Before paved streets and buses...
....the electric interurban railway system in Michigan was the primary mode of public transportation. It was the link between cities and rural villages. It delivered guests to lake side parks and casinos like the one on Big Wolf Lake. It expanded local populations into regional ones.
Most interurban systems started in the late 19th century and only operated until the late 1920'S. A very short lifespan for such a significant industry, that grew quickly and died just as fast. Most people alive today have never heard of the interurban system. It is the Lost Railway.
Jackson County was one of the largest railroad hubs in the nation during most of the early 1900'S. More than six different interurban Rail Lines intersected the county. They connected Jackson County communities Like Grass Lake to Larger cities Like Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek and Lansing.
Competing interurban Lines ran through the Village of Grass Lake on different track systems, in addition to the coal-fired steam railroads of the time. For over a century, the citizens of Grass Lake have had a close relationship with the railroads which ran through the middle of downtown.
In 1987, a group of citizens took it upon themselves to rebuild a historic rail station that was severely damaged by fire. It only took a few years to raise the money and complete the reconstruction. Since then, many of the artifacts (including the old safe) that were removed over the years have been donated back and proudly fill the same places they did at the turn of the century. The "new" old train station now serves the community as a public meeting place and event center.
A few years later, a section of the old interurban rail bed was made available for sale. Again, Grass Lake residents, working with Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, rose to the occasion. Money was raised, the land was acquired, and a replica interurban waiting station was constructed on the property adjacent to the Coe House Museum.
With the development of the interurban property, Grass Lake residents began to look for other ways to remember and honor the rail history of the community. In 2013 an original interurban car (#29), that used to run the rails in Grass Lake, was located at a nearby lake. It had been converted to a cottage after the collapse of the interurban industry. Again, working with Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, local residents raised money, acquired the car, moved it to Grass Lake and are currently in the early stages of a full restoration.
Currently, a group of over a dozen local residents are working to make that dream a reality. In 2015, a 501(c)(3) organization was formed to raise donations and fund the project. A team of local craftsmen is ready to complete the restoration. Resources are being gathered and the wheels are turning. it's time to get on board.
A PERFECT FIT
Jackson County is home to numerous museums. The largest is Ella Sharp Museum, which opened a second facility, Cell Block 7 Museum, in 2014. The development of Cell Block 7 was due in part, to a conscious effort on the part of Jackson County tourism officials to “create and promote a museum corridor” in Jackson County. Marketed as a group, the Jackson County museums can become a tourism destination. An Inter-Urban Museum, along with the Coe House Museum, will make Grass Lake a likely stop along the corridor.
A PLACE FOR HISTORY
A building located at 142 W. Michigan Avenue in Grass Lake has been acquired by the Michigan interurban Railway Museum organization. Jackson architect Bob Cole of Architonics, who has extensive experience designing museum spaces, is designing a renovation plan that will turn an abandoned old building into the showpiece of downtown. The Grass Lake Lions Club is excited about the project and is currently in discussions to develop a partnership with the museum. If that happens, the additional parking space would allow for the final project to include over 7,000 square feet of exhibit and community use space. Mike McKay at MR Builders is currently developing the construction plan for the site.
The Lost Railway Museum is led by Board President Phil Willis who provided leadership in the idea of creating a new museum and tourism destination in Grass Lake. Willis was born and raised in Grass Lake, growing up on Willis Road and graduating from Grass Lake High School in 1959. His family has continuously lived in the community since 1860. Mr. Willis an accountant and entrepreneur, continuously supports the greater Jackson community. One notable achievement was serving simultaneously as Jackson Symphony Orchestra board chair and co-chair of JSO's $4.0 million capital campaign. His involvement in this project is based in his love for the Grass Lake community and his desire to make it a better place.
A STRONG TEAM
The Lost Railway Museum board of directors possesses the skills and experience in entrepreneurship, business development, finance and law that are necessary to successfully manage this venture. The current directors include: Phil Willis, President, Jim Stormont, Vice President, Steve Makulski, Secretary: and directors Thomas A. Grace, Dennis C. Regan, Star Mead and Daniel Machnik. In time, the board will be expanded to include up to 6 additional board members from the community.
