Niles once home of nation’s only tri-level bridge

Published 5:01 am Friday, April 7, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC - Dowagiac and Niles were once in the thick of interurban electric railways which spiderwebbed the Midwest with lines.
In Niles, interurban service began Aug. 3, 1903. The line reorganized in 1906 to become the Southern Michigan Railway.
Service to Berrien Springs began Jan. 1, 1906, and extended to St. Joseph by May for a 45-cent fare and hourly service.
South of Niles, in the vicinity of the gorge near Taco Bell, was the nation's only tri-level bridge. The Big Four occupied the lower level, Lake Michigan Central went through the center, with the interurban over the top, John Devendorf of Niles informed The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College's spring lecture series Wednesday evening on the Dowagiac campus.
Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis constituted the Big Four and came to Niles in 1889.
On Aug. 27, 1928, the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor system was sold.
One car Devendorf photographed was manufactured in 1901. It measured 47 feet and one inch long, eight feet and one inch wide and weighed 38,000 pounds.
Devendorf recalled that on May 8, 1902, Niles City Council approved a franchise for the South Bend and Southern Michigan Railway to use its streets to develop the interurban route to St. Joseph. The line was to be completed by October 1902. Construction began July 2, but there was still no service by the spring of 1903.
Devendorf, who rode electric railways to school in 1937-38 in Detroit, worked for National-Standard.
By 1880, most cities had cable car systems, the largest of which was in Chicago.
Cars were furnished “in Victorian decor,” he said. “Dark, plush upholstery. A young man would not hesitate to take a date on a trolley.”
The first interurban line in Sandusky, Ohio, began operating Dec. 1, 1893.
To promote that mode of travel, the trains were given names, such as the “Muncie Meteor,” which appeared to have bolted its tracks to take a dirt road, a dust cloud fantailed behind.
A line linking Elkhart with Ohio generally followed the route of today's Indiana Toll Road.
After World War I, “The whole interurban system went into decline,” Devendorf said. “The number of riders dropped drastically, the cars and tracks deteriorated and there was little money for maintenance. Most of the lines survived the 1920s, but when the Depression hit, the whole system collapsed…. Southern Michigan, very courageously and in response to many complaints from the public, purchased 10 new cars in 1930.” Gone were the Victorian splendor in favor of glass and aluminum.
Abandonment was scheduled for June 2, 1934, but employees went on strike the day before. New cars ended up in Richmond, Va.