Authored by Lindsey C. Kult
From the turn of the 20th Century until the mid-1920s, travel by rail was the best way for Midwesterners to travel beyond their hometowns (Ellison 2019; Geberer 2019, 51; Jenison Historical Association 2009, 2; van Reken 1998). The road conditions were so poor during this time that the Dutch and German settlers of small towns such as Jenison, Saugatuck, and Zeeland were essentially isolated from the larger cities in the region (van Reken 1998, 77). The implementation of the electric interurban not only provided the citizens of West Michigan access to the diversity found in larger cities, but also gave them the opportunity to share their values with others.
Early attempts to bring interurban rail service to West Michigan were met with much resistance. Citizens feared the electric companies would be given too much political power and were wary of the fatal accidents that came with earlier railroads (van Reken 1997; van Reken 1998). A group of farmers in Zeeland literally destroyed 400 feet of track in an attempt to remove Zeeland from the interurban route (Jenison Historical Association 2009; van Reken 1981, 40). Others saw the economic benefits of the interurban for the lakeside resort tourism industry. Saugatuck created a “train day” that was meant to be a village holiday for residents and Jenison established an amusement park (van Reken 1981, 21; van Reken 1998). Despite the early setbacks, the Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago Railway (GRH&CR) was running by 1901 (van Reken 1998, 69).
The interurbans succeeded in bringing tourists to the area. Over 12,000 visitors attended a picnic at the amusement park in 1904 (van Reken 1998, 72). The residents of the villages and towns along the interurban welcomed new business and neighbors. In addition to bringing people to West Michigan, the GRH&CR offered new opportunities to the formerly isolated communities. One of the stations was located by the Goodrich docks, where the ferry to Chicago was located (Ellison 2011). For the first time, people had an affordable and fast method that would allow them to commute for leisure and work (Essenburg 2018; Ellison 2011; Geberer 2019; Jenison Historical Association 2009). The co-mingling of cultures from big cities and small villages resulted in new opportunities for many.
Within the first decade of interurban service, the people of Zeeland requested a change in the time table. They were devoted Christians who objected to the trains running on the Sabbath (Swierenga 2014, 635; van Reken 1998, 83). The GRH&CR compiled with their request and changed the time table to have limited or no trains on Sundays. That change can be observed in the artifact shown above. During its 25 years in service, the GRH&CR brought nearly a million passengers to their destinations (Vande Water 2008). Zeeland welcomed new students to the high school, seminary students from around the region found new communities to learn from, and sons of farmers were able to get jobs in factories in neighboring communities (Essenburg 2018).
The people of West Michigan were able to practice the Vincentian values of opportunity and service because of the GRH&CR. Prior to the interurban, the villages such as Saugatuck and Zeeland lacked exposure to other cultures. Using a time table like the one above, people were offered the opportunity to serve others and spread their strong belief in God. Leisure became more obtainable for the average citizen, and yet they did not lose their core values.
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Ellison, Garret. 2011. “Interurban ‘Opened up Era of Commuting’ in Early 1900s West Michigan.” Mlive, November 7, 2011. https://www.mlive.com/living/grand-rapids/2011/11/west_michigan_history_lesson_i.html?fbclid=IwAR2xhDsiGx3hUP0fM-F882sVdHrMVpGRCJ796Rq8D2iHLcbg0wkvTgCBdI8.
Essenburg, Robert. 2018. “Borculo and the Interurban Era by Robert Essenburg.” Weebly, January 6, 2018. https://borculo.weebly.com/blog/borculo-and-the-interurban-era-by-robert-essenburg?fbclid=IwAR2D9Ur_H9HEs4pGzUwqDZRTqHqlGaVT0P3zP4vi7fDqqe5xE4nAj1iZPPU.
Geberer, Raanan. 2019. “Off the Rails.” American History 54 (4): 48-55. https://search-ebscohost-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=137427173&site=ehost-live.
Jenison Historical Association. 2009. Jenison Historical Association Footnotes. Jenison, MI: Jenison Historical Association.
Swierenga, Robert P. 2014. Holland Michigan: From Dutch Colony to Dynamic City – Volume One. Holland, MI: Van Raalte Press.
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Vande Water, Randy. 2008. “Column: 82 Years Ago, Area’s Electric Train Stopped.” Holland Sentinel, November 15, 2008.