Michigan railway museum gets new electric rail car
Grass Lake — After nearly four years in a Grass Lake maintenance barn, a high-speed interurban electric rail car at last moved to its permanent home inside the new Lost Railway Museum on Sept. 30.
Rybicki Trucking of Springport hauled the 104-year-old car No. 29 about a quarter mile to the museum, which opened July 1 in Grass Lake. A Jackson County sheriff’s deputy led the semitrailer and a group of people followed, taking pictures and videos with cell phones.
Organizers and supporters praised the arrival as a long-anticipated achievement.
“It’s a big step,” said Ken Soderbeck, a volunteer who is heading up the continuing restoration project.
He stood at the front of the car, repeatedly sounding the whistle as it made, presumably, its final road trip, looking far shinier than in 2013, when, derelict and crumbling, it was pulled from Ed and Judy Greca’s property on Gilletts Lake, where it had been for about 85 years.
The metal had been corroded and rusty; its exterior was a dingy red.
“Pretty much a dream come true,” Judy Greca said. “Never thought it would look that good.”
Inside the museum, volunteers and Cliff McCormick, an Albion house mover, placed the 50,000-pound car on its 14,000-pound wheels, recently sandblasted and painted.
Areas of rust have been removed and replaced. The rail car now is orange, brown and green, as it was while in operation.
The St. Louis Car Co. built it in 1913. It came to Michigan the next year and was primarily used between cities like Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Owosso, reported restoration team volunteer and move coordinator Rich Willis.
Around the turn of the 20th century, at a time when most roads were unpaved and many still relied on horses, interurbans were the most reliable way to travel. Powered by electricity from an overhead trolley or third rail, they typically moved about 60 mph.
By about 1929, as the rise of automobiles and the development of road systems rendered the cars obsolete, No. 29 was out of service.
The Grass Lake Historical Society purchased the rail car in 2013. Once a cottage, the Grecas had been using it for storage.
A dispute with the historical society disrupted restoration and display efforts, but the issue has been resolved; the museum now possesses the car, Willis said.
Volunteers, clearly dedicated, wished to focus on the current work and celebrate the car’s arrival in the museum, once an auto service station and a car sales shop that has been impeccably remodeled. More than $1 million has gone into the project, funded through donations, grants, venue rentals and sponsor fees.
About 3,000 people have visited the attraction — also home to a 1905 Chicago Surface Lines electric trolley — since its opening.
Returning visitors will be able to watch the restoration process. Phil Willis, a cousin to Rich Willis and co-chair of the interurban rail committee, called the exhibits part of a “work-in-progress museum.” He estimated it would take 10 years or more to fully refurbish the rail car.
Soderbeck owns a “parts car” intended to help outfit No. 29, empty of seats and other fixtures and adornments. “There will be no lack of things to do,” he said.
The car once carried up to 84 passengers and freight. It had smoking, main and motorman’s compartments and two bathrooms.
To see it, even empty, takes people to an alternate era, one far different than today.
“You can only read so much about something like this,” Ed Greca said. “It’s a different thing to walk in and look at it.”