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Ann Arbor's streetcars

Grace Shackman

Linking town and campus at the turn of the century

Streetcars and interurbans appear in many photos of old Ann Arbor, moving along tracks down the middle of major streets and powered by overhead wires. The smaller streetcars, called "dinkies" or "Toonerville Trolleys" (after a comic strip) were used within the city limits. The beefier interurbans used streetcar-type tracks to carry passengers and freight between towns.

Ann Arbor's first streetcar track was laid in the summer of 1890. The system was originally designed to be horse-powered, but just a few months before opening it, the developers switched it to electric power. (The first successful electric-powered streetcar system had opened only two years earlier, in Richmond, Virginia.) A year later, in 1891, the state's first interurban began operating, running down Packard between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Ann Arbor had two streetcar routes. The Depot Line ran from the Michigan Central Railroad station (now the Gandy Dancer) to downtown, then east on William to State Street. There the line divided to encircle the U-M campus. The north branch went up North University to Washtenaw to Hill, then to the car barn on Lincoln Avenue near Burns Park. The south branch went on Monroe to East University to Hill, then to the car barn. The second route, the Packard-Huron Line, ran from what is today Vets Park to downtown, then southeast on Packard to the city limits (then Brooklyn Street) near Burns Park.

Dr. Karl Malcolm recalled that when he lived at the corner of Cambridge and Martin Place, he could catch either the north or south branch of the Depot Line on Lincoln Avenue when he was headed downtown, since either one would get him there. Malcolm remembers the streetcars being heavily used: when he went shopping with his mother, the cars would often be full, with people standing, especially near five o'clock or in bad weather.

Bertha Welker sometimes took the streetcar to Forest Hill Cemetery, where her family had a burial plot. Elsa Goetz Ordway usually walked from her home on First Street to the high school on State Street (now the Frieze Building), but would catch the streetcar on William in really bad weather. Morrie Dalitz generally relied on his bike for transportation but sometimes caught a streetcar at Hill and Washtenaw, near his home on Vinewood.

The trolley cars were the same on both ends; front and back were defined by the direction they were going. At the end of the line, the motorman would get out and reverse the trolley attached to the overhead wires, then remove the control wrench from the accelerating switch at one end of the car and connect it to the switch at the opposite end. The detachable headlight was moved from one end of the car to the other. Inside, the conductor would walk down the central aisle flipping the seat backs down so they faced the other way. In summer, the trolley companies switched from closed cars to open ones with running boards, which the conductor used to collect fares since there were no aisles on the summer cars.

Photograph of summer trolley car at Main & Washington, Ann Arbor

An open summer trolley car pauses to pick up a passenger at the corner of Main and Washington early in the century. (The old courthouse tower is in the background.) The large white sign on the front of the car advertises a 10 cent round-trip fare to a baseball game at the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park).

Except in rainy weather, the open cars were more enjoyable. On hot summer nights, the lines offered special 3 cent runs (the usual price was 5 cents) that people would take just to cool off. Malcolm says they were a great treat. "We would beg our parents to take us," he recalls. The special rides also provided a pleasant, inexpensive date.

The first car barn was on Detroit Street between Division and Kingsley. After a fire in 1894 destroyed the building and five of the six cars, the barn was rebuilt at the edge of town, on the corner of Wells and Lincoln across from the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park). The new barn faced Lincoln but ran along Wells, with an empty lot in back where the summer cars were stored. Malcolm remembers the car barn as "just an old shed sort of thing, wooden, open most of the time, with a couple of tracks running into it." The car barn was managed by Theodore Libolt, who lived across the street.

Two of the most famous streetcar employees also lived in the neighborhood: motorman James Love lived on Wells and conductor Marion Darling on Olivia. Milo Ryan, in View of a Universe, wrote, "Everyone enjoyed the joke of [their names], even they. When the car was ready to start up, leaving a switch or whatever, the motorman would sometimes call out, 'Ready, Darling?'
"'Yes, Love.'
"It alone was worth the nickel. But it startled newcomers fresh off the train in this college town."

Carol Spicer remembers Love as a very friendly driver. When his streetcar was forced to wait while another passed in the opposite direction, he would announce a "rest stop" and pass the time entertaining the riders with stories. He was willing to pick up people between official stops or to let them off right in front of their houses as he passed by.

The system reached its full extent by 1900, with six and a half miles of track and ten cars--two on each route and four spares--and covered most of the town that then existed. The depot line was cut back slightly in 1902, when the brakes on one trolley failed going down Detroit Street and it ran into the train station. From then on, the trolleys stopped at High Street, and train passengers had to walk down the hill to the station carrying their luggage. In 1913, to cut costs, the conductors were eliminated. The company bought new cars with only one entrance and a fare box near the driver.

Male U-M students seem to have considered the streetcars fair game. Stories abound about their neglecting to pay, or riding the fenders, or starting fires, or derailing the trolleys by jumping up and down or by lifting them off the tracks. But motormen got their revenge after the trolleys were finally equipped with air brakes: they could stop the car fast enough to send a rider sprawling off.

In early January 1925, a fire destroyed the Lincoln-Wells car barn. Although the trolleys were saved, the fire hastened a civic discussion already in progress about switching to buses. The city was growing, and as more townsfolk acquired cars, streetcar ridership was falling off. Margaret Sias, who lived on a farm on Traver Road, remembers that on the last day the streetcars ran, her mother took her for a ride from downtown to her aunt's house on Hill Street. On January 30, 1925, the streetcars, displaying banners that proclaimed, "Good-bye folks! The scrap heap for me," led a parade that included twelve new buses. In the first bus, a band played funeral dirges.

The interurban stopped running in 1929, but for many years the tracks that the trolleys and the interurbans shared remained. Finally, toward the end of the depression, WPA work crews began removing them. But every now and then, when road work is being done, remnants of the track will be found and puzzle younger workers who don’t know that Ann Arbor ever had a trolley system.

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Grace Shackman