Early transportation to and from the College campus was arduous at best. “Students and state board members coming to the college in the early days from Detroit and vicinity traveled by rail to Jackson, thence by plank road to Eaton Rapids, and stage to Lansing.”[Towar, p. 126] Once in Lansing, the travelers would have to hire a driver to bring them the rest of the way by horse-drawn wagon, either along the Lansing–Howell Plank Road or along the Middletown East road, a dirt lane that evolved into Michigan Avenue.
For many years, beginning around the 1880s, an electric streetcar line along Michigan Avenue came only as far east as the Half-way Stone, but by 1894 the line had reached the west entrance of the school (now Beal Entrance). This was in spite of the objections of the State Board of Agriculture, who feared that the streetcar would bring an “undesirable human element” to the campus from Lansing, as well as allow easy access to Lansing’s saloons by college students. The west entrance was as close to the College as the Board would begrudgingly allow.
West entrance to the College and streetcar terminus, circa 1895. Faintly visible at the top of the hill is the President’s house, № 1 Faculty Row. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives. Reprinted in Stanford, p. 5.
The advent of the women’s course at the school in 1896 turned the tide—the thought of female students waiting in the winter winds for a ride was too much even for the stern-hearted Board of Agriculture to bear. The tracks were extended along Michigan and Grand River Avenues, turning onto campus near the old main entrance to the school (across from Evergreen Avenue), where a small but cozy waiting room was built in 1897. Ironically, streetcar service to campus turned out to be an amenity that helped spur the College’s first substantial increase in enrollment.[Towar, p. 127]
The line soon continued onward. In 1906 the Michigan United Railway Company was formed as a consolidation of several rail lines throughout southern Michigan. The railway converted the old streetcar line into an interurban line with larger and faster cars, and built a major extension to the system. It continued the line along Grand River Avenue to M.A.C. Avenue; turned north on M.A.C. to Burcham Drive, where it made a wide turn to the east; and headed out past the southern tip of Pine Lake (now Lake Lansing). By 1911 the interurban reached all the way to Owosso, Michigan, a total distance of thirty-two miles from downtown Lansing.[Hilton, p. 288] For locals, a popular trip was to take excursions to the resort area on the shores of Pine Lake, and the last return trip of the weekend was always filled beyond capacity.
Interurban turns onto M.A.C. Avenue from Burcham Drive, c. 1915. Photo Credit: Louis Potter, E.L. Historical Society. Reprinted in Miller, p. 48.
As motorbusses gained popularity and the state highway system developed, the streetcar met its demise. The Michigan United Railway, despite being “one of the best roads” and having a “physical plant that was superior to most other interurbans,” operated at a loss after 1925 and finally discontinued service on the LansingOwosso line in 1929.[Hilton, pp. 237, 241, 289]
Around 1933 the tracks through East Lansing were torn up or paved over. For many years, traces of the old line could be seen in the patched pavement of Grand River Avenue. Most surprisingly, in the mid-1980s, during repaving work at the north end of M.A.C. Avenue at Burcham Drive, this author spotted remnants, including rusty rails and gravel ballast, of the same interurban curve shown in the above photo. Portions of this curve, which until recently still appeared on city zoning maps, might still be hidden under the front lawn of the former Tri-Delta sorority house at 634 M.A.C. Avenue.
East of the East Lansing city limits, a portion of the right-of-way between Burcham Drive and Marsh Road has been paved as a pedestrian and bicycle trail, and is known as the Interurban Pathway.