Title Reviewed:
All Aboard! A History of Railroads in Michigan

Author Reviewed:
Willis Frederick Dunbar

Elmer G. Sulzer


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 286-287

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

All Aboard! A History of Railroads in Michigan. By Willis Frederick Dunbar. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969. Pp. 308. Notes, illustrations, maps, index. $7.95.)

Comprehensive histories covering the railroads of various states are sadly lacking. Heretofore only Nevada had a history that presented a commendable degree of completeness. Now Michigan can be added to the list.

In this volume Dunbar does more than simply report the incorporation of a railroad line, when it was built, when it was taken over by a larger entity, and when it was abandoned—if it was. Instead, he tells about the legislative and economic climate of the times, the various political settings, and the social mores of pioneer Michigan. Among other subjects the author covers railroad land grants in the Wolverine State, the inducements of timber cutting and sawing and iron and copper mining to railroad building, and the rise and fall of Michigan's electric interurbans.

All Aboard is essentially a valuable handbook and reference source, useful to the serious transportation historian as wells as to the devotee of local history. Rail buffs, hoping for a plethora of detail on railroad operations, types of equipment, and intimate details on locomotive designs, may experience some disappointment. But that should be alleviated by the author's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor when, for instance, he describes the familiar degradation of service a railroad will take to gain a certificate of abandonment from the Interstate Commerce Commission, or when he talks about the golden age of rail travel with the enthusiasm that only becomes one who likes to ride trains.

Dunbar is in error in assuming that the locomotive "Adrian," which ran over the Erie and Kalamazoo in 1837, was the first to operate in the West. An engine went into operation on the track of the Lexington and Ohio Railroad on March 2, 1833, and the miniscule Pontchartrain Railroad down New Orleans way was apened to traffic April 14, 1831. If a youngster at a typical Michigan small town railroad station heard the approaching train blow a short, a long, and a short and a long for each road crossing as Dunbar states, the youth should have reported the engineer for a serious rule violation. Up to the turn of the century the standard crossing whistle was two longs and two shorts. The last short was made a long around 1910.

The author's reason for the survival of Indiana's South Shore, namely "the huge concentration of population in the area and the magnetism of Chicago" (p. 246) overlooks the basic explanation. The pioneer efforts of Samuel Insull and his successors to upgrade the track by welded heavy rails, the relocation of the line in great part to avoid city streets with ninety degree curves, and similar measures have resulted in a trackage that has more characteristics of a heavy duty railroad carrier than those of a country interurban line.

A bibliography would have greatly improved Dunbar's basically fine volume. Conspicuously missing from the footnotes are the corporate histories and other sources usually considered superior to county and local accounts. If the author utilized these volumes, it would have been nice to know. Illustrations in this work are always interesting and in many cases constitute collectors' items. Unfortunately the reproduction is generally quite poor, something that should be rectified in future editions. The simple maps at the first of each chapter are very helpful.

Sarasota, Florida Elmer G. Sulzer

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.