“If a society is built around a certain transportation network, and that network is destroyed and replaced by something very different, the society itself has to change from top to bottom” (Bruce Catton, Waiting for the Morning Train, 1972)
Change in transportation is an essential force contributing to broader social and economic change.
Constraints of earlier forms of transportation created a inward looking and self-sustainable economic and social structure. When it was prohibitive in time and energy to travel from one town to the next, people were more prone to stay put and find ways to satisfy themselves, by a deep relationship with the people and places around them.
Horses and Wagons
For the first settlers to arrive in Albion, horses were the primary means of travel. When goods had to be moved wagons were utilized. Indian paths provided the basic outline for where people went. In areas of swamp and marsh, felled logs were laid down, constructing the infamous “corduroy roads.”
While this was the dominant method of transportation for those who first settled in Albion, people were inspired to brave the wilderness and difficult travel with the promise that the train would soon arrive.
In the 1870s a north-south line was added that joined communities of Hillsdale, Jonesville, Litchfield, Homer, Albion, Devereaux, Springport, Eaton Rapids, Dimondale, and Lansing. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad handled passenger and freight services, passing through rich agricultural land. The Lake Shore depot was dismantled in the 1930s. Following the abandonment of the tracks from Litchfield to Albion in 1943, the former main line became a spur off the New York Central tracks. The tracks ended just west of the Gale Manufacturing plant. When Gale folded in 1968, this portion of the Lake Shore Rail Road was torn up. The stretch from Springport to Lansing was abandoned in 1930. The tracks remained however. The stretch of tracks from Albion to Springport was abandoned in 1969 and torn up to a point just east of N. Clark St. in Albion.
The Michigan Electric Railway company lines reached Albion in 1899, and for the next 31 years hourly passenger service was provided between Jackson and Battle Creek, passing through Albion. On November 30, 1928, this passenger service was discontinued and on June 1 of the following year freight service was discontinued. Early in 1930 the rails were torn up. A car shop was located at the western city limits of Albion on the U.S. 12 highway, but since the abandonment of the lines sat idle. A large trestle was erected by the interurban company in 1903 crossing the Kalamazoo River, the Michigan Central Railroad, and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Rail Road tracks. This trestle was demolished in February 1941, ten years after the interurban failed.
Automobiles and Flight from Downtown
An expanding system of interstate highways allowed easier transportation by automobile. The automobile provided advantages over other transit of being immediately available to use instead of having to wait for a railroad or interurban car, and allowed people to go places that the interurban and trains on fixed tracks were not able to go.
U.S. 12/M-99 served a a major thoroughfare between Detroit and Chicago. This passed through Albion along Michigan Avenue and then westward out of town. Some of Albion’s grandest buildings were placed along Michigan Avenue for the high visibility this important transportation route afforded. The Parker Inn was built in 1926, named after Harry T. Parker, president of the Albion Malleable Company. The same year Albion College’s Wesley Hall opened facing Michigan Avenue. And the following year the Washington Gardner School with a soaring central tower opened also facing Michigan Avenue.
Interstate 94 and a Further Degraded Urban Form
This route passed one mile north of Michigan Avenue, along the northernmost border of the city. Now, those traveling between Detroit and Chicago passed at far greater speeds, and unless they had some prior knowledge of Albion, sped by as if it was just another little town on a long stretch of road.
Billboards were placed along the expressway touting special assets of the town, but this did little to overcome the fact that Albion was taken off the map, thanks to the federal interstate highway system. As described with the railroad and interurban, the interstate also caused the entire social and economic structure to transform around it.
Instead of relying solely on local merchants for essential items and for many luxuries as well, residents were now able to jump in their car and with relatively little effort go to Jackson or Battle Creek. As Mayor William Wheaton recounted in a personal interview, before he left for Albion for military service, the downtown was still a rather vibrant place, but by the time he returned in the 1960s things had changed.
Whereas, Austin Avenue provided a secondary commercial district to downtown for foreign migrants who had come to the area and who worked at the nearby Albion Malleable and Gale Manufacturing factories, downtown itself became a secondary business district to the newEaton Street businesses. Eaton Street prior to the Interstate went northward off into the country.
With arrival of the Interstate, with exit 121, North Eaton Street became the commercial focus of the city. Superior Street which existed one mile to the south was unable to get the attention of people passing through, and by this time even Albion residents were passing through more than they were staying put. So the downtown commercial district was allowed to decline as Eaton Street was allowed to prosper.
These trends remain unchanged to present day. Of course there is the chance that a new form of transportation will cause broad change in the social structure in the near or distant future.
The Segway was introduced in early 2003. This personal transportation device, with battery packs, and gyroscopes to balance it, allows the viewer to ride on a platform, and by leaning slightly forwards or back to a resting position, to accelerate or slow down. Such a device is ideal for traveling short distances. Whether this invention will take hold, like the automobile, interurban, and railroad before it, remains to be seen. As we have seen with these other changes in transportation, however, if the Segway does take hold, or some form of transportation like it, dramatic change could occur to the social and economic structure as expressed through the built environment.
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