Munitions and armaments produced in Detroit played a key role in the Allies' defeat of Germany in World War I, and the conquest of the German and Japanese armies and navies in World War II. Few blue-collar workers in Detroit in World War I owned vehicles and, during the Second World War, gasoline and tires were rationed. The United States won those world wars, in part, because Detroit had a street car system that could take workers from their homes to defense plants spread throughout the city.
Public transit was, perhaps, the most contentious urban issue in the nation’s big cities in the three decades leading up to the Depression. Employment grew rapidly and residential areas were expanded outward but, until after World War II, only a minority of urban households owned vehicles, so most workers depended upon public transport to get to work. Some large cities—Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia—successfully built subways and elevated railroads, first steam operated and later by electricity, but that did not happen in Detroit. Nevertheless, public transit was one of the Detroit’s most controversial issues from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Detroit reached 50,000 in population size during the Civil War with no public transit system. In 1862, the city—for the first time—granted a franchise for a firm to lay rails in Jefferson Avenue for use by horse-drawn street cars. These proved to be very popular and by the end of 1863, horse-drawn lines were operating on Gratiot, Jefferson, Michigan and Woodward. During the 1870s, a variety of different companies obtained rights to operate horse cars on streets throughout Detroit. By 1874, at least nine different companies ran such public transit in Detroit. They were consolidated into the Detroit City Railway firm in 1879.
Horse drawn cars moved very slowly, the horses generated much offal and, from time to time, service was interrupted by epizootics. Firms found it extremely costly to employ and maintain horses and they lasted only a few years when they pulled cars on city streets. In the 1880s, in the Detroit area and other cities, innovators experimented with street cars drawn by steam engines, by underground cables and by some using experimental uses of electricity. In 1888, Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia successfully applied electricity to the propulsion of reliable street cars that could operate in any weather. This led to tremendous improvements in the quality of urban life. The first electric street cars operated in Detroit in 1892. Three years later, the last horse drawn line—the Chene line—ceased operation.
Street railway firms operated in public thoroughfares, so
they had to obtain franchises from the city government. For the most part,
elected city officials
tried to tightly control the street car firms by limiting the duration of their
franchise, by imposing costly user fees and by retaining the right to purchase
the line from the owner for a price to be set by an arbitrator. Nevertheless,
there was tremendous profit to be made in running street cars, so firms staunchly
fought for their prerogatives and challenged city regulations they found offensive.
As cities grew rapidly and industrial employment spread across the urban landscape, citizens complained more and more about the high cost of street car travel and deficient service. A movement for municipal ownership of street railroads became popular. The fight between municipal and private ownership was fought more vividly in Detroit than in many other cities. In the 1890s, reform Mayor Hazen Pingree, whose statue now adorns Grand Circus Park, sought to take over the developing and increasingly important street car lines. The firms and the states’ courts eventually blocked Mayor Pingree's efforts, so he helped establish a private firm—The Detroit Railway Company—to build a street car system in Detroit that would challenge the leading private firm, The Detroit Street Railway Company. This was not a very successful endeavor and, in 1899, the state Supreme Court ruled authoritatively against a city purchase of the city’s privately owned street car lines. Recall that the city had to approve new lines and major modifications of existing lines and could establish the usage fees imposed on private firms. They were, to some degree, at the mercy of city officials.
A booming interurban railway industry spread across the nation in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Inexpensively and lightly built electric interurban rail lines connected major and minor cities. Electric power cars similar to city street cars”known as interurbans—ran on these rather flimsy roadbeds. Interurban firms competed with the established stream railroads. Although electric interurbans were much slower and less comfortable than stream trains, their ticket price was very much lower. Fortunes were quickly made as investors constructed an extensive interurban system throughout the Midwest. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Henry Everett and Edward Moore, investors from Cleveland, purchased the Detroit city street cars lines and many of the lines that connected the Detroit to its flourishing suburbs and outlying cities. They quickly merged existing suburban lines and built new ones from Detroit to Port Huron, to Flint with connections to Saginaw and Bay City, to Pontiac—actually three different interurban routes linked Detroit to Pontiac, to Ann Arbor and Jackson and, later, to Toledo. In the city of Detroit, the street tracks of their firm, Detroit United Railways, were used both by their local streetcar service and their interurban cars. Thanks to Everett and Moore, Detroit was at the center of the nation’s largest interurban network in the early 1900s. But these investors ran into financial troubles as they sought to not only build a massive interurban and Detroit streetcar line, but also establish a firm that would challenge the Bell telephone monopoly in this area. Their firm entered bankruptcy in 1902 and Montreal investors took over their Detroit operations.
Street car service in the city of Detroit continued to be a matter of great political controversy. Voters continued to complain about the price of the rides, the poor quality of service on existing lines and the absence of lines in growing neighborhoods. Many of the franchises the city granted to Detroit United Railways expired in 1912. Advocates of municipal ownership saw another opportunity to put the city in the public transit business This, not surprisingly, set off litigation. Indeed, you could fill hundreds of pages describing the city’s efforts to control or take over the street car lines and the firms’ efforts to preserve their profitable company. A cohort of lawyers must have prospered since there was constant litigation about streetcar issues. The courts generally ruled against a city takeover, but this did not prevent Common Council from imposing new requirements on the firms.
