Some context on the Interurban trains of Washtenaw County

Although we’re all very happy here in Saline that the road work on Michigan Avenue and the related downtown streetscaping is well behind us, it was pretty cool last summer seeing all those lengths of Interurban tracks come out of the ground.

I believe the city is still selling lengths of the track in footlong sengments.

Going back a few years, Martha Churchill gave a lecture at the Saline District Library about the book she wrote on the Interurban, and I was lucky enough to cover it for The Saline Reporter.

It’s neat to stand downtown and try to imaging a commuter train going right down the middle of US 12.

I’m playing around with the format of my posts, and am going to see what it looks like to post the text directly here.

I’ll include the original link, too, of course, but I’m trying to figure out ways of keeping this important historical information circulating and not simply rotting away on a not-so-easy-to-use and hard to find Heritage archive site.

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

Original Interurban article

A guidebook for anglers

It’s officially spring and that means a lot more fisherman will soon be hitting to lakes and rivers of Michigan. Obviously, the ice shanty people have been at it all winter, but they’re a hearty set all their own.

If you need help identifying your latest catch, check out the “Guide to Great Lakes Fishes,” which includes information on 62 common fishes in the Great Lakes basin, including detailed artist renderings and descriptions.

I interviewed the book’s author, Gerald Smith in 2010. He’s an ecology and evolutionary biology professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

Reading Richard Wagamese following his passing

I checked out a digital copy of this novel upon reading of Richard Wagamese’s death last week. I’m a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of him earlier, with Wagamese being a good friend of Sherman Alexie.

In the few chapters I’ve read, Wagamese shows himself to be an author of tremendous emotional and lyrical prowess.

I’ll provide some additional thoughts when I finish the book.

Finding a solid foundation

A few days ago I happened to notice four corners of brick pavers surrounding the Orange Risdon memorial sign in Oakwood Cemetery here in Saline.

For those who don’t know, Risdon is commonly credited as the founder of Saline and the man hired to survey a military road (modern Michigan Avenue) from Detroit to Chicago in the early 19th century.

It’s said he liked the area that is now Saline so much that he built his lifelong home atop a hill here.

Risdon donated a portion of his property to act as the local cemetery, and after his death the burial sites slowly expanded northward toward the Michigan Avenue border.

His home was moved to a parcel on Henry Street in the 1940s, and it’s now a rental property. It’s actually for sale right now at a fairly high price for the neighborhood, more than $330,000.

Anyway, I saw the paving stones and shot David Rhoads a couple of quick questions about it via text. I figured he probably played at least some part in the endeavor, since he’s done so many similar awesome things around Saline, not to mention he’s the former historical society president and former mayor pro-tem of the city.

He texted back and, as I suspected, said he was responsible for finding the foundation, hiring a ground sonar guy to confirm his suspicions.

A few days later, I happened to see David in Carrigan Cafe and asked him a few more questions about how it all went down. 

Here’s, a small bit of transcript of what he had to say about the day the Risdon house’s foundation was found once more:

“Now, if you move a house you’ve got to take everything out totally and fill it with sand or whatever,” he said. “They didn’t do that. They just moved the house and left the basement.”

“You could sort of tell (where the foundation is),” he said. “There was a depression there where it had settled over the years.”

“That was fun watching the guy do that,” he said of the sonar operator. “We found the house walls, the outline, so we were able to mark those four corners. We also found where the porch had been.”

“And then on the southeast corner we found a circular thing and I’m thinking that was probably a cistern,” he said. “That would make sense back in those days. That’s what people did, so they could drain water off the roof.”

David said they marked the foundation for future reference.

“So what I had done was have the ground radar guy throw some stakes in the four corners and the historic society and the city had discussions for about a year-and-a-half or so about how to mark off the house,” he said.

After tossing around a few options, David said the city decided to have DPW place paver stones in the four corners, given they can be weed whacked around and not harmed in any way. These pavers are what you see in the photos.

It’s worth taking a look of you’re near the cemetery. The historical sign right next to the foundation has a bunch of great info on Risdon, his family and early Saline in general.

This is stack of pavers on the northwest corner, which would have been one of the back corners.

Risdon’s house as it sits today on Henry Street, a rental property currently for sale.

This is a pic of Risdon’s house being prepared to be moved from its original location. The front faces east toward downtown.

Handsome fella’.

Starting with the past

I’m creating this website to bring together all the writing, photography and creative stuff I’ve generated over the past dozen or so years and keep it in one easily-accessible place.

To kick things off, I’m starting a daily habit of posting at least one professional news item from my body of work.

This piece is an interview with Joel Howell, a medical school professor at the University of Michigan who also happens to have expertise on local bicycle paths here in Washtenaw County.

In fact, he wrote a book about it: