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BUITENHUIS: The railroad helped make Grand Haven what it is today

• Aug 25, 2017 at 2:00 PM

It is no coincidence that the introduction of the railroad in Michigan came at the beginning of our state’s Lumber Era in the mid-1800s. As the Upper Peninsula experienced a major rise in iron and copper mining during the Civil War, the railroad became a necessary device in opening the state’s trade network.

By the turn of the century, nearly the entire state was accessible by railroad and, according to local historian Dr. David Seibold in his book “In the Path of Destiny,” the industry had grown to employ 90,000 people, making it Michigan’s second-largest employer.

Grand Haven began its role in railroading history with a mere 1,100 inhabitants. In 1855, the Detroit & Pontiac railroad merged with the Oakland & Ottawa lines to become the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway Co. Three years after the merger, a line from Detroit to Grand Haven was completed. 

On Nov. 22, 1858, the first train rolled into Grand Haven, but its destination may come as a surprise. The D&M passenger depot was built at the base of Dewey Hill. Travel to and from Grand Haven entailed crossing the river. According to Seibold, this was done during the first year by a small steam ferryboat — owned by William M. Ferry and Myron Harris — until it sank, then by a hand-operated cable ferry, and lastly by another little steamer named Phoebe.

It did not take long for complaints to arise with regard to the depot’s inconvenient location. This location proved more problematic in 1868 when construction began on a railway to connect Grand Haven from Muskegon to Allegan. Passengers and freight would have to be ferried across the river in Grand Haven if the depot remained on Dewey Hill.

After negotiations concluded, it was decided that the D&M Railway Co. would build a new depot on the Grand Haven side of the river, and the City Council would repay the company $53,000. In 1870, the first train arrived at the new depot, which still stands today.

According to Seibold, the new depot location quickly became a major terminal, serving eight trains daily, and in a short time there was a six-stall engine maintenance.

The relocation of the depot was not only a key investment during the height of the Lumber Era, but proved to be the backbone of Grand Haven prosperity into the 20th century.

All industries built on natural resources will eventually end. The Lumber Era that Michigan had thrived off came to an abrupt end in 1890. This devastating blow hurled many of the state’s lumber towns into a severe depression. But Grand Haven was fortunate. As a port city, with an excellent railway system already in place, Grand Haven pulled through and emerged as one of the biggest rail centers in the state.

Grand Haven would not have blossomed into the city it is today without the railroad, and many symbols of this era remain. The depot, built on the Grand Haven side of the channel in 1870, has been completely restored and run as part of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum for the past 45 years. The Pere Marquette Depot, built in 1926 after the original burned down, was also restored and is now the Creason, Weber & Mountford Dental Office. The towering coal tipple near Chinook Pier was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.

The most prominent sign of railroading heritage on display happened to arrive in Grand Haven as a foreigner. The Pere Marquette Berkshire No. 1223 locomotive, standing just north of Chinook Pier, embodies the city’s railroading history and its dedicated inhabitants. Due to its size and weight, the locomotive was used only on the main lines, and never reached the tracks in Grand Haven.

The No. 1223 was built in 1941 and used heavily during the second World War, and the ensuing decade, before it was replaced. While most of the Berkshires were scrapped, the 1223 was fortunate to be placed on display at the Detroit State Fairgrounds, where it remained for 30 years.

According to the Pere Marquette Historical Society, the 1223 and its more famous sister, called the No. 1225, are the only two remaining members from Pere Marquette’s fleet of Superpower Berkshires. The 1225 is more commonly recognized as the Polar Express. The locomotive was used as the model for the film adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s famous children’s book.

Years of neglect and outdoor exposure left the 1223 in rough condition. With the hope of some serious restoration and future care, the 1223 was put up for sale. This sparked the formation of the Pere Marquette Preservation Committee, which was able to raise enough funds and secure the top bid. The 1223 was then towed from Detroit to Grand Haven by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad at no charge, arriving in August 1981. Over the next 20 years, the preservation committee members worked tirelessly to restore the 1223. A box car and two cabooses were also restored and added to the display.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 7, 2000, the 1223 stands next to the coal tipple as a remarkable tribute to the machine that helped build this wonderful city.

Chad Buitenhuis works in curator services for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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