Detroit’s street rail system was heavily used during World War I when Detroit United Railways operated more than 1,400 street cars on 20 lines. During rush hour on the major lines, they scheduled service on a thirty-second headway. That is, you never had to wait more than 29 second for a street car at rush hour if they kept to schedule. Nevertheless, citizens and the press consistently complained about overcrowded cars, poor connections between the different lines and what was seen as generally awful but pricy service.
In 1918, the reformer James Couzens ran for mayor. A major plank in his platform called for city ownership of the street car system. He asked the voters, in 1919, to approve a $31.5 million bond issue to purchase the Detroit city lines of the Detroit United Railways. Voters rejected this request. During the World War I boom, a Detroit planning group recommended that the city build 65 miles of subways and elevated railways. This group, I think, also recommended that the city operate its own street car system to serve the many neighborhoods in Detroit not served by Detroit United Railways. Mayor Couzens rejected the idea of a subway, but turned to the voters in 1920 and asked them to approve $15 million in bonds so that the city could build 100 miles of new street car lines. Voters approved and, in 1921, the city of Detroit’s Department of Street Railways began operating a few miles of track in the city.
One of the first construction projects supported by those bonds was a major administration building for this new city department. This is the building you see pictured above, one that survived from 1922 to 2007. At the same time, the adjoining car barns were constructed on this Shoemaker Avenue site.
The municipally-owned street car system completed 51 miles of track by the end of 1921, but faced a major challenge. The Detroit United Railways firm controlled the tracks on the major streets leading to downtown. The city-owned street car firm could build cross city lines, but not the lines that would take employees downtown. Mayor Couzens again proposed taking over the Detroit United Railways system with much support from many Detroiters. The firm defended their rights, but various city ordinances limited their rights and their franchise was up for renewal in 1924. After more litigation and the approval of another major bond issue, the city first obtained the right to operate the city-owned street cars on the tracks of the Detroit United Railways and then, in 1922, the city purchased those lines. A thirty-year fight for municipal ownership of the city’s electric railways came to an end with the city owning all street car tracks in Motown. At its peak, Detroit’s street car system operated almost 1,500 cars, employed 4,000, and operated 30 different lines on 363 miles of track in the city, or 540 miles if you count double trackage.
One of the consequences of World War I and the prosperity that followed was a great increase in road building by states and a sharp rise in vehicle ownership. Electric interurban railroads disappeared almost as quickly as they emerged. Even after municipal ownership in 1922, Detroit United Railways paid rent to the city to operate their interurban cars from Detroit to Flint, Pontiac, Port Huron, Jackson and Toledo on the city’s street car lines, but they began abandoning their lines in 1925. They faced severe financial troubles in 1925, and in 1928, the firm entered bankruptcy. The Depression further constrained their business. In 1931, they closed their lines from Detroit to Pontiac and the line from Detroit to Flint. They sought to close their line to Toledo, but that city won a court order that preserved service into 1932. Michigan once had one of the nation’s largest interurban networks and no major city was the focus of a larger interurban network than Detroit, but none of these lines survived the Depression. Indeed, the last interurban in Michigan—a line from South Bend to Niles—pulled the plug in 1934.
Within the city of Detroit, the city’s Street Railway
Department began converting electric lines to buses in 1937. The city’s
final electric street cars ran on Woodward in April, 1956. And, in contrast
to the current
migration flow, Detroit’s rather modern streetcars were sold to the Mexico
City system. A few cities never completely abandoned electric street railroads—Boston,
Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and San Francisco—and
other cities have recently reintroduced street cars although this service is
now known as light rail—Baltimore, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Minneapolis
and Portland, Despite many and sustained efforts to develop public transit,
Detroit still lacks subways, elevated trains, light rail or heavy rail commuter
trains. There were never many specifically commuter trains in the Detroit
area, although the Grand Trunk Western and the Southeast Michigan Transportation
Authority ran a few trains on week-days from Pontiac to Detroit from about
1930 through 1983.
And the Michigan Central Railroad,
its successors and Amtrak ran commuter train
a day from Ann Arbor to Detroit from about 1940 through 1984. A very active organization,
Transportation Riders United, now promotes the development of light rail and
commuter trains in metropolitan Detroit. It will be interesting to see if something
resembling Detroit’s once extensive and efficient rail system develops.
Date of construction of the Shoemaker office building and car barns: 1922
Architect: Unknown to me
Use in 2007: The office building was razed in July, 2007.
Website for the history of street railways in Detroit: www.Detroittransithistory.info
Book about history of interurban railroads in southeast Michigan: When Eastern Michigan Rode the Rails by Jack E. Schramm, William H. Henning and Richard R. Andrews, (Glendale, California: Interurban Press). Four volumes published from 1984 through 1988)
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: July 23, 2007
Description prepared: August, 2007
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