Street railroads 152 years ago Michigan State Quarter Coin

Today, the Michigan State Quarter Coin remembers the first street railroad in Detroit, Michigan that began operation 152 years ago.

On August 3, 1863, the Detroit City Railway opened the Jefferson Avenue line and invited the public to a free ride.

In Landmarks of Detroit: A History of the City published in 1898, Robert B Ross And George B. Catlin included details of the early street railroad.

An excerpt:


Detroit’s first street railway was projected in 1862, during the war of the Rebellion. Eben N. Willcox was the father of the scheme and his associates were H. K. Sanger and R. N. Rice. This trio associated themselves with a number of other citizens and asked the Common Council for an ordinance authorizing them to construct and operate a street railway.

The ordinance was granted May 24, 1862, but the company of grantees was in such an embryotic state that the ordinance was worded: “To permit certain persons to establish and operate street railways in Detroit.”

Even at that early day the council had its eye teeth cut. To prevent any speculative franchise grabbing, and to insure good faith on the part of the grantees, a deposit of $5,000 with the city controller was required.

This proviso took all the zeal out of the promoters, for they entertained divers misgivings as to the financial success of the enterprise.

They refused to accept the ordinance with that condition, and on August 26, 1862, the first franchise was forfeited.

Then the council authorized the city controller to advertise for bids and proposals for building a street railway in Detroit.

The original ordinance was the basis upon which the bidders were to figure, but nobody cared to take the risk.

In November Controller D. C. Whitwood reported that Mr. Willcox and C. S. Bushnell had suggested certain alterations in the original ordinance which might open the way to a proposition.

The council heard Mr. Willcox, and passed a new ordinance on November 24, 1862.

Among other changes from the ordinance of May 24, 1862, was one giving the grantees the exclusive privilege of constructing street rail ways on certain named streets, and the first right or option on all other streets.

The prior ordinance gave the first right or option, but did not use the “exclusively,” as it is found in the ordinance of November 24, 1862.

This ordinance granted to C. S. Bushnell, John A. Griswold, Nehemiah D. Sperry and Eben N. Willcox, their associates, successors and assigns, the privilege of building and operating a street railway system.

The ordinance was granted under the act to provide for the construction of train railways, passed in 1855.

Construction and operation were authorized on Jefferson, Michigan and Woodward avenues and on Witherell, Grand River and Gratiot streets.

It also provided for the building of a line reaching from the western city limits on Fort street as far east as Third street, down Third to Woodbridge street and through Woodbridge as far as Woodward avenue.

The lines on Michigan avenue and Grand River and Gratiot streets were to operate cars on Woodward avenue from the point of their several intersections with Woodward to Jefferson avenue.

The Jefferson avenue line was to extend to the eastern limits of the city; the Gratiot street was to be completed as far east as the line of B. Chapoton’s farm; the Michigan avenue line as far west as Thompson (now Twelfth) street, and the Grand River line as far as the easterly line of the Woodbridge farm, by March 30, 1863.

Cars were to be drawn by animals only, and at a speed not exceeding six miles an hour.

They were to run as often as public convenience might require, but in no case oftener than once in twenty minutes.

Fares were fixed at five cents and the company was to pay the city a revenue of $15 a year for each car operated.

Mr. Willcox went to Syracuse, N. Y., and secured the assistance of several capitalists, who became a part of the company and furnished most of the money for building the first lines.

They were Thomas T. Davis, Austin Myers, James J. Belden, Nathan Randall, L. Harris Hiscock and Frank Hiscock.

A deposit of $5,000 was made with the city controller on January 10, 1863, and the grantees filed articles of association as the Detroit City Railway Company.

At first the capital stock was fixed at $100,000 and bonds to that amount were floated in Syracuse.

The Detroit City Company constructed a single track railway on Jefferson avenue, extending from the bridge over the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee tracks, to the Michigan Central depot at the foot of Third street.

It was about a mile and a half in length and it was used almost exclusively for transferring railroad passengers from between the two depots.

Travel was light and trains were not frequent. Cars run over the route once in half an hour, and after the citizens had patronized the street cars for a short time, because of the novelty, the cars often ran very light, if not empty.

Under such circumstances the road could not pay operating expenses, much less pay interest and profit on the investment. The business of the company had either to be increased or the road abandoned.

In 1864 George V. N. Lothrop was made president and D. Bethune Duffield secretary.

The capital stock was increased $21,000 and the money was used to build a line up Woodward avenue to a point a short distance above Grand Circus Park.

All the construction was of the cheapest class, light strap rails being laid on wooden stringers and the cars were cheap one horse affairs.

George Hendrie, who held a contract for the trucking and transfer business between the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee and the Michigan Central depots was induced to undertake the operation of the street railway.

He always kept plenty of surplus teams; his business was principally between the two depots, and he could operate the cars of the street railway more economically than any other man in the city.

Four years of experiment showed that the Detroit Street Railway was a financial failure unless a larger patronage could be obtained.

The city contained 50,000 people, but the street cars were not available for communication between the residence portion and the business center, and so few people rode.

In 1867 the capital stock was increased to $500,000, new stockholders were taken into the company, and preparations were made to extend the existing lines and build others which would afford a convenient means of travel for the greater proportion of the citizens.

It remains to be seen whether the suburban and rural electric railways are to be competitors or allies of the steam railroads.

It is quite certain that the dawn of the twentieth century will see each large city of the country connected with all the smaller towns lying within a radius of twenty-five or thirty miles from its limits, and that these lines will not only afford passenger service but will bring in much of the farm produce to the markets of the city.

Steam railways are pretty sure to hold their own against all kinds of competition in long distance traffic, because of certain difficulties which beset the way of the electric railways.


The Michigan State Quarter Coin shows against an image of a horse-drawn street rail car in Detroit, circa 1915.

Michigan State Quarter Coin