Three Rivers and its Brawny Shoulders

A Grand Elk Railroad train heads north past Memory Isle Park with a freight train in tow from Elkhart. (Dave Vago|Watershed Voice)

You may not realize it as it is happening, but simple, daily events add up over the years.

If you live in Three Rivers, you know that certain things in town never stop. The hum of the factories. The streetlights. Cars moving about town. Over and over, every day, they have been present, nonstop, for generations. They are a reminder that the people who live here are up to important things, contributing to the world and keeping life here humming along. 

However, they also add up, and as the same events occur over and over again, gradually changing in the form that they take, they also mark the passage of time. 

The railroad is a good example. Every few hours, another freight train rolls through Three Rivers. When did a day last go by when no trains rolled across North and South Main Street, West Michigan Avenue, and Hoffman Street? On the rare occasions that a break has occurred, it was never uncertain that they wouldn’t be back.

One of the reasons I have always liked trains is they are a steady marker of time. It isn’t just that they follow a schedule. Mainly it’s the consistency and repetition. It doesn’t always happen, but for as long as I can remember, a train has passed through town in the midafternoon on more days than it does not. In the eighties, it was almost possible to set a watch by it, almost precisely at three in the afternoon. 

It is less consistent than it used to be, but if you pay attention, there is still something of a pattern. Precision timing or not, if you’re by the tracks in the afternoon, you’re probably going to see a train. When I was a kid, in our family, it was still “after lunch” before the train came through. Once it passed, the time shifted to “before dinner.” No one said it out loud, but the train marked a subtle, daily passage of time.

In our family, wherever we went, we usually knew what was happening on the railroad. We paid attention, and we had multiple railroad connections. A great grandfather was a tinsmith who made the blades for the old semaphore arm signals. An uncle spent a career as a locomotive engineer. My father grew up near a railyard and worked at times on rail transit projects as a mechanical engineer.

A textile factory a mile from our house had its own switching yard, and some nights the sound of locomotive horns carried to my bedroom pretty well. The same tracks ran behind our backyard, and trains passed day and night on a half hour rhythm. Dad rode them to and from work, and as a young child, I waited for him to get home each evening so he could take me out back to watch trains together. I later rode the same trains to school every day.

A railroad crossing sign for the tractor “train” ride at Huss Future Fest. (Kelly Timmerman|Watershed Voice)

We could also travel by train to visit my mother’s family in the Midwest. At one time, an Amtrak train called the Broadway Limited left Philadelphia every afternoon a little after 4 p.m., bound for Chicago. It arrived in Lima, Ohio, where my aunt and my locomotive engineer uncle lived, just after 7 a.m. We could visit there, where the fun might include visits to the railroad yard with my uncle, or we could continue by car up to Three Rivers. 

Those train trips came just often enough to be a treat. Every few years around Easter, when Dad had to work and couldn’t share the driving, my mother would collect my sister and I from school with our suitcases on Friday afternoon, and we’d head downtown to board the Broadway Limited. To this day, I am glad that we never had the money to fly. 

The trip was, simultaneously, a connection to family, to places that seemed faraway and exotic, and to the past. Eating dinner in the dining car, seeing aging, forgotten freight cars and stations, passing the overnight miles in darkness, and waking up to daylight in a new place all reinforced those impressions. 

The trip was a living embodiment of time’s passage. The coaches, while usually well-kept, dated from the 1950s. There were still factories and mills in business across Pennsylvania and Ohio. Sprawl hadn’t crept too far from the cities yet, so there were miles and miles of farms, both old-order Amish and otherwise. It wasn’t too difficult to see a world my parents and grandparents knew.

My uncle in Lima didn’t work for either Amtrak or Conrail, which owned the Broadway Limited’s tracks. He worked for Norfolk Southern. Still, he knew many of the railroaders on the Amtrak and Conrail side, and he often talked casually with the crews at the station. I remember him helping hoist suitcases into the open door of a baggage car as we waited to board.

Conrail operated the trains through Three Rivers back in the eighties. Its distinctive blue locomotives were a sort of visual tie to the other places we knew. Corporate headquarters were back home in Philadelphia, and its trains were present everywhere in the city. Its geographic territory stretched up to my dad’s hometown of New York, and out to Lima, Three Rivers, and beyond.

The line through Three Rivers traced its heritage back to the Vanderbilts, the famous New York industrialists who first laid some of the U.S.’s first tracks west along the Mohawk River from Albany. Their empire grew into the far-reaching New York Central System, whose strategy for growth was to form subsidiaries in which the financial risk of new investment could be isolated from the parent company’s fortunes.

