The ironic term “profound revelation” is borrowed from a Woodstock-era drug-humour book called A Child’s Garden of Grass, but its use here is not meant as any kind of drug reference. Rather, it applies well to a certain progression of thought: when, in the midst of research, one discovers or figures out a particularly interesting fact, and thinks “holy cow! look what I found!”—and then, upon further research, realises that just about anybody with marginally closer proximity to the subject matter would look upon this so-called discovery and say, “well, duh.”
One of the most fascinating (to me) items in the history of East Lansing, Michigan, is that it not only had a streetcar line that served the Agricultural College from Lansing, but that the line was later upgraded to an interurban service that reached all the way to Owosso. Growing up riding CATA buses, I had no idea that this other form of public transportation had existed, some fifty-plus years earlier. That is until, as a teenager in the mid-’80s, I saw the tracks myself—hidden beneath the pavement of M.A.C. Avenue, briefly exposed during a repaving project.
Befuddled by this inexplicable, long-buried infrastructure, and as yet unaware of the streetcar, I promptly forgot about it. But several years later, as I started my research on city history, I came upon Chace Newman’s 1915 map of the city and immediately noted the railroad tracks running past the college grounds and straight up M.A.C. Avenue. I put two and two together and realised what those rusty rails had been.
I wanted to know more, but at the time my resources were more limited. J.D. Towar informs us that the interurban reached Owosso and was popular for excursions to Pine Lake, which we now call Lake Lansing. Newman’s map only extends to the 1915 city limits, and even then the subdivision of Avon Dale—not yet incorporated into the city—is obscured by the map legend. The interurban line ran along the south side of Burcham Drive, but cannot be seen on the map as it reaches Hagadorn Road.
So I left it at that. The vague “headed out past Pine Lake to Owosso” would have to suffice.
Late last year, I noticed an interesting marking on the OpenStreetMap wiki atlas: a dotted line denoted “Interurban Pathway.” “Holy cow!” I exclaimed, or words to that effect. “That must be the old interurban right-of-way!” As that map shows, the railway continued straight along Burcham Drive, past Park Lake Road, and went on without bend at least as far as Okemos Road. With new-found excitement, I started to track down further information on the line, slowly piecing together its route through old maps and vague references in newspapers and history books. As recently as two days ago I sent an e-mail to someone at the city, ingenuously asking, “I think maybe that thing, near your thing, might possibly be part of an old interurban right-of-way… do you know anything about this?”
Little did I realise that this obscure (to me) “Interurban Pathway” on OpenStreetMap was in fact a rails-to-trails project of Meridian Charter Township, and was paved with a twelve-foot-wide strip of asphalt in 2007.
Well, duh. Maybe if I still lived near East Lansing I’d have half a clue these things were happening. Turns out, this summer the township and the county road commission will extend the pathway along the interurban right-of-way by another mile or so, out to Marsh Road. I wonder if they’ll find any remnants of the old railbed.