The Railroad in Battle Creek

The Railroad

It has become a settled maxim and recognized principle now, in the country, that villages and cities are to be ranked as to importance and growth as they are made points in the great railways that now traverse the State ad country at large.” James M. Thomas, writing in 1871, echoed the popular sentiment that “the more railroads a town has the better it is for that town.” (1)

Battle Creek, situated midway between Detroit and Chicago, began to participate in the “stimulus to business and increased general prosperity” brought by the railroad in 1845 when the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) track finally reached town. (2)

In 1837 the state of Michigan had proposed public funding of Internal Improvements, primarily railroads and canals, using federal funds and the states’ share of public land sales. The economic depression which followed the Panic of 1837 made it difficult to raise adequate funds, though some work on the railroads proceeded. Routes were selected and surveyed and by 1838 the track had been laid from Detroit to Dearborn and Ypsilanti. It took six years to complete the line as far west as Marshall. Although the line passed through Battle Creek in 1845 and reached Kalamazoo the next year, there were continuing financial problems which eventually forced the sale of the railroad. The Michigan Central, reorganized and earning a 10% annual return for investors, reached Chicago in 1852. At this period, when Chicago was emerging as the trading and transportation center for the Midwest, the Michigan Central had a monopoly on the overland transportation route from the East.

The railroad began making improvements in the track and in the rolling stock which allowed greater speeds. By 1852 the average speed for a passenger train was 18 miles per hour while the freights huffed along at a respectable 15 mph. For the comfort and convenience of the traveler, smoking and sleeping cars were introduced in the 1860s. (3)

The Michigan Central comes to Battle Creek

Michigan Central became one of the most innovative lines in the country. During the next decade the MCRR pioneered in several aspects of railroad operation, including increased speed, the use of telegraph signals and the development of both excursion trains and express freight service.

Local sentiment welcomed the railroad and the increased prosperity which was sure to follow in its wake. The MCRR line was reputedly laid between the Battle Creek River and Van Buren Street so that Sands McCamly, the town founder, could sit on his front porch and watch the engines go by. In fact the line ran right through the front yards of the fashionable homes along Water Street. What had been front lawns sloping down to the banks of the river now became a thoroughfare for freight trains.

The first depot

The first MCRR depot was located near Monroe Street just north of the Battle Creek River. It was eventually outgrown and a new depot was built in 1888 on West Van Buren Street between North McCamly and N. Jefferson Street (now Capital Avenue NE). The “handsome and imposing structure,” constructed of Philadelphia pressed brick with stone trim, was designed by architects Rogers and McFarland of Detroit. (4)

Facilities at the depot included both gentlemen’s and ladies’ waiting rooms and “closets,” ticket offices, a baggage room, an American Express room, a telegraph office and a vault. The interior was wainscoted with red oak and contained “every modern improvement and convenience, including two very handsome drinking fountains and a large fireplace with mantle,” according to the newspaper. (5) Seven deluxe cars drawn by the “mammouth [sic] new engine #227” made up the first passenger train to stop at the new depot on June 27, 1888.

The expansion of traffic on the MCRR line made a new freight house necessary. In 1903 the old “frame fire trap” was replaced by a “larger and more conveniently arranged” brick building near the site of the old passenger station. Three tracks were arranged so that 40 cars could be unloaded at one time in the new facility. On July 2, 1903 the Morning Enquirer proudly described the new building with “a fine system of sliding doors [which are] are arranged the full 300 feet of the receiving platform” to facilitate loading and unloading. A large outside dock was built on the Division Street side “for unloading and handling horses and heavy machinery.” (6)

The Peninsular Railroad

The MCRR connected Battle Creek to the markets west and west. But there was no north-south line until 1866 when the Peninsular Railroad began construction. By this time the novelty had disappeared and there were pro-(Boosters) and anti-(Knockers) railroad factions. The Boosters eventually won and the citizens of the town voted a $35,800 bond issue to help fund the new line.

The golden spike initiating the construction was driven near Union and East Michigan Avenue in the fall of 1866. The first rail was laid near the Nichols and Shepard Threshing Machine works in 1869. (7)

The period between 1870 and 1880 was one of unrestricted competition, double-dealing and financial panic. Railroads were built before there was traffic to sustain them, freight rates were arbitrarily established, raised or lowered. It was a time when swindles were regarded as shrewd bargaining. There was panic in the money markets and hundreds of banks across the country failed. Thirty thousand miles of railroad were nearly insolvent or bankrupt. Eighteen of the nation’s railroads were in receivership.

