The Wolf Lake Interurban
A brief look at the Wolf Lake interurban is depicted below. The interurban was an electrical railed vehicle that varied from an open streetcar to an enclosed car - both shown in the figure. The tracks ranged from Jackson to Grass Lake (and beyond), crossing over the Michigan Central Railroad at the Page-MCRR intersection as shown, with stubs going to Michigan Center and Wolf Lake. The latter terminated in a loop behind the Casino as shown. The figure is a rough composite of a WL interurban on the loop and a Casino rear view, and even shows the Akin resort in the background.
But why did electric railed transportation arrive at this time? And how and why was it built to Wolf Lake. And how successful was it? And why did it disappear in 1927. Some of the answers follow and are interwoven with entrepreneurs exploiting technology and opportunity - with the rewards going both to them and the peole of Jackson.
A history of the WL interurban reaches back to the histories of both railroads and electricity.
1841. Michigan Central Railroad reaches Jackson from Detroit.
1879. Thomas Edison invents the first commercially practical incandescent electric lamp.
1882. Edison exploited his invention by establishing a central generating station in lower Manhattan. By the mid-80's towns across America were vying to be the first in their area to be electrified, primarily for lighting.
1886. Locally, William Foote, age 32, brought a small steam generator from his Adrian home to Jackson to successfully demonstrate street lighting - with six carbon-arc lights! Encouraged he next founded the Jackson Electric Light Works. He quickly expanded operations to meet the emerging street and home lighting markets in neighboring communities (Albion, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo), built hydroelectric plants on local rivers, and later formed associations with similar pioneers in other more distant Michigan communities. Eventually, these merged to form today's Consumers Energy.
1890 The first tracked "steam interurban" in Michigan (the "Ypsi-Ann") operates between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.
1892. First electric streetcar line operates in Detroit. By 1895, many cities were served by a streetcar system.
1896. The “Ypsi-Ann” is electrified and becomes the first electric interurban in Michigan. Interurbans quickly showed fabulous earnings and attracted considerable investor attention. In 1898, Detroit entrepreneurs bought the “Ypsi-Ann” and connected it to a line they were building from Detroit to Ypsilanti. The line next wanted to expand westward to Chicago – through Jackson!
1900. In Jackson, Foote (the entrepreneur) became interested in building an interurban line east between Jackson and Ann Arbor, after the Jackson streetcar line went bankrupt and he became the receiver for the defunct firm; he was left with many unused streetcars. His local associate was William A. Boland, a Grass Lake native, who had become a successful New York financier promoting electric properties before returning to his family home on what is now Grey Tower Road
The stage was now set for a classic competition between
(1) the “Boland line” eastbound from Jackson - known as the Michigan United Railway (MUR), and (2) the westbound line from Ann Arbor/Detroit – the Detroit United Railway (DUR).
The names would change as lines expanded and merged, but this initial rivalry would endure for years.
1901. On June 29, with Boland at the wheel, the first of his interurbans entered Grass Lake. (Townspeople, however, wondered why the village did not yet have electricity for lighting!). The ride cost 5 cents and took 27 minutes. However, by October, his better-financed westbound competitor DUR was rapidly approaching the outskirts of Jackson while Foote’s eastbound lines were still 20 miles from Ann Arbor. Foote is quoted as saying that “if they beat us, they beat us…. We can run a spur down to Wolf Lake and pick up a lot of Sunday riders.” With this, Wolf Lake became “Jackson’s Lake” for more than a decade and a common weekend retreat for 26 years. Ultimately, the “Boland Line” (MUR) serviced only Jackson, Michigan Center (including a short spur to Center Lake aside Napoleon Rd.), Grass Lake, and Wolf Lake. For twenty six years, it continued to face the competing DUR line across Page Avenue for a four-mile stretch, a situation unique in Michigan and a rarity nationally. For years, the two lines operated a total of 27 trips in each direction along Page Ave.; local residents who a decade before were riding horse and buggies were suddenly drowning in rail passenger service within walking distance.
