Artist’s depiction of an early Erie & Kalamazoo train.
On Octrober 1, 1836 the Erie & Kalamazoo, to great fanfare, provided the first train service from Port Lawrence (Toledo’s original name) to Adrian. It was the first train west of Schenectady and consisted of one coach, much like a stagecoach, pulled by a team of horses inside the rails. No regular service was maintained that winter. The rails ran through a boggy cottonwood swamp that was underwater much of the year, and the mud made the rails almost impassable. The 40-mile journey could take up to two days one way!
Regular operations began in the spring of 1837 and in July, the E&K announced that they would put into operation the first locomotive west of the Alleghenies. The first was named the “Adrian” and the framework was made of wood. The boiler was seven feet long; the firebox stood upright and the smokestack was the most prominent feature of the wood-burning engine.
Early rails were of oak, cut from trees along the right of way and flattened on two sides. These were replaced with iron “strap rails, 5/8 inches thick and 2 1/2 inches wide, laid along the old wooden rails. These frequently loosened, curled up above the rails and alarmingly penetrated the floor of the coach, earning the nickname “snake heads.” The four passenger cars that came to be standard on the line were four-wheel carts with 24-passenger capacity. Twenty freight cars completed the holdings of the line.
By 1838, the journey took three hours; freight and passengers traveled together at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. The trip from Port Lawrence to Adrian cost $1.50 (4.5 cents per mile). Shorter distances were five cents per mile. The Erie & Kalamazoo line ran until its last journey on Nov. 19, 1956, when 31 train buffs, nostalgia seekers and sentimentalists rode the historic line for the last time.
For more information, see Jenny Nolan, “When Michigan rode the rails”, Detroit News, February 24, 2001.
For more information about the lure of railroads, see Bill Loomis, “Riding the first rails brought excitement, danger”, Detroit News, July 8, 2012.
Erie & Kalamazoo Rail Road. Ohio History Central website.