Such was the case with the Michigan Central Air Line, which built an east-west route between Jackson and Niles by way of Three Rivers, bypassing part of a major route between Detroit and Chicago. The siding and railroad bridge along West Broadway Street are among that line’s last remnants. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern was also a risk-managing subsidiary. Its main route connected Buffalo and Chicago way of Toledo, Coldwater, Sturgis, and Elkhart, but it also extended a branch from White Pigeon to Kalamazoo. This branch is the north-south line that carries trains through Three Rivers today.

The New York Central’s main competitor and arch-rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, used a similar strategy of isolating investment risk in subsidiaries. In order to reach into southwest Michigan, it formed the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad (GR&I), which ran north from Fort Wayne through Sturgis, Mendon, and Kalamazoo on its way north.

The distinctive, green, grain car at left shows faded Penn Central markings applied in the early 1970s. It awaits loading at a grain complex in Washtenaw County. It passed through Three Rivers a few days later. (Dave Vago|Watershed Voice)

As the railroad industry fell on hard times in the late 1960s, the onetime competitors realized parallel lines were spreading business thin, and in 1968, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central merged, forming the Penn Central. Early, computerized forms of railroad traffic control simplified the elimination of lines and improved traffic flow. Penn Central abandoned the old GR&I line south of Kalamazoo, and the Lake Shore line from there to the north, combining what was left into a single route between Elkhart and Grand Rapids. 

Penn Central lasted only a few years before another, larger merger of eastern railroads formed Conrail. Then, in the 1990s, Conrail was split between rivals Norfolk Southern and CSX. Norfolk Southern owns the line through Three Rivers today, but it is operated under contract by a nationwide company called Watco, which has branded the route as the Grand Elk Railroad. However, Penn Central’s changes brought traffic patterns to the line that survived those corporate evolutions, continuing today in similar form. 

Trains through Three Rivers originate or tie up in several locations. Elkhart features the railroad equivalent of Interstate 80/90, with trains passing through between the east coast and Chicago every few minutes. In a large railyard, some of those trains are separated and reassembled into new trains based on where the cars are destined. That includes trains bound to and from the north by way of Three Rivers. Kalamazoo serves as a collection point for trains and cars to and from Grand Rapids, as well as the east and west either by way of the Detroit line or the yard in Elkhart. 

As an example of how this can all work, I recently saw a distinctive grain car pass through Three Rivers, headed for Elkhart, after being parked at an elevator between Jackson and Ann Arbor for several days. Similarly, I’ve passed trains heading north from Three Rivers only to see them again a few hours later parked in Grand Rapids.

I know for a fact that I am not the only person who notices. Other people watch the trains, too. One person I know who likes to photograph them also has at least one friend who has built a model of the line in his basement. A husband and wife I know who live in downtown Three Rivers will regularly watch the freight cars roll by from their apartment, watching for distinctive graffiti artwork on their sides.

I grew up watching the trains roll through town whenever I could. We could hear the horns from a few miles away at my grandparents’ house on Portage Street. If we were quick, Dad could drive us over to the crossing on Hoffman Street in time to see the train. We spent lots of time at Scidmore Park playing and feeding the ducks, but I always kept an ear out for trains. An aunt’s house between the tracks and the far end of North Main Street made train watching easy, especially since she liked the kids to play outdoors, and we usually visited her around the time of that afternoon train.

Train watching is really a family tradition. When my mother was a little girl, her grandfather took her down to the tracks, too. The old Air Line route, though truncated by the late 1940s and early 50s, still passed through town, crossing the Lake Shore route and South Main Street near today’s Twin County Probation Center. A strip of grass extending east from Main Street marks its old location. 

Back then, steam locomotives switched freight cars in and out of factories, including the old Sheffield Car Company plant on Fourth Street, which made railroad hand cars and later belonged to Fairbanks-Morse. My mother and her grandfather watched as the train crews went about their work.

Similarly, my dad was a train watcher, taking advantage of New York’s vast transit system to travel far and wide to watch trains. It was thus no surprise that I became a train watcher, too, and I’ve even done some railroad work of my own in the course of my career. Growing up with parents and grandparents who told all kinds of stories of the past, it is also no surprise that I drew a link between the railroad and the passage of time.

Roughly the same amount of time has passed since my mother’s train watching days as had passed at that time since George Sheffield was first starting his factory in the late 19th century. Since 1950, the railroad in Three Rivers has passed through five owners, and well over a hundred thousand freight trains have rolled through town.

If that sounds like a lot, remember that they’ve been spread over seventy years. That’s a little over 25,500 days. Every day, four, six, or eight trains a day have passed through Three Rivers. It adds up slowly, like drops filling a pail.

The trains continue to do the same thing today. They carry with them a mix of cars and locomotives from all over the country and built over a span since the 1960s. While the trains don’t exactly mark a precise hour when they pass, they represent a diversity of time and place. For those who notice them, they absolutely mark the steady passage of time in Three Rivers.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.

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