The story of the Detroit Urban Railway begins in 1863 during the Civil War. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the city of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs would experience explosive growth until 1930. The population of Detroit was almost doubling every ten years from 1850 to 1930. The rapid growth and the resultant crowding of that population into a small area created the need for some form of mass transit. Most people could not afford the cost of owning and operating a horse drawn carriage, so the most common means of transportation was by walking.
At that time, the building and maintenance of roads was done mostly by private companies. The state or county would issue a franchise to the company for the building of a road. The company then would operate the road as a toll road. The toll would cover the cost of construction and the upkeep of the road and provide the company’s profit. A few of these roads were paved with cobblestones or wooden planks but most were gravel or stone. The gravel and stone streets could become nearly impassable in inclement weather.
On November 24, 1862, the Detroit Common Council passed an ordinance to regulate streetcars within the city limits. The city would grant a franchise to a private company to construct, maintain, and operate streetcars on specific routes within the city for a period of thirty years. The ordinance also specified the speed of the cars (not more than six miles per hour), the frequency of operation (at least every 20 minutes), the hours of operation, and the fare of five cents on each line. For this, the company paid the city a franchise tax of $15 per car per year.
The first company to get a franchise was the Detroit City Railway Company, which was incorporated on May 12, 1863. Construction of the line on Jefferson Avenue began June 30, 1863. On August 1, 1863, city officials, prominent citizens, and members of the press got the first rides. Two days later, on Monday evening August 3, the public was given free rides. The next day, the operation of the system began in earnest and the era of public transit in Detroit had begun. The fare was five cents but you could buy 25 tickets for a dollar.
The system utilized horse-drawn streetcars. The cars rode on rails, which were secured to cross ties—the same basic construction for a railroad. The area between the rails was filled with cinders to provide a surface for the horses to walk on. The streetcars were drawn by horses for nearly thirty years. However, as the city expanded and the railway system expanded to fill the need, the use of horses began to create problems.
With longer lines the horses would have to be periodically replaced throughout the day, which created timing and logistic problems. It also added to the cost of feeding and caring for the animals. The companies started to explore alternative ways to power the cars.
On September 1, 1886, a new company, the Detroit Electric Railway Company, began operation of the first electric cars. They used an operating system developed by Charles J. Van Depoele, which used double overhead wires. This system was capable of pulling a train of up to three cars.
These first electric cars operated well on the interurban lines but within the city they created public concerns about noise and safety. The cars were noisier than the horse-drawn cars and the initial system had a problem with the electricity arching from the overhead wires. In 1889, the Detroit Common Council ordered the electric cars withdrawn. Detroit Electric Railway was forced to convert back to horse-drawn cars.
Technological advances eventually overcame these problems and electric cars returned to Detroit’s streets on Aug 22, 1892. By November 1895, the last of the horse-drawn cars was removed from service.
As the city grew, the number of companies operating streetcars also grew. Between 1863 and 1900, there were approximately 29 companies that operated rail lines. In the early 1890s, these companies merged, consolidated, or were taken over until there were only three remaining companies: the original Detroit City Railway, the Fort Wayne and Elmwood Railway and the Grand River Street Railway.
In 1889 Hazen S. Pingree was elected mayor of Detroit. It was his stance that the city could do a better job of meeting the transportation needs of the public. His efforts to control and takeover the railway system contributed to the consolidation of the companies. Pingree and the companies engaged in a three court battle over the expiration dates of the companies’ franchises, which Pingree lost. Finally, on December 30, 1900, the three remaining Detroit railway companies and the Detroit Suburban Railway Company announced that they would merge to create one company, the Detroit Urban Railway Company or DUR. This company operated all of the railways within the city of Detroit and its suburbs.
Once the consolidation was complete, DUR began acquiring the interurban lines that ran to nearby cities—Toledo, Port Huron, Flint, Ann Arbor and Jackson. The interurban lines utilized large, more luxurious cars than found in the cities and could travel at speed of 40 to 50 miles per hour. They provided short haul passenger service that the railroads didn’t provide. DUR now had nearly 800 miles of tracks.
Negotiations to bring the DUR electric railway to Almont occurred in 1912 or 1913. The community committed to raise funds to cover some of the costs of construction. The cost of construction included the acquisition of the land over which the tracks were laid, laying of the tracks, and the construction of an electric power generation facility. By July 1913, the funds had been raised and construction could begin.
The construction of the electric power plant would allow the people of Almont to get electricity to their homes and businesses. It meant that Almont would be one of the first places in the area to have electricity. The electric generator was located in Merrium’s Roller Mill, which was on the southeast corner of Mill Street and South Main Street— the vacant lot next to the museum. The generator was steam powered and the exhaust steam was piped through wooden pipes to the Merrium house, which was across the street.
The arrival of the first regular car from Detroit was scheduled for July 1, 1914. Nearly everyone in Almont had donated money or land to the project. As the photograph shows, much of the town turned out to be part of the first car’s arrival. The car in the photograph was a special car, which carried dignitaries from Detroit. They were there to greet the first regular passengers.
Copies of the Almont Historical Society’s various books can be purchased by contacting Jim Wade at 810-796-3355 or email@example.com or stopping by the museum on Saturdays from 1-4 p.m.