Tim Hoeffner, Michigan Department of Transportation administrator with the Office of Speed Rail and Innovative Project Advancement, accepts a proclamation from Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Tim Hoeffner, Michigan Department of Transportation administrator with the Office of Speed Rail and Innovative Project Advancement, accepts a proclamation from Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

Amtrak’s Blue Water celebrates 35 years

Published 9:11am Thursday, October 22, 2009

Niles Daily Star

DOWAGIAC – Dowagiac developed because of the railroad.

As Steve Arseneau, director of The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College, pointed out for the 35th anniversary of Amtrak’s Blue Water “shore to shore” service, before trains came, the Grand Old City consisted of a settlement with a couple of mills situated on the Dowagiac Creek.

Considering the question of what Dowagiac would be without the railroad, Arseneau recalls “numerous” conversations with local historian Grif Cook, who died earlier this year.

“Sumnerville,” came Cook’s quick reply, though he meant no offense, having spent the latter decades of his life living there after leaving Dowagiac, where he had been a councilman.

In the mid-19th century, citizens equated railroads with growth.

Arseneau paused as two trains, each going the opposite direction, crossed paths in front of the crowded platform.

On this day celebrating Amtrak, it constituted a “word from our sponsor,” quipped City Manager Kevin Anderson.

“Lobbying efforts led the Michigan Central Railroad to change the line from going from Kalamazoo to St. Joseph and then south along the river. They made it this diagonal route, which brought it right through what is now Dowagiac,” Arseneau continued.

While settlers such as Patrick Hamilton are widely recognized as the original founders, Dowagiac has streets named for railroad speculators Jacob Beeson and Nicholas Chesboro, who platted the town around the railroad.

“The railroad can even be credited with this strange street pattern we have here in downtown Dowagiac,” Arseneau said. “When the railroad finally did arrive in 1848, Dowagiac already had a general store and people moving into town. By 1858, a village had been established and the town grew well beyond the mills that dotted Dowagiac Creek in 1848. Dowagiac became the wheat-shipping hub of southwest Michigan, attracting farmers from a 25-mile radius.”

Arseneau said that was only the beginning of the relationship between Dowagiac and the railroad.

“Struggling foundry owner P.D. Beckwith cast himself a heating stove to heat his foundry,” he said. “After a Michigan Central Railroad representative saw his heating stove, they ordered them for local depots. When they found out how great the stoves were, they ordered them for the whole line, from Detroit, all the way to Chicago. That led to the founding of the Round Oak Stove Co.

“Round Oak’s 75-year history required a constant relationship with the railroad. Trains brought in raw materials to produce stoves and furnaces. They also took away the finished products to distant hardware stores throughout the country, making Dowagiac a household name throughout the land.”

“At one time,” Arseneau added, “four furnace companies dominated the Dowagiac landscape. They all had their factories along the tracks. Colby Milling Co., Judd Lumber Co. – I see Dick over there – all relied on the railroad for shipping purposes. Industry never would have made it in Dowagiac without the railroad.

“Trains also moved plenty of people over the years,” he said. “Dowagiac was the first stop of the historic Orphan Train in 1854. This train, carrying destitute children from New York City to Midwest farmlands, made dozens of stops in Dowagiac over the years. This depot opened in 1903. It is the third permanent depot. There was one temporary one.”

Presidential candidates delivered to Dowagiac by rail included Theodore Roosevelt as a Bull Moose candidate and Woodrow Wilson, both in 1912; Thomas Dewey, who lost to Harry Truman despite a famous Chicago Tribune headline; and Bill Clinton, though he didn’t stop.

“I am a strong supporter of Amtrak. I love Amtrak,” he said. “It might be overstating it to say it kept my girlfriend – now wife – together, but it sure made life easier. We’ve all driven through Chicago on occasion, and it’s not something we want to do on a regular basis, am I correct in thinking that? I know every time I get stuck going through Chicago I say, ‘How do people do this every day?’ In summer, the traffic is terrible anytime.
Winter, you fight the weather. Christina lived north of Chicago. I lived in an apartment above (Jim Frazier’s) jewelry store.

“Amtrak allowed me to get from door to door without ever stepping foot in a car and having to endure that terrible Chicago traffic,” Arseneau offered.

A train took him to Union Station, where he caught another to Libertyville.

“Our relationship survived and thrived like that for two-plus years on our weekly commute,” he said. “I thank Amtrak for that. I thank the city for supporting this fine line and those who ride the rails on fun journeys every day.”

“When I was a senior in high school in 1964,” Mayor Donald D. Lyons added, “Barry Goldwater also made a campaign stop here. I was down here for that.”

“Train travel has played an integral part in the founding and development of our fine community,” Lyons said. “It sounds like with the stimulus package we’re looking at right now, that is going to take, hopefully, a big leap forward with the continued development of high-speed rail into the Chicago area and throughout Michigan.”

The mayor presented Tim Hoeffner of the Michigan Department of Transportation a proclamation stating, “Dowagiac, like many Midwestern cities, owes its existence, in part, to the arrival of the railroad, as buildings and storefronts in the mid-1800s located along S. Front Street within what is known today as Dowagiac’s central business district.
“Dowagiac and its neighboring Sister Lakes have been a vacation mecca for generations for people living in and around Chicago, with this community’s market area swelling each year by an additional 10,000 to 15,000 people during the summer months.

“During redevelopment projects of the 1990s, Dowagiac and its Downtown Development Authority rehabilitated Dowagiac’s historic intermodal depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The downtown rail corridor was enhanced in 1995 in this community’s $1.8 million Depot Drive redevelopment project as a means to serve the future of high-speed train travel between Chicago and Port Huron,” Lyons stated.

“The City of Dowagiac acknowledges the importance of passenger rail service to the continued development of this community. This nation’s intercity passenger rail operator, Amtrak, connects Michigan communities throughout the nation. The state-supported Amtrak Blue Water passenger rail service on Oct. 21, 2009, is marking its 35th anniversary of passenger rail service, connecting Dowagiac with station communities from Port Huron to Chicago (including Lapeer, Flint, Durand, East Lansing, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Niles and New Buffalo).

“The City of Dowagiac is very pleased to be among the station communities that are today joining Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation in celebration of this occasion,” said Lyons, urging all citizens to join him in commemorating this milestone. Dowagiac and its residents also pay tribute to the role passenger train service played in the early and continued development of the community.

Dowagiac and its residents look forward to future generations of our citizenry being connected to the rest of North America via passenger rail transportation, the mayor concluded.

Carl Payne, a regular at Wood Fire and the Beckwith Park summer concert series, provided harp music on the most gorgeous fall day since the Oct. 10 dedication of the Wolf Street fire station.

Wicks Apple House provided refreshments, including Apple Squeezin’s and doughnuts.
Booth’s Country Florist gave mums which decorated the table.

Anderson, the master of ceremonies, thanked Ron Leatz, Dowagiac’s depot ambassador who regularly greets train travelers and advocates continued rail service, for his passion.

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