail pariah could be changing. As reported in the accompanying article, an intense debate is under way in the state Legislature regarding transit funding. And local rail advocates are eager to mark the upcoming anniversary by drawing attention to a past they say holds lessons that deserve careful study as we attempt to map out our transit future.

The market and the masses

By the early 1860s, Jefferson, Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues were already trimmed with rail. Catering to the city's upper classes, dray teams pulled passengers along Detroit's radial arteries at a clip-clop pace for 5 cents. These streetcars offered not speed, but comfort and safety. Instead of clattering along the stone and brick streets, metal wheels on steel rail conveyed those who could afford it with relative calm.

Mike Smith, director of Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library, spent years studying Detroit's 19th century streetcars. He notes that, from the beginning, the right to move the paying public was a prize to be won and exploited.

"Every city did pretty much the same thing, giving private companies franchises, in some cases lasting as long as 50 or 100 years," Smith says. "The private concern had to come up with the service, but the public was at their mercy."

Detroit was no different. By the mid-1870s, Detroit had 10 competing streetcar companies, each with its own lines, some running down arrow-straight thoroughfares, others zigzagging through the city, making turns every few blocks, sometimes paralleling the competition's tracks for miles at a stretch, belying the hodgepodge construction of routes.

The conversion to machine power was equally fitful. Some streetcars ran on unshielded wires strung overhead, others on third rails embedded in slots in the street. A line on Cadillac even used steam power briefly. But by the end of 1895, the last company had completely electrified its operations.

These streetcars faced fresh demands in a rapidly growing city. Between 1880 and 1890, the city's population almost doubled, hitting 285,000 by the century's turn.

Factories had sprouted up around the city's railroads and the laboring masses followed, moving from rural areas into the city and onto the streetcars. All the while, Detroit's street railway companies were gobbling each other up, reducing competition and ratcheting up profits.

"The perception was that we had greedy, monopolizing street railway companies controlling this public service," Smith explains. "When the streetcars first ran in 1863, they were a luxury item. But by the 1890s mass transit became a necessity."

After his election in 1889, Detroit's progressive mayor Hazen Pingree campaigned to get the companies to adopt 3-cent fares as their standard fixed price, with free transfers. When the companies refused, the maverick mayor sought to build publicly owned rail lines that would provide working-class passengers affordable transit.

Pingree's crusade culminated in the McLeod Act of 1899. The act authorized creation of a commission capable of running a municipal operation, but Michigan's Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

By the end of 1900, the wave of consolidation had swept away the various small companies, and the Detroit United Railway (or DUR) assumed control of all privately operated streetcar lines in the city. Within a few years, the company controlled all interurban operations as well, offering electric cars running from the city limits to destinations as far away as Jackson, Toledo, Flint and Port Huron. This far-flung network of rail knitted together the region, with streetcars serving the densely populated city, and with interurban cars pulling in profitable traffic from farm freight and local passengers underserved by long-haul steam-powered railroads. The DUR was at the peak of power, having an effective monopoly on short-haul transit in southeastern Michigan.

Good roads

But the grip the streetcars had on local traffic was about to be broken. Since the time of the Civil War, government subsidies had gone to railroads, not roads. But things were changing, nowhere more so than in Detroit, which became a center of the "good roads" movement, which since the 1880s had demanded an improved intercity network of roads for commerce and recreation.

Surprisingly, the campaign wasn't the work of some nascent auto lobby, but of a group of bicyclists called the League of American Wheelmen. Their chief consul, Edward N. Hines — for whom Hines Drive is named — tapped Detroiter Horatio Earle to head up a "good roads" committee. Earle ran for the Michigan Senate on a road-building platform and won. In 1901 he crafted the legislation creating the State Highway Commission and was soon elected as its chair. In 1902, he proposed a federally funded interstate highway system and founded an influential road group, what is now the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. In 1906, he created the Wayne County Road Board. In 1909, Earle created the world's first mile-long strip of concrete on Woodward Avenue, an undertaking soon imitated by many "good roads" advocates. In the coming decade, the movement got the goods. The federal government disbursed tens of millions of dollars for ambitious road-building projects.

In 1900, the automobile was too uncomfortable, noisy and unreliable to be anything but a plaything for the wealthy. But in the workshops of Detroit, the plaything would be perfected into a workhorse. By the 1920s, the improvements to the country's road network had lifted motorists out of the muck and set them on ribbons of concrete. Now, automobiles, trucks and buses could reliably compete with streetcar companies. And people seized the chance to dodge the fare box.

Detroit streetcar maven Ken Schramm, author of the new Arcadia Publishing book Detroit's Street Railways, says these trends finally humbled the DUR.

"With all the money going into road-building, buses had a subsidy. They didn't have to maintain any track or right-of-way," Schramm says. "The streetcar companies had all these costs associated with their operations."

