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“A Brief Narrative on the History of Streetcars in Port Huron.”

A Streetcar Named…

By Derek Smith

The first “streetcar” service in Port Huron began in 1867.

It was a horse drawn affair, four horses pulling a large cumbersome stagecoach owned by William Pitt Edison.

 The coach travelled from the old Grand Trunk station in Fort Gratiot, where the Thomas Edison depot is today and where the Peerless Egyptian Portland Cement Company once stood, through Pine Grove Park to the downtown business community.

William Pitt Edison, older brother of Thomas Edison, Gordon Williams, Gage E Cooper, manager of the Grand Trunk Shops, William Wastell, a druggist, John Hibbard, mill owner, John Miller , banker, and James Moffat would form the Port Huron and Gratiot Railway Company. On January 31, 1866, congress passed an act giving the company a right of way through the Gratiot Military reservation. They would also obtain a franchise from the City of Port Huron to operate their cars on Huron Avenue.

In the next few years, the bulky stagecoach was replaced with two beautiful trolley cars, William Pitt Edison had purchased in Philadelphia.

                    Port Huron and Gratiot Railway Company

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With the replacement of the stagecoaches, new rails were laid for the

the recently acquired cars. The trolleys were even outfitted with heaters, much to the enjoyment of Port Huron’s winter travelers.

William Edison’s mother would make fancy curtains for the windows and sew properly padded cushions for the seats.

For summer travelers, Edison installed brass railings on the roofs of the cars so passengers could ride on top, enjoying the breezes and the beautiful scenery of the river.

The public was awestruck by these palatial streetcars.

The cars enjoyed a reputation of wonder and amazement both locally and throughout many other cities in America.

 Business proved to be brisk, and three smaller cars were purchased to meet customer demands.

In 1867 the streetcar line was built from the Fort Gratiot station, through Pine Grove Park to Huron Avenue, and down Huron to River and later extended to Pine Street.

In 1872 they received a franchise to extend south on Military to Griswold and down Griswold to the Chicago and Lake Huron Railroad Station.

           Port Huron Streetcar – Grand Trunk and Military St Circa 1875

The line, its speed regulated on any given day, by the willingness of the horses to donate their energies to such a task, proved popular.

Daytime fares were 10 cents and evening passenger fees increased to 25 cents.

In 1873 a rival streetcar company called the City Railroad was formed.

The company was granted a franchise to service from the Grand Trunk Station, west on Michigan, to Stone, to Pine Grove, to Erie St. over the Black River to Seventh, Griswold and to the southern city limits.

They were also granted the right to construct a curved track at Stone and Michigan Streets.

Its competitor, Port Huron and Gratiot Railway company, secured a franchise to extend its line on Stone Street to Pine St., east to Forest and south on that street to the railroad property. 

It removed its tracks in Pine Grove Park.

In 1874 the City Railway franchise was amended to allow it a rail on Michigan St, Stone St., and down Pine Grove. It would then travel to Superior Street, down Superior to Broad, to Huron Avenue, down Huron to Butler (now Grand River) and east to the St Clair River.

The track, coming from the north met Huron Avenue. There it also met a third track, which the Port Huron and Gratiot Railway were building on the west side of its first 2 tracks.

At this juncture all work halted, and PH&G. sued the City Railroad.

Lawsuits, injunctions, and legal controversies would ensue, reaching all the way to the Supreme Court of Michigan.

These two rival companies would battle each other in court over the next few years, a legal war that fetched thousands of dollars from their wallets and took up a great deal of the courts time.

The impasse finally ended in 1877 when a new company was formed, the “Port Huron Railway” company with a capitalization of $50,000.

The new company acquired the rights of the two old franchises and removed any track that was no longer needed.

It would construct a new line from Grand Trunk Station, west on Michigan to Stone Street, south on Stone to Pine Grove, following to Huron Avenue, down that street to Military to Griswold Street, and east to the Port Huron and Lake Michigan Station.

In 1883 the new company applied to the city for a 30-year franchise which also included extensions and changes to the existing line.

Those changes included a track on Elk St., instead of Stone, and a rail on Court St. east from Military to the Port Huron and Northwestern Railway Station. The village of Fort Gratiot gave the company permission to build on Elk and Elmwood.

They also requested permission to run electric cars over the lines, although at that time, there were not any electric street cars known to be operating anywhere in North America.