The Grand Trunk Railroad

In 1878 William Vanderbilt, son of the Commodore, seized control of the Michigan Central Railroad and imposed much higher freight rates between Detroit and Chicago. Stung by this and other hostile Vanderbilt acts, the Canadian-owned Grand Trunk Railroad moved to acquire the Chicago-Lake Huron line to establish their own, competing line to Chicago through Port Huron. The deal was consummated in September 1879 and Battle Creek now stood at the confluence of two major east-west railroad lines – the Michigan Central Railroad and the newly-named Chicago and Grand Trunk Railroad (CGTRR).

The Chicago and Grand Trunk Railroad, later the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, had a major economic impact on the city. A terminal, round house and turntable were located here. In 1885 $1,250 a day was put into the local economy in the form of CGTRR paychecks. Division headquarters were also moved to Battle Creek, which further increased the economic impact.

In 1908 the Grand Trunk Western Railroad (GTWRR) moved the engine and repair facilities from Port Huron to Battle Creek. New shops were constructed on the east end of town and between 500 and 600 men moved their families to town. The railroad became, with this single move, the city’s largest employer.(8)

Two incidents

Even though it was a major contributor to the economic health of the community, the GTWRR was not without its detractors. Two controversial incidents marked its growth in Battle Creek. When the route of the railroad was originally announced some residents of Hall Street (now Dickman Road) objected to the railroad running down the middle of the street, right under their noses. Leonidas Dibble, the local lawyer who was the president of the railroad, ordered that the offending line should be laid on Sunday, when local residents could not obtain a court order to halt the workmen. Dibble also made sure that an engine was run across the tracks just as fast as they were laid, to create the permanent right-of-way that no court could set aside. Despite the dubious ethics of the maneuver, it was successful.

In 1905 the railroad wanted to construct a new depot on East Michigan, near Beach and Hall streets. Tenants of a store owned by Mrs. J. M. Brokaw did not want to vacate the building after it was purchased by the railroad to be moved to a new site. One April morning, after the tenants refused to leave the building, the newspaper reported that:

a gang of men armed with pick axes, shovels and other tools and reinforced by teams and pulleys and tackles marched quietly up Main Street … where they swooped down on that building and soon had the brick and dirt flying and the structure on its way toward [another] site owned by Mrs. J. M. Brokaw. (9)

Since the day in question was Sunday and the next day a legal holiday, it was impossible for the embattled tenants to secure legal redress before the building was moved. Although an impassioned, but unsigned, letter appeared in the newspaper defending the railroad and claiming that the owner had paid for the relocation, few citizens doubted that the power of the giant corporation was behind the incident. (10)

The GTRR depot

Despite the unfortunate beginning, the GTRR depot was completed in 1906, designed by Spier and Rohns of Detroit and constructed by local contractors, M. M. Lewis & Sons. According to the Morning Enquirer, it was hailed as “beyond questions the finest railroad station in central Michigan. Others may and do excel it in size, but not in artistic beauty.” (11)

For many years the depot was noted for the unique floral designs which were visible to passengers as they passed through the station. Olaf Jensen of Battle Creek, the horticulturist for the railroad, maintained the greenhouse and created the elaborate floral displays at all the Grand Trunk Railroad depots until his retirement in 1954. (12)

The Interurban

Another form of railroad transportation – the interurban – enjoyed a period of popularity from 1898 until it was supplanted by the automobile in the early 1920s. Born of the need to provide transportation between the center city and the rapidly expanding suburbs, the interurbans were extensions of the city’s electric streetcar lines. Ideal for travel over short distances, interurban lines connected cities with resort areas and linked neighboring urban centers. In 1900 a 24-mile interurban line was built between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, with a three-mile branch to Gull Lake.(13)

  1. Thomas, James, “Railroad Facilities,” City Directory, 1871-1872, Battle Creek, Michigan, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1872, Battle Creek, Michigan.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Dunbar, Willis, All Aboard: A History of Railroads in Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  4. The New Michigan Central Depot,” unidentified newspaper, Battle Creek, Michigan, December 15, 1887

  5. ibid

  6. Elegant New Freight Depot of the Michigan Central Railroad,” The Morning Enquirer, July 2, 1903, Battle Creek, Michigan

  7. A Railroad Anniversary, Thirty-two Years Ago Today, the First Spike Was Driven in the Construction of What is Now the Grand Trunk Western,” unidentified newspaper clipping, September 14, 1901, Battle Creek, Michigan

  8. History in Trunk – Grand Trunk,” Special Edition, G T Reporter, 1978

  9. Simply Took the Building,” unidentified newspaper clipping, April 6, 1905, Battle Creek, Michigan

  10. Defended Grand Trunk,” unidentified newspaper clipping, April 13, 1905, Battle Creek, Michigan

  11. GTRR Station, Morning Enquirer, 1906, Battle Creek, Michigan

  12. G T Reporter, op. Cit., 1978

  13. Dunbar, op. Cit.