Rochester and the Detroit United Railway

New Book Will Tell Rochester’s DUR History

Robert Michalka knows about railroads and local history. The lifelong Rochester area resident is combining his two interests in a forthcoming book entitled Rochester and the Detroit United Railway, scheduled for publication by the Rochester Historical Commission later in 2018.

Michalka grew up working on Rochester’s Main Street, where his father, Al Michalka, ran a feed store from 1927 until 1982. The younger Michalka started out at the age of 10 doing odd jobs for his father. “Being in that store was like being in the past,” Michalka said in a recent interview with Rochester Media. “Nothing had changed in the building since it was built in 1907 – the tin ceilings, the wood floors. And there were all of the smells that went with the feed store that had been there since 1927.”

Old photo of a young Michalka sitting at a desk with his feet up

Michalka at the Grand Trunk station in 1959 – Courtesy of Robert Michalka

When he grew a little older, Michalka did cleaning and window washing at Lake Jewelers, next door to his father’s shop. Later, he was promoted to jewelry repair.

Early on, Michalka’s parents often took him to watch the trains at the Michigan Central depot (now the location of the Catching Fireflies gift shop on East University). As his fascination with trains and railroad operations grew, he learned everything he could about them. He spent time at the Grand Trunk depot at the south edge of town, helping the station agent by cleaning and keeping the stove running. There Michalka became acquainted with the train and track crews that came through the station. He eagerly listened to their stories.

Michalka also worked for a time with Rochester’s Railway Express agent, Clarence Bigger, handling the mail that was carried by the trains. Earlier in his life, Bigger had been a motorman on the Detroit United Railway (DUR), an interurban line that ran through Rochester from 1899 until 1931. Bigger shared with Michalka many tales and anecdotes about his days with the DUR.

The interurban line came to Rochester in 1899 with the unwieldy name of the Detroit, Rochester, Romeo and Lake Orion Railway. The DUR acquired it soon after, as it consolidated smaller street railroad lines to create one large regional interurban transportation system. One branch of that system, known as the Flint Division, ran through Rochester. The company built a car repair barn and powerhouse in downtown Rochester on the bank of Paint Creek (the location of today’s Atallah Heart Center), making Rochester the headquarters for the entire Flint Division.

DUR map shoing the rail lines, car barn, and power house near Main Street and Paint Creek

1919 map of North Main Street showing DUR car barns and powerhouse – Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The arrival of the DUR in Rochester was an important economic milestone for the village. The interurban gave residents quick and affordable transportation to Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and points in between. The line hauled both passengers and light freight, which was a boon to local businesses. In addition, the presence of the car barn and powerhouse here meant that many new jobs came to Rochester as well.

When Rochester began to prepare for the 1969 centennial celebration of its incorporation, a committee of citizens compiled a local history book entitled A Lively Town. Michalka worked with late Rochester police sergeant and local historian Ray Russell to draft the section of the book discussing railroads and interurbans. Russell, whose own father had worked in the DUR car barns at Rochester, had extensive knowledge of the subject and a personal collection of interurban memorabilia.

Michalka sitting in a train car control room

Robert Michalka  – Courtesy of Robert Michalka

As he collaborated with Russell on the material for A Lively Town, Michalka formed the idea for a book devoted to the history of the DUR in Rochester. He began collecting material, but didn’t start working actively on the book until 23 years ago. Now a member of the Rochester Historical Commission, Michalka is writing the book for publication by the Commission. The limited edition, hardcover volume will cover the history of the DUR in Rochester, and will discuss the other towns along the Flint Division that were served by the Rochester powerhouse.

The book will be lavishly illustrated with images from both private and public collections. Michalka has traveled as far as Arizona to collect photographic prints and negatives related to the subject. He has gathered a wide variety of stories related to the interurban, including one of Ray Russell’s memories about a boa constrictor that escaped from a circus and ended up living in a trench at the Rochester car barn. There are also comments in the book from Rochester’s own Gail Kemler, who at age 100 is one of the few people who can still furnish first-hand memories of the DUR.

Rochester and the Detroit United Railway is scheduled to be released in late 2018. Anyone interested in reserving a copy of the book may do so through the book’s web site at www.detroitunitedrailwaybook.com.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Donald Worrell says:

    Fine article, Ms. Larsen!

  2. June Hopaluk says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article that is rich in Rochester’s history. I enjoyed leaning more about Bob and I am eagerly waiting for the DUR book’s publication.

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