Detroit’s interurban rail system flourished, then faded like hoofbeats on cobblestones


A few years ago I wrote about Detroit’s streetcar system and did this watercolor, thinking it might go on the page in DBusiness with my story. Maybe I was brazen and submitted it for consideration. Or maybe I didn’t think it was good enough to submit.

I discovered it the other day, a surprise on a hard drive, and decided to offer it here.

The story from May of 2007 says the Detroit United Railway operated until 1956, but that was about 30 years longer than its natural life. The advent of streetcars in the late 19th century meant a leap forward in personal mobility. Ann Arborites could jump on the car and ride two hours, shop at Hudson’s, and ride back that afternoon or evening.

I’d used When Eastern Michigan Rode the Rails as the main source. Authors Jack E. Schramm and William H. Henning wrote that with 513.9 miles of track in 1903, Detroit’s interurban network “was considered the largest such system in the country.” Passengers traveled in comfort. Onboard amenities included toilets, steam heat, plush upholstery, and mahogany trim. Until Michigan officials interceded in 1911, the water cooler had a common cup; waxed paper cups were then provided for free.

As automobiles and motor buses proliferated, the interurban system struggled. The DUR went bankrupt in 1925. By the mid-1930s, only local streetcars continued, and they became increasingly quaint.

Streetcars–even those with paper cups–phone booths, bargain basements, service station attendants, adding machines and typewriters, 45-rpm records and jukeboxes: we used to find them everywhere, they were as iconic as smartphones today, and it was impossible to imagine life without their utility.

It’s now hard to explain to young people how these things worked and what functions they served.

Next up for obsolescence: newspapers, landlines, mail.

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