The DUR was also hampered by the goodwill Americans already felt toward the automobile. Though many today view light rail as a progressive alternative to the car, it was just the opposite a century ago. Progressives and populists embraced the automobile as a way to save them from the tyranny of the electric traction monopoly.

"When personal transportation came about, it was very liberating," says Smith. "You no longer had to wait for a train to visit your folks in Lansing. There were no roads, but to show you the general ethos and philosophy of the nation at large, they promoted personal transportation through road building. It was liberating for the American family; they could travel now, enjoy the new opportunities for tourism, leisure and exploration.

"Of course, issues like traffic congestion and pollution were really not thought about at the time, though they've become huge issues now."

For the railway, revenues dipped and costs rose, while the spirited battle for municipal ownership seemed to be turning. A new state constitution adopted in 1908 allowed municipal ownership. A year later, the DUR's franchises began expiring, forcing the company to lease its tracks from the city. In 1913, the Detroit City Charter was amended to allow for a Board of Street Railway Commissioners. By the end of the decade, saddled with maintenance and payroll costs, the DUR looked more vulnerable than ever.

No longer highly profitable, it was ripe for a takeover. The only thing standing in the way of municipal ownership seemed to be Detroit's voters, who rejected buying the DUR's Detroit streetcar holdings twice.

However, in 1920, voters did authorize the city to built its own competing line; two years later, the city was operating more than 90 miles of track, including two crosstown lines. It wasn't until that point, at a special election held in 1922, that voters finally approved municipal ownership of the DUR, agreeing to pay $19,850,000 (more than $200 million in today's dollars) for the company's intra-city system.

Bust and boom

With municipal ownership, Detroit's Department of Street Railways became the largest municipally owned transit system in the country. Impressive on paper, the system was actually a mishmash of lines built by 29 different companies. For its $20 million, what the public mostly obtained was worn-out track, outdated equipment and a motley collection of cars.

As a result, the DSR spent the 1920s streamlining its operations, discontinuing some lines and building and buying new track.

At the same time, land use patterns in Detroit were shifting. Unlike New York City or San Francisco, where geography limited outward growth, Detroit fanned out into the surrounding farmland. In the age of the streetcar, people settled and worked where there was service, developing a web of dense corridors along the radial avenues. With the advent of the automobile, Detroit's empty spaces started to fill in with thousands of low-density bungalows. The DSR reached these new subdivisions by adding feeder buses, creating a "motor coach" division that helped increase total ridership to a pre-Depression peak of nearly 500 million passengers in 1929. That year, with more than 1,700 streetcars and more than 500 miles of track, Detroit's streetcar system reached its zenith.

Ridership plummeted in the wake of the stock market crash. "No matter what transit had to offer," Schramm says, "there was no money, and no jobs to go to."

With the DSR struggling to provide service under these trying economic conditions, its equipment and trackage suffered. In the 1930s, the department laid only two miles of new track, and discontinued service on about 100 miles of existing track. Though buses lacked the capacity of the larger streetcars, the department ran them with greater frequency, or in place of streetcars by night, hoping to stave off expensive track maintenance costs. By the end of the decade, a DSR rider was as likely to be on a bus as a streetcar.

As war drew near, prospects for Detroit's street railways looked grim. The future, as envisioned by Detroit's most powerful company, was on view at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Visitors to General Motors' Futurama exhibit saw a dazzling vision of the future: A world of freeways and gasoline-powered vehicles, cloverleaf interchanges and auto-centered cities crowded with cars and buses — but no streetcars.

But this vision of the future stalled during World War II, which not only started Detroit's factories humming again, but also breathed new life into the streetcar.

Richard Andrews lived on Detroit's west side during the war, and was a regular on the Grand River, Woodward and Clairmount cars. He recalls the austerity programs that restricted the consumption of such vital war materials as rubber and gasoline. "But there weren't too many restrictions on electricity," says Andrews. "Lots of people just put their cars up on blocks or got rid of them and used public transportation."

The DSR hastily tabled plans to scrap more rail lines and rescued older streetcars slated for destruction, some of which had coal stoves for heat. The mix-and-match fleet proved equal to the task, capable of moving the vast numbers of workers required by the city's war plants. For instance, Detroit's Rouge Plant alone employed 100,000 workers, and needed its own streetcar stop. In a surprising reversal, streetcar riders once again took the majority of DSR trips in 1943.

Andrews has fond memories of those days. Still a teenager back then, he'd ride the Grand River "car" from his west side home to a job downtown. After work, he'd roll up Woodward to night school at Northern High, then catch yet another line for the lift home at day's end.

As a curious teen, these trips fascinated him. "Sometimes I'd spend the whole trip downtown yakking with the motorman," he recalls. "I remember one time something blew and they had to rig up another car behind us to push our car with a pole, a very unusual setup. They offered us all transfers to another car because they couldn't guarantee they could get us downtown like that. I said, 'I'm staying! I want to see this!'"

