The Bay County Story - Footpaths to Freeways, by Lelie Arndt
Recalling Old Streetcar Days
by Robert Trudell (Date written is unknown).
All the knowledge I have is fragmentary from a boy's experience and memory. I have an old picture, obviously a hundred years old, showing one of the streetcars pully by horses. The motorman stood on the front platform, hands busy with lines and brakes, and I imagine the warning bell on the floor that he pounded with his foot when the occasion arose to warn people or animals to get out of the way.
I remember riding the streetcars in the early 1900s. In the winter there stood a small coal stove in a space where seat had been. This stove was stoked by the conductor, and often the car was either too hot or too cold, but we were used to that in our homes. I never heard any complaints.
There was strung overhead, full length of the car, a rope running through loops to a register at the front end. The conductor, as each five-cent fare was collected, gave this cord a pull and thus recorded the coins. The system discouraged any knocking-down by the conductor, though it was rumored this happened, especially when the car was overloaded. A good conductor was suppose to divide with the motorman -- all this, in spite of knowing the firm had unidentified spotters riding the cars.
All lines met at Center and Washington, central stop with an elevated kiosk, where a policeman directed traffic. If you wanted to go on one of the other lines, you needed a transfer slip, free at first but later costing a penny.
If you desired the open-air car to Wenona Beach, the fair was only 15 cents round-trip. The beach was a kids' paradise. You had so much fun riding the roller coaster, merry-go-round, Old Mill, etc., for a nickel a ride! A hot dog, sack of popcorn or bottle of pop also cost a nickel. At Wright's Cafe, a whitefish or steak dinner cost 50 cents.
Then came the big streetcar strike, about 1904. The company decided to fight the wage and hour demands, and ordered in the Pinkerton strike-breakers. They quickly found where the people's sympathies were. There were few riders as cars looked empty on their routes. Hardly a car made the run to Essexville and back without windows being broken by kids throwing stones.
I don't know how the other regions of town fared for transportation, but we in Exxexville found a new way to get up-town for the same nickel fee. William P. Kavanagh's fish house at the foot of Scheurmann Street became the terminal of our new transportation system. With a slow season for fishing, Billy's fishing tug was turned into a jitney bus-boat to Bay City, taking passengers on a pleasant cruise upriver to disembark at the foot of Center Avenue, where Wenonah Park is today.
The streetcar operations served the purpose in intracity transportation for a good many years, and it was not until about 60 years ago that the final car was taken to the barn and the firm's door closed for good.
Nor were all of these years happy ones. For close to 30 years the electric cars ran along the streets here while the company gradually lost money on its five-cent fair. There were raises in the fare, not very popular. Then the company had its hands full with labor troubles, workers demanding more pay, and striking to keep the city in a turmoil for a time.
With increasing bus competition and the reluctance of the city to raise fares more, the electric car services was discontinued Aug. 10, 1921. Finally, the days of he jitney buses had won out. Like bugs, these improvised buses, built of made over automobiles, were tough competition for the streetcars. Fares for streetcar rides hit six cents, while the bus system bragged it could "take you just as far and just as quick for a nickel," and that penny saved seemed so important then.
Managing runs that kept a block or so in front of the streetcars, the jitneys eventually triumped in a war that last throughout the summer of 1921 and this victory spelled the doom for the street railway.
In 1895 another form of intercity transit excited Bay City -- the interurban, all-electric line to Saginaw and connecting there with lines to Flint, Detroit and other cities. These overgrown streetcars operated on electric rails though much of southern Michigan from the turn of the century to the pulsating Roaring '20s.
The interurban offered stiff competition for railroad passenger traffic as trips could be made at almost any hour day or night -- with the added convenience of earlier return as there were more frequent runs. The route went through south Bay City on the east side, then crossed the river near the present municipal airport, and passed through Zilwaukee and Carrollton.
Once touted as the successor to passenger trains, the interurban grew locally in the 1890s and early 1900s to be the main form of moving people. Then the interurban died suddenly after World War I, a victim of the automobile, trucks and buses as the new people-mover.
The interurban exists today only in pictures and memories. The tracks are long gone, paved under by widened roads. Here and there an oldtimer can point to a field or the decaying foundations of a long-gone bridge to show were the interurbans once clattered along.
Riding on one was much like the experience on a fast clacking trolley car. In the country, conductors could get the speed up to 80 miles per hour, but a safer 60 was closer to the normal operations.
Saginaw actually saw its first interurban in 1894, as the brainchild of Isaac Bearinger. It started downtown, ran to the west side, to Carrollton and Zilwaukee, and expanded within a year to Bay City.
Over the years the line expanded south to Frankenmuth Junction, Birch Run, Clio, Mount Morris, Flint and Detroit. In further expansion, lines led to Ann Arbor, Lansing, Jackson and Kalamazoo.
Interurbans were soon known for their infamous "third rail," a highly-charged, upraised band of steel that paralleled one sided of the track. One former interurban employe comments, "When they got the juice, they were gone. Twenty minutes after leaving Saginaw, they were taking the shoe off in Bay City."
In cities, the interurban wooden coaches singled with trolley cars, using overhead trolley lines for thier power. In the country, they lowered a metal arm on the side of each coach to electrified third rail, charged with up to 1,200 volts.
Oldtimers remember they were warned to stay away from the deadly third rail which was an explosive issue for years as safety experts cited the hazard to both animals and humans. In fact, there were numerous casualties over the years, especially among animals. A valued horse touched its nose to one once and was instantly killed, causing an uproar.
Where the interurban went past ponds and rivers, kids would feed copper wire into the stream, then drop it on the exposed third rail. "The fish would float belly up," said one.
Tragedy stalked this electric line in the late 1890s, when a car crowded with humanity plunged through the open swing bridge into the Saginaw River, immediately south of the present municipal airport on River Road. The bridge had swung to let a vessel through. Thirteen died in the crash of the speeding interurban, and many were injured. Another crash south of Frankenmuth in 1924 injured a number of persons.
Saginawians frequently rode the Bay City bound interurban to Zilwaukee or even beyond to go ice fishing on the Saginaw River. The trip home was often smelly as the men sat near the stove at one end of the car to get warm, hanging onto their flour sacks full of perch. And they weren't always welcomed by the other travelers.
The system grew in popularity as World War I came on, but ran into difficulties during the war. Labor problems, four costly strikes, higher costs and a blaze that destroyed 33 cars in the barn at Buena Vista all took thier toll between 1919 and 1921. The transit service went into bankruptcy that year. The system was resorted in 1923 with reduced service.
The interurban line between Bay City and Detroit continued runs until 1929. Some persons might recall when the interurban had heavy use in the football rivalry between Bay City Eastern and Saginaw Eastern High Schools. It was the cheap way to travel between the two cities. When the Saginaw team played here, the Saginaw "rooters" mostly arrived by interurban and as they alighted at Center and Washington, they would be pelted by a heavy barrage of sugar beets thrown by the Bay City newsboys, who had filled their bags with these "sweets." And neighbor Saginaw was usually equally rough, too, hosting the Bay City pigskin faithful.
Competition from the jitney buses, mostly like cracker boxes on wheels, was entirely too much for the interurban as ridership shrunk. The system's 41 cars, some of which had cost $12,000 when new, were sold for a total of $446 as diners, hamburger stands, chicken coups and even beer gardens after repeal of Prohibition.