In 1871, the Detroit, Lansing and Lake Michigan Railroad Company completed its line from Howell to Lansing, in the process running its track across the College farm.
Five years later, the Grand Trunk Railroad also crossed the farm, running its line from Battle Creek to Durand. The two lines intersected at Trowbridge junction, and even from an early day this became “the center of East Lansing rail travel.” Today’s Amtrak station on Harrison Road stands at essentially the same location, slightly east of the junction.
Waiting for the train at Trowbridge junction, 1918. Photo Credit: Marilyn Ledeburgh, reprinted in Miller, p. 23.
The Pere Marquette Railroad Company was formed on January 1, 1900, as a merger of three rail lines, one of which was the latest incarnation of the DL&LM. That same year, the Pere Marquette ran a spur line from Trowbridge junction to campus, a total distance of about one and three-fourths miles. A wooden trestle bridge was built across the river, and the spur terminated just south of the original Boiler House.
Students take an “excursion” on the unfinished trestle, presumed in the summer of 1900. View is to the south. Photo Credit: MSU CAPBlog, 10 Jun 2014.
In his annual report for 1900, President J. L. Snyder wrote of the spur line, “The expense to the College was one thousand dollars. This is a very important improvement. The coal for the year, which amounts to nearly three thousand tons, as well as the material for the new buildings, was brought direct to the College campus. It has also proved very valuable in enabling the different railroads to run their excursion trains to the College without having to depend upon streetcar service.”[39th AR, p. 24]
Pere Marquette trestle over the Red Cedar River during a spring thaw, view toward the northeast, circa 1909. Across the river are second Wells Hall at left, Engineering at center, and several Engineering outbuildings and the square smokestack of the first boiler house at right. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives. Reprinted in Nixon, p. 31.
The Pere Marquette merged into the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1947, and today is part of the CSX system. The Grand Trunk line is now owned by the Canadian National Railway Company.
Of course, both of these lines were built in an era when rail was the premier mode of transportation, and railroad companies held great power to do as they pleased. Neither of these railways had permission from the Board of Agriculture to appropriate what was clearly state-owned land, and the Board would have been well within its rights to oppose them. Yet by the time the Board got around to doing so, when it attempted in 1889 to collect payment from the future Pere Marquette for its right-of-way, the courts found that the railroads had crossed the grounds "by sufferance or absence of objection and with no title or agreement," and it was too late to object. (The Grand Trunk later paid $800 for its rights.)[Lautner, p. 33] The lack of action at the time of the crossings could perhaps be attributed to the fact that the young College had its own struggle for existence to attend to, and that the rights-of-way were well to the south of campus in relatively untrafficked farm land.
That laissez-faire attitude seems like poor forethought today. In particular, the Grand Trunk line now runs immediately south of two residence hall complexes and near many other facilities, and carries quite a few freights (and a passenger train or two) daily. The core section of the Communication Arts building, which houses the studios of WKAR television and radio, had to be built atop a spring-loaded, rubber-padded foundation to dampen the vibrations from passing trains. The line crosses several important roads and pedestrian walkways at grade and separates student and commuter parking lots from the main area of campus. (Farm Lane received underpasses at both railroad crossings, an eighteen-month construction project completed on September 30, 2009.) For obvious reasons, railway safety is a perennial concern at Michigan State.