Thursday, February 25, 2010

Local author revives history of the interurban

By Steven Howard, Heritage Newspapers

It was not long ago that automobiles faced some stiff competition in Washtenaw County as the primary mode of transportation for the majority of citizens.

According to Milan resident and author Martha Churchill, up until the middle part of the 1920s, a light rail system called the interurban ran throughout the county and beyond, offering inexpensive and efficient public transportation.

"At the time, there was mass transit and it was cheap and fast," she said. "These trolleys used to be pervasive and no one really knows."

Churchill shared her collection of photographs and memorabilia related to the trains with a crowd of more than 50 at the Saline District Library Sunday.

She discussed the origination of the system by way of investment bonds, its demise by way of government-backed highways and everything in between.

"This humungous mass transit system (was) funded entirely by private funds," she said. "People bought stock. They just thought it was a good investment."

Churchill literally wrote the book on the interurban, co-authoring a text with H. Mark Hildebrandt called "Electric Trolleys of Washtenaw County."

The book is part of the "Images of America" series from Arcadia Publishing.

Churchill said she was tipped off several years ago that Hildebrandt was extremely knowledgeable about the light rail lines of Washtenaw County and a collector of all things railroad. She said they got along well from their very first meeting.

"It was a real pleasure to work with him," she said.

Despite his passion for the subject, Churchill was surprised to find out Hildebrandt had never written about it.

"He had never, never written down any of the information that was busting out between his ears," she said. "I said, 'Mark, we should write a book.'"

Early in 2008, Churchill said she began meeting with Hildebrandt regularly, finding the photos and creating copy for the text.

I went to his house every Saturday," she said. "By the end of '08, we were done with it."

Churchill said she enjoys talking about her book and the trains she wrote about because the topic has mass appeal.

"No matter where you go, people are interested in this," she said.

Karen Johnson of Saline said she thought Churchill's presentation was both entertaining and enlightening.

"It was very informative," she said. "I learned exactly where the waiting room (for the trolley) was."

Longtime Saline resident Bob Harrison was also in attendance, and said Churchill's lecture was a trip down memory lane.

"I was pleased with the number of photos," he said, indicating he once owned a business that was partially in the trolley's former waiting room. "I've watched a lot of things happen on Michigan Avenue. When I moved here, it was two lanes."

Though many of the historical facts surrounding the rail system were positive, Churchill did not shy away from the downside of the operation, including telling of a head-on crash west of Chelsea in which many people were killed.

She also spoke of the rail lines ultimate demise, primarily at the hands of the developing highway system.

Churchill explained that while the government subsidized roads, private companies paid for rail lines. When the operators of the trains were told to move the tracks because of a planned expansion of Michigan Avenue, Churchill said they simply could not afford it.

"When they found out they had to move the tracks, the said, 'Well, that's it.'"

Churchill recently published another book in the "Images of America" series chronicling the history of Milan, her adopted hometown.

"I feel a connection (to it)," she said. "I think Milan has a parallel history to many places."

Though she works in an entirely different field, Churchill said she is a student of history at heart.

"I'm an attorney by profession, but I'm an historian deep down," she said.

Though current efforts to revive mass transit in Michigan face serious struggles, Churchill said we can learn from the mistakes and successes of the past.

"It could show people that we can go forward with mass transit," she said. "It would take political determination. If you don't have the popularity to do it, it will never get off the ground."

Steven Howard can be reached at 429-7380 or