Bumps of Steel
The interurban railway surfaces
West-side resident Kent Burkhart was incredulous: shining through a lumpy asphalt patch on Jackson Road were a pair of steel rails. Just east of Grandview, the old interurban railroad had resurfaced.
"It's enviable," says Mark Hilde-brandt, retired physician and author of Electric Trolleys of Washtenaw County. Reached by mobile phone at a trolley convention in Indianapolis, Hildebrandt recalled that at one time the interurbans connected local trolleys across southern Michigan, providing a less expensive, albeit slower, alternative to traditional trains.
The interurban stopped operating in September of 1929, unable to compete with increasing automobile travel. When the Great Depression hit a month later, removing the tracks became a low priority. WPA work crews took some up in the late 1930s, and during WWII other sections were dislodged for scrap metal, but enough remain that road crews still sometimes encounter them when repairing streets.
"If it's a quick resurfacing we would leave it," says city engineer Nick Hutchinson. "If it's a reconstruction where we are putting in all new [roadbeds], we would take them out." In the meantime, tracks still sometimes emerge from their blanket of pavement--proving, to Hildebrandt's satisfaction, that steel will always outlast asphalt.
[Originally published in October, 2013.]