In 1885, John F Talbot, H. F. Talbot and H.L. Talbot were the first to promote an electric rail system in Port Huron.

Their interest in such a venture was peaked after seeing a primitive electric rail system in Windsor, Ontario.

It was claimed by the city of Muskegon Michigan, that they had the first streetcar lines in Michigan, and the third in the United States, to be fully dependent on electricity as their mode of power.

The year was 1892.

Historians in the City of Port Huron take exception to this statement, as Port Huron was the second city in America to exhibit a continuous use of electricity in a streetcar system, the system starting in October of 1886.

In 1885 the Port Huron Electric Railway was organized, and it took over the business of the Port Huron Railway company.

Along with the Talbot brothers, S. L. Ballentine, Albert Dixon, C.A. Ward and W.f. Botsford would become partners in the new venture.

The new company signed a mortgage for $36,000 and all old mortgages were paid off.

The Talbots would serve as the officers and management for the new venture.

Having approval from the City of Port Huron to run electric streetcars, work on electrifying the system started immediately. 

The old streetcar system proved to be poorly constructed, and most of the equipment poorly maintained and in an ailing state of condition.

It would prove to be an expensive and monumental task to correct all the known issues, along with all the many unknown problems that cropped up as each day passed.

Poles were installed on both sides of the trolley routes, and wires strung for the cars.

A 60-horepower dynamo to furnish the power, was installed in a flour mill owned by W. F. Botsford. The mill was located on the riverbank in Pine Grove Park.

Horses would be used as a backup, as there existed some trepidation for a break in a wire or an electrical disconnection, that would cause the rail system to fail.

The crossing of the Military Street bridge proved to be a major hurdle. There had never been a swing bridge it the United States designed for traffic that included an electric streetcar system.

The Van Depeole Manufacturing Company of Chicago built the Port Huron Electric Railway, and the first electrically driven car was set on the tracks on October 8, 1886

By the end of that year Port Huron boasted the first electrically operated streetcar system in Michigan and the second in the United States.

Scranton, Pennsylvania was the only other city in the United States that had successfully built a streetcar line and equipped it with electricity.

Its operation was also in the year 1886.

It would be the first electrically operated streetcar system to illuminate its cars using electricity, the first to traverse a moveable bridge, and the first to “request permission” to use electric power in its franchise, at a time when there was no commercial electric railway in the world.

 The first electric cars were called “dinkies”, a reflection of their tiny length.

Most were no more than 12 to 15 feet long and carried a mere 8 passengers, who occupied seats on the sides of the car.

Its 7-horsepower motor was in the center of the car and was driven from that location, an area that proved visually problematic for the motorman, trying to avoid any obstacles that presented themselves along the route.                                   

The new company rebuilt the entire road and extended the tracks down Military to Lapeer Avenue and further up Gratiot.

In 1886, plans were in place to extend the line out the Lakeshore Road to the cemeteries and beaches. After several legal obstructions, work would be completed and access by rail to Port Huron’s northerly resorts and graveyards was complete.  

  Gratiot and Elmwood Intersection.                      Circa 1896, Conductor Wm. Delres in Car. Jack Neal       

                                                                 on Car going to the Beaches and Tunnel Depot

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The most significant change included moving the original power plant into the City Electric Light facility, where a more reliable source of power existed.

In 1892 the Port Huron Electric Railway owned by the Talbot brothers and their business partners, would sell out their interests to City Electric Railway company.

The company’s principles included Albert Dixon, Fred J. Dixon, and W.L. Jenks.

The new company completely rebuilt the system and purchased new equipment and better dynamos all at a cost of near $150.000.

             City Electric Baggage Car circa 1897

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 After the completion of the St Clair Tunnel, one of the greatest engineering feats of that day, Grand Trunk officials sought a streetcar connection to the tunnel.

The City Electric Railway was charged with the task to install modern equipment and extend the line to the Tunnel Station.

The Depot line was built on Griswold to 24th , south to the station and returning to Griswold on 22nd.

Track was then laid down Military Ave to the southern boundaries of the city.

In 1894 the Lapeer St line was opened and would be the last trackage

installed in the City of Port Huron.

                                          St Clair Tunnel circa 1894

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The old Grand Trunk station was moved from Fort Gratiot to the tunnel entrance area.

