The Forgotten Railways of Western Michigan

This Memorial Day Weekend, we stayed with a friend in Southwest Michigan. For me, it was a chance to step outside of the Chicago area and take in some of the history and ambiance of the other side of Lake Michigan, including its significant railroad history. I even managed to learn a thing or two!

I had not traced the right of way where the Blue Bridge now stands today and learned it was a former GR&I line into downtown Grand Rapids, for example.
Just like many places in the United States, Michigan is full of abandoned railroad corridors. While there are many differing reasons for abandonment, the majority of abandonments in Michigan mirror the rest of the United States; competition from the US Highways and Interstates, as well as the ongoing efficiencies and technological advancements that the railroad industry is undertaking.

One of the really neat exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is a map of what Michigan's highway system looked like in 1920, 1960, and today.
While this blog would be far too long to touch on every forgotten railway the Grand Rapids region, I did devote a significant part of the trip to taking pictures and finding historical information on some lines. I also found this artistic map of Grand Rapids from 1868, which is worth checking out.

An ad for the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railway on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
I'll start off with the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railway, as that was the line I learned most about during our trip. At its height, this line connected Cincinnati, OH with the Straits of Mackinac, which separate the two Peninsulas of Michigan. It opened service along a 20 mile stretch of road between Grand Rapids and Cedar Springs, MI in 1867, with much of this line having been abandoned and converted into the White Pine Trail.

A board on Arrivals & Departures of the GR&I, part of their Streets of Old Grand Rapids exhibit, my personal favorite.

By 1909, a branch to Traverse City was opened up, however, the GR&I was never profitable, and would be purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad nine years later. As mentioned earlier, the Blue Bridge over the Grand River in Grand Rapids was once part of the GR&I, before being abandoned by Conrail, PRR's eventual successor.

The Blue Bridge before receiving its paint job, still in service as of 1978. Photo: Tom Carter.
If you ever happen to find yourself in Grand Rapids, I highly recommend visiting the Public Museum. It has quite a few exhibits on the history of the area, many of which are rooted in the transportation breakthroughs of the day.

In addition to large passenger lines, our trip also featured a few remaining pieces of trolley & interurban lines from Western Michigan. 

Grand Rapids Street Railway Co. #54, on display at Grand Rapids Public Museum.

An interurban car of the Grand Rapids Grand Haven & Muskegon Electric Railway, on display at the Coopersville Historical Society.
My best attempt to recreate an image showing the GRGH&M trolley tracks in Grand Haven, MI, from a photo on display at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.
The Grand Rapids, Grand Haven & Muskegon Railway connected all of its namesake cities, starting in Grand Rapids and branching just west of Nunica, one branch heading to Grand Haven, the other Muskegon. The Grand Rapids-Muskegon line generally followed present-day I-96 while the GR&I also had a Grand Rapids-Muskegon line, it traversed a different route.

Another photo on display at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum showing downtown Grand Haven buried deep under snow.
Who would've expected a piece of railroad history to be found in an upscale chocolate shop? We stopped in Patricia's Chocolate (which has fantastic chocolate and unique flavors, albeit pricey), and found this hanging on the wall: 

A map of 1883 Paris. Note the partially-abandoned Petite-Ceinture around the outer ring of the city.
Grand Haven was also a stop on a branch of the Grand Trunk Railway, whose station still stands as a historical marker. The property that once belonged to the railroad is now shops, restaurants, waterfront, and the newly completed Waterfront Stadium

Before and after pics: The top is thanks to the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, the bottom was taken by me.
While the redevelopment along Grand Haven has signaled an end to railroad operations, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of historical markers left; in fact, just north of here lies Pere Marquette 1223 (sister to 1225) on display.

Note the coal tower in the background, also preserved.

As soon as I got to see this beauty it started raining, however.

Placard next to PM 1223.
Note the cabooses pay homage to two of Grand Haven's Fallen Flags: Grand Trunk Western & Pere Marquette.
We spent the night seeing the Grand Haven Musical Fountain, and made our way to Holland the next day. Holland has much railroad history as well, some of it preserved. 

Pere Marquette A967, the second preserved PM caboose I've seen on the trip, at Holland's Amtrak Station.
But what I find most interesting is that two of its nearby abandonments haven't been in service since 1881, with little to no trace of their existence. Had I not had people send me lines to trace, I wouldn't have known about either of them.

Note the Chicago & Michigan Lake Shore Railroad between Holland and Nunica on this map of Ottawa County from "Railroads of Holland Michigan, vol. 1" by Donald L. Van Reken. Thanks to Chris Kooyers for finding this!
The section of rail line between Fruitport Twp and Holland in the center of this map was abandoned in 1881 and leaves no trace of its existence.

Taking a look at the ROW near Ottawa Station, one would be hard pressed to find any trace of railroad.
The second was abandoned somewhat later, although the last mention of it was in 1897. A line from downtown Holland to Ottawa Beach was part of the Michigan Lake Shore Railroad, which became the Chicago & Michigan Lake Shore Railroad later on. It almost perfectly follows the right of way of present-day Ottawa Beach Rd.

The end of current operations along this branch. Part of the trackage survives as industrial operations.
The west end of the beach. It's impossible to tell where the railroad operations were exactly, being covered with rocks and sand, but it was in this general vicinity.

I hope you enjoyed today's blog as much as I did writing it. There are indeed many abandoned lines and historic points of interest that I didn't cover in today's blog, and plenty of interesting local history all around us.

In Part II of this trip blog, as on Memorial Day, we took a ride on the Coopersville & Marne Railway. You may also be interested in viewing our blog on the New Buffalo Railroad Museum.

Thanks as always for reading! 


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