A redundant 'conspiracy'

Wartime restrictions were good for streetcar ridership, but, by the war's end, the heavy loads and lack of materials left DSR tracks and equipment more worn out than ever. After the war, the DSR purchased 186 modern, streamlined cars that required rail improvements to run properly. Beginning in 1945, lines considered too far gone, redundant or outdated started to disappear.

Similarly, across the country, street railways were converting to buses. Generally, the public didn't object to this transformation, but some cried foul.

In 1947, the federal government issued indictments that General Motors, through its National City Lines subsidiary, had conspired to buy up and convert electric railways in 44 U.S. cities into bus lines. National City Lines' backers, which included Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tire, also were named in the suit, which charged that the companies had coerced urban railways bought by National City Lines into purchasing their products. Though the defendants were convicted in U.S. District Court, the Supreme Court reversed most of the lower court's ruling. Only one charge stuck against General Motors: Forcing NCL subsidiaries to buy General Motors buses. The company was fined $5,000.

Even though the conspiracy charges didn't hold, there's no doubt GM had long hoped to eliminate the streetcar entirely as a competitor. According to the company's own files, president Alfred P. Sloan assigned the responsibility to a specially created unit as early as 1922. Close observers of the controversy point to the company's purchase of the New York Railway in the late 1920s and early 1930s, after which it was plagued with poor service and disinvestment.

The situation was different in Detroit, however. National City Lines couldn't even get involved with the city's public system. Which means the decline of Detroit's streetcars requires other explanations. There's no shortage of them, from the competition of increased road-building subsidies to the new streetcars that needed costly track improvements. Broad-brush zoning and freeway construction moved people farther away from the city's streetcar lines. Just as in General Motors' Futurama exhibit, in a world centered around the automobile, it seemed there was no place for the humble streetcar anymore.

Between the end of the war and 1949, the city discontinued half of its 20 streetcar lines. Five more were discontinued in 1951 — three of them switched abruptly to bus lines during a DSR strike. More closings followed until August 1955, when Mayor Albert Cobo, who promoted freeway construction as the way of the future, urged City Council to sell the city's recently purchased fleet of modern streetcars to Mexico City.

It was a controversial move. A newspaper poll showed that Detroiters, by a margin of 3-to-1, opposed the switch to buses. Some even jeered the sunken freeways Cobo championed, dubbing them "Cobo canals."

"A lot of people were against the decision," Andrews recalls. "There was even some agitation. A common complaint was about the sale of the [new] cars, that the city didn't get its money's worth. Of course, the city had an answer for anything. ..."

On April 8, 1956, the last streetcar in Detroit rolled down Woodward Avenue. After less than 10 years in service, Detroit's fleet of streamlined streetcars was loaded on railcars and shipped to Mexico City, where they ran for another 30 years. Schramm notes, "They might have lasted even longer if Mexico City hadn't lost 40 or 50 of them in earthquakes."

Rail's rally

Though few would have believed it 50 years ago, light rail is making a big comeback in the United States. Since the late 1970s, when gas prices and smog forced many to re-evaluate the financial and ecological costs of American car culture, dozens of cities have embraced light rail as a way to mitigate pollution and sprawl. In many cases, new rail lines are built mere inches from the tracks used by the old urban railways.

It's in this context that local light rail advocates are most eager to mark the upcoming anniversary. They see the decline of the streetcar as a major factor in inner-city disinvestment and urban sprawl. Ideally, they'd like to see streetcar service restored in the city, and they have several plans being considered by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). One plan includes a proposal to return streetcar service to Michigan and Woodward avenues, linking the Amtrak stations in Dearborn and Detroit. Schramm believes it could work. "The major city corridors, Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River and Jefferson, they were the first to be built and the last to run. And they could be the first to run again," he says, before adding with a laugh, "It's the first billion that's the hardest. After that, it gets easier."

Schramm is a member of the nonprofit organization Transit Riders United. Looking at a $2 billion per year price tag to maintain the area's roads for the foreseeable future, TRU members say the question isn't whether the region can afford to invest in transit, it's whether it can afford not to.

TRU's Lawrence Hands is quick to point out that light rail is one of the single greatest drivers of real estate values. According to a recent study by the Urban Land Institute, "transit-oriented development near subway or light-rail lines almost can't miss."

"We're missing out on the hottest real estate market in the nation. Light rail sends a message to developers. The rail is embedded in the ground and advertises itself. It gives the developers, who are going to be investing their millions and billions of dollars, proof that we have a serious commitment to providing mass transit service."


Richard Andrews will present a slide lecture on the history of Detroit's Department of Street Railways at 7:30 p.m., April 5, at the Henry Ford Centennial Library, 16301 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-943-2330.

A one-day special exhibit of DSR history, as well as future transit options, will be on display at stations on the Detroit People Mover, noon-4 p.m., April 8. For more information, call TRU at 313-963-8872.


See Also:

Momentum shift
by Keith Schneider
High-stakes transit talks in Lansing.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]