 Tunnel Station Port Huron circa 1905.         Street Car Barns and Office at Military and Griswold

GTW Port Huron MI Station
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The City Electric Railway was connected to the Rapid Railway in 1900, using the Port Huron, St Clair, Marine City Railway Company.

 The Rapid Railway ran between Detroit and Mt Clemens.

In 1899 the name of this line changed to the Detroit and Port Huron Shoreline Railway.

The City Electric Railroad would be taken over by the Detroit United Railway in 1901.

The City Electric Railway would retain its name but not ownership.

At the turn of the century, the City Electric Railway had reached a maximum track mileage of 12 miles, supported by a population in Port Huron of 15,000.

The four lines consisted of the Depot-Garfield, the Lapeer-South Park, 

the Beaches, and Elmwood.

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In 1921 to cut costs, the streetcar company wanted to eliminate a two-man car operation, the City Electric Railroad asked the city to approve a one-man car operation. As a bargaining chip, the company would purchase new equipment.

On January 12th, 1921, 12 new single-truck Birneys arrived and were ride tested a few days later by city officials on the Depot-Garfield line.

However, after testing, the city and the mayor felt the one-man system would congest the streets and be a violation of the company’s franchise.

As a result, two of the new Birneys were sent to Mt Clemens and the remaining ten went to Pontiac.

In April of 1921 the voters rejected an increase of the 5-cent fare to seven cents, the first increase the company had requested since 1889.

In 1924 the company attempted to run one-man cars, on certain routes, The city’s chief of police halted this operation by blocking the tracks with his own patrol car.

After four-day standoff, rail service was restored with half of the system one-man cars and the other half operating two-man cars.

In October of 1924 a vote was taken to decide whether to have a 7-cent fee on 2 man- cars or a 5- cent fee on one-man cars. The one- man car 

won out.

In 1926 streetcar fares would be increased to 7-cents, 4 tickets for 25-cents or 17 fares for a dollar. This 2-cent increase was long overdue and did little to ease the financial burdens of the streetcar system.

Port Huron’s travelling public were using the bus system on a more regular basis. As new highways were built and existing roads improved, the use of automobiles had become more widespread.

As the ridership on the streetcar system declined, the city commissioners proposed, effective April 16, 1929, a 90-day trial, with the streetcar fare going to 10 -cents for a single ticket.

If the operation proved successful, City Electric Railway pledged to make improvements that would include 8 new cars.

The answer given to City Electric was not a positive one, as ticket sales had fallen 30% by June 17, 1929.

The Great Depression, which had its beginning with the stock market collapse on October 29th, 1929, further exacerbated the financial situation.

Eastern Michigan Railways which acquired D.U.R. in 1928, announced termination of the streetcar service effective January 24th, 1930. The announcement was made in a letter from W. G. Fitzpatrick, attorney for Security Trust, the receiver for the Rapid Railway organization, to Port Huron mayor Fred J Kemp.

On the morning of January 28th, 1930, the last two cars operating returned to the barns at 1:01 a.m.

Motorman John Elliott, a 25-year veteran, parked his streetcar for its final time.  On board were passengers Charles Kaen, and George Morrow. They had the distinction of being the first passengers to ride on a motorcar in Port Huron back in 1886.

In the other car was John McGahran, a 28-year veteran of the electric streetcar company, where he was employed as a conductor.

He entered streetcar service as a motorman June 27, 1907.

John was the final passenger to disembark from that last streetcar, in the early morning hours of the January 28th.                            

Another veteran motorman with 29 years of service, William Netter Sr.,

stands in front of his Port Huron streetcar in November of 1929.

The car is sporting the name, “Tunnel Depot”. 

William is carrying a metal coin dispenser, of which I am sure, he had long ago mastered its workings and its correct allotment of change.

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Six of the company’s cars were immediately placed in storage in Mt Clemens.

A short while later, the remaining 13 cars from Port Huron were also sent to Mt Clemens.

The streetcar industry in Port Huron began its journey on October 8, 1866, and ended its service with its last car permanently parked in its barn, on January 28, 1930.

Being the second, electrically operated streetcar system in the nation, Port Huron can be proud of its remarkable citizenry. Those engineers, risk- takers, dreamers, railway workers, skilled tradesmen, investors, and many others, who challenged the unknown with great determination, always holding the belief, that failure would never be an option.

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