History records that the westbound DUR and its successor (Detroit, Jackson, and Chicago Railway) never made it to Chicago from Detroit; meanwhile, Foote and Boland also built interurban lines to Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.
1902. On June 28, the Wolf Lake spur was opened. A turnaround was provided in the rear of the nearly completed Wolf Lake Casino. Visitors were invited to the “popular Charles Akin’s resort”, where “twenty new steel boats have been added” or “across the lake Charles Millen has built a large addition to his popular hotel” (from Grass Lake News). Afternoon cars left Jackson for the lake every 35 minutes, and took 40 minutes to reach the lake.
1904. On June 19, The Boland line transported an amazing 10000 visitors to local resorts, including 4000 of them to Wolf Lake. No doubt, regular schedules were abandoned, and every interurban car and old streetcar was pressed into service.
1913. Wolf Lake Casino burns; the hallmark lake destination is gone, never to be re-built.
1924. With the Casino only a memory, roadways improving, and automobiles and buses allowing Jacksonians to visit remote and varied places, the “Boland” Grass Lake track was abandoned but the Wolf Lake spur was maintained until 1927. Two years later the rival DUR abandoned all its track. Times were changing.
1956 . Last streetcar operated on Woodward Ave. in Detroit. Some electric rail service continued in Michigan until 1968.
Ed. note 1. Research shows that Foote may have had a personal reason for building a spur to Wolf Lake. Beginning in 1891, the Cit-Pat records a number of his visits to Wolf Lake; in 1901, mention is made of Foote's Wolf Lake cottage. No related deed has been found; he could have rented or leased it.
Ed. note 2. A key to Boland's losing the battle to extend his line east to Ann Arbor and beyond was not solely being overtaken by a better-funded rival, the DUR. The city of Jackson had to franchise the rival DUR to pass thru the city. With Foote a local name and Boland now financed with $2.5 million, one could have expected the city to decline to grant the competing DUR franchise. Unfortunately for Boland and the MUR, they granted it, based on what turned out to be unfulfilled promises! The Cit-Pat (5/13/04) lamented "The action taken at that time made it impractical to go ahead with the plans he (Boland) intended ". Instead, Boland turned his efforts to local facilities: better street car service, power house improvement, and of course Wolf Lake and Michigan Center Lake spurs.
In general, interurban lines tended to have their own power plants, which transmitted high voltage to substations initially spaced approximately five miles apart. These substations then reduced the voltage to a safe (low voltage)/(high current) track-level value. Most cars were initially DC - originally favored by Thomas Edison - but many lines later converted to AC. The MUR (“Boland”) line operated a 3-rail system while the DUR got power from trolleys; the former was easier to build, but winter precipitation sometimes left Boland passengers stuck in the country.
Acknowledgements: “When Eastern Michigan Rode the Rails”, “A Doorway to the Past” (both available at Grass Lake Library); “Future Builders: The Story of Consumers Power Company”, available at (downtown) Jackson Library.
From lake area residents (in 2005) who remembered the interurban:
Louie Lockwood, Lee Rd. “The interurban made a screeching sound that we could hear (on Lee Rd.) when it turned on the loop at Wolf Lake. We used to walk to Page Ave., where we had a choice of interurban lines. The DUR, coming from Detroit, had larger, nicer cars than the Boland (MUR) line, but the ride to Jackson cost a dime on the DUR and only a nickel on Boland’s. You could stop a car anywhere along the track. My father bought his first car in 1924. (Ed: Recall from above - the Wolf Lake spur was abandoned in 1927 and the DUR in 1929.)
Bud Warren, Eastwood Beach. “I remember that, when I was four, we used to have picnics at Akin’s resort, next to the interurban loop; you could watch the interurbans come and go.”
Interurban Photo History