A committee of community volunteers has been working on the restoration of the interurban rail car since 2013. The committee includes Jerome Drouillard, Rich Willis, Jim Stormont, Scott Willis, Jon Flannery, Ken Soderbeck, Don Dakin, Thomas Grace, Bob Brownsey and Tom Nolte. As the project moves forward, it is attracting the interest of many strong supporters from the greater Jackson community who can contribute to its success. In addition to the board, restoration committee and facilities team, Ella Sharp Museum has offered help with developing exhibits and building a strong museum management structure. Bob Michaels, with RJM, is assisting with marketing and communications plans. Lynne Loftis, retired executive director of the Ella Sharp Museum, is assisting with research and content development. And, the project fits clearly within the promotional objectives of Experience Jackson, Jackson County's visitor bureau.
From the beginning. the project's Leadership has communicated regularly with numerous community organizations that share the vision and would benefit from the project's success. The Village of Grass Lake, Grass Lake Charter Township, Grass Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, Grass Lake School District, Grass Lake Area Historical Connections, area service clubs and many local business owners have been involved in early planning discussions. The goal is to create community-wide support for the project in a way that everyone benefits from the successful opening of this new museum.
A CATALYST FOR GROWTH
The creation of a new museum and visitor attraction in downtown Grass Lake will become a catalyst for community growth and development that includes restoration of downtown buildings, improved streetscapes, attracting more retail businesses to the downtown and creating a welcoming community where people will want to live and visit.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The project consists of two major components which can be developed inphases or simultaneously. The core asset, and first to be developed, is the Lost Railway Museum. The centerpiece would be a restored interurban rail car. The museum would tell the story of how the rail line was important to Michigan's transportation history and the significance of Grass Lake and Jackson County in its development and operation. The museum will be located at 142 West Michigan Avenue, within the central business district of Grass Lake, Michigan. Development of the site would include complete renovation of the existing structure into a modern museum and community use space. The facility will include kitchen and meeting space.
A related asset would be the relocation, or creation, of a rail-based transportation attraction that would carry passengers on an enjoyable ride of approximately two miles from downtown, near the museum, to the 62 acre sports and trails community recreational park on Willis Road and back. Several options are currently being considered. One would be to relocate the "Michigan AuSable Valley Railroad" to a site near the new museum. The railroad is an operating tourism attraction that is compatible with the mission of the museum. It consists of a 1/4 scale train with multiple engines and passenger cars. The attraction could also include several structures such as: a turn of the century railroad station, freight house and engine house. Ideally, the railroad could be located north of the proposed museum building on property currently used by the Village of Grass Lake for equipment storage and the village hall. Alternatives being considered include the construction of a miniature Inter-Urban railway and/or the acquisition of a turn of the century Detroit electric trolley car operating on the same route.
Purchase of building & land $130,000
Property Expansion 100,000
Museum Buildout 500,000
Exhibits and displays 100,000
Fundraising expenses 30,000
Train and/or trolley from the village to the Park TBD
A TIMELINE FOR SUCCESS
Most of 2016 will be spent on finalizing plans, acquiring artifacts, raising funds and completing construction plans. With initial fundraising success, construction could begin as early as the summer of 2016 with a target completion date of spring of 2017. With concurrent activity on fundraising, construction, planning, acquisition and exhibit development, the museum could open to the public by July, 2017.
A FUNDING PLAN
Prior to even beginning the fundraising drive, contributions have been received from many individuals and the Hurst, Cook. and Phil and Pat Willis' Foundations. Soon, the organization will begin a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to build and open the museum. The campaign will seek grants from governmental and cultural organizations and contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations that have an interest in the project or the growth and development of Grass Lake. Once opened, admission fees, ongoing contributions, marketing support from Experience Jackson and volunteer support will fund operating expenses.
The Lost Railway Museum needs your help. Together, we can grow tourism in Jackson County while telling the story of Michigan's Lost Railway. Together, we can stimulate economic development in the Village of Grass Lake and create a stronger sense of community pride. Your financial support today will help make this shared community vision a reality.