Southern Michigan Railroad Society celebrates 30 years riding the rails
In the 1970s and 1980s, declining freight operations slowly shut down the once humming rails of the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Rail Road Company. The rail line, which once stretched from Palmyra to Jackson, ended passenger service in 1938, and by the early 1980s only 13.65 miles remained of the once-vibrant route. Three Clinton High School students were determined to purchase the remaining track with the goal of turning it into an operational railroad museum. Dale Pape, John Shaw, and Jeff Dobek negotiated with Conrail to purchase the rail line and form the Southern Michigan Railroad Society in 1982.
This year SMRS celebrates its 30th year of operation as an all-volunteer non-profit operating railroad museum. The heart of the organization is and always has been its volunteers, acknowledges Museum Director Cynthia Given. From the beginning, people with a love of history and a love of Michigan railroads worked to keep the rails alive.
Currently, SMRS has 200 members, with 50 active in the maintenance and running of the museum and rail line. Given said that members are located all over the United States, and those who volunteer their time come from all over southeastern Michigan and northwestern Ohio. The track workers travel down from Canada to help with train operation and track maintenance.
“They [the SMRS volunteers] come not only from all over the United States and Canada, but they come from all walks of life – steel workers, electricians and electrical engineers, airline mechanics, machinists, sales people, teachers and educational people, finance, business, service, and retail people,” said Given. “These people not only give of their time and money, but of their sweat – cutting brush, repairing a diesel engine, painting, mowing, digging and replacing ties, distributing flyers, designing web sites, printing educational and historical material, archiving donations, fielding telephone calls, locating parts and supplies, inspecting track and bridges, handling administrative responsibilities, serving cider, mentoring others.”
She added, “The celebration of 30 years is because they have made it possible.”
Orcelia Davidson, 88, of Tecumseh, former SMRS President and Treasurer, is a lifetime member of SMRS and responsible for much of the organization’s fundraising success over the years. This year she will retire from her position as curator.
“She’s a wonderful woman,” Given said. “She was there at the very beginning, helping out. She’s done a lot for this organization.”
Ernie Jeschke is another lifetime member, who volunteers as property superintendent. He has done crossing repairs and printing from his print shop Jeschke Printing.
“He’s been very very active for a long long time,” said Given.
Support from the City of Tecumseh, the Village of Clinton and Michigan Department of Transportation has also made a big difference for SMRS. Often maintenance for different crossings has been absorbed by these entities as they make their own road adjustments and repairs, saving SMRS thousands of dollars in maintenance costs. According to Given, the recent MDOT repave on Chicago Boulevard in Tecumseh, for example, would have cost SMRS $60,000.
Given estimated that not including labor, every year SMRS spends a minimum of $6,000 for maintenance of the rails and the museum. SMRS is responsible for weed control on the track, crossing repairs, mowing of municipal areas. Although maintenance costs and fuel expenses have risen rapidly over the past few years, SMRS has worked to keep train fares as low as possible by not running every weekend in the summer like it used to. Another benefit of the shortened schedule is that volunteers are able to have some weekends off in the summertime, which Given believes keeps volunteers from burning out.
People are amazed at the beauty of the ride all year long, especially during the fall color tours. One of the most popular spots is the bridge that runs over Red Mill Pond in Tecumseh. “We didn’t even know this was here,” is an often repeated statement according to Given, even from Tecumseh and Clinton residents. Although some wish the train would travel faster, Given said part of the experience is traveling the six to eight miles per hour that the original trains used to run. Along with the slower speed, the train cars help riders feel like they are right out in nature.
“They love the open car because they can see,” said Given.
Children are especially thrilled with the train experience, so many having watched the children’s television program “Thomas the Train,” although the whistle is sometimes a less than pleasant surprise for small ears.
The SMRS museum is located at 320 S. Division in Clinton. The building was the first electrical plant in Clinton, and now houses SMRS business office, a small museum, and gift shop.
Given said SMRS is looking for a better location that will give the organization more space. Recently, Friends of the SMRS, an organization that includes SMRS members but functions as a separate entity, began proceedings to purchase the former Pallox property located in Clinton near the current SMRS building.
“The whole purpose is the support of the SMRS,” said Given about Friends of SMRS. She said the organization operates the same way Friends of Tecumseh Library does, as a fundraising and support group for SMRS.
The possibility of expansion of the museum creates emotions in the organization much like those the founders experienced in 1982, Given suspects. “It’s like a giant leap, and it’s scary and exciting at the same time,” she said. “If we’re going to grow we’ve got to expand.”
In addition to scheduled Saturday runs between Clinton and Tecumseh, Thursday night “Ride to Dine” train service, and Fall Color Tours, SMRS has several special events that celebrate local history planned in honor of its 30th Anniversary.
On Saturday, June 30, SMRS hosts the “Trains, Trucks and More!” event that runs from noon to 6 p.m. at 806 S. Evans Street in Tecumseh. This free event offers the chance to fully explore and enjoy railroad cars, cabooses, engines, trucks, construction equipment, tractors, and police cars. Also on-site will be area historical societies, model railroaders, and Operation Lifesaver to share information and ideas.
In December, SMRS will host a visit with Mark Twain on Friday, Dec. 7, as the train travels the same route Samuel Clemens took during his speaking tour of the area on Dec. 24, 1868. The train will be decorated for the holidays and riders can also enjoy the Tecumseh Holiday Parade. The next day on Saturday, Dec. 8, a performance of Mark Twain at the Tecumseh Center for the Performing Arts features Clemens’ address from Dec. 26, 1868. The entrance fee for the 1 p.m. performance supports the railroad preservation at SMRS.
Given is excited about the new directions SMRS is taking to tie the rails in with other parts of Michigan history. “To take this dream of an operating railroad museum and keeping it moving forward. . .it’s fun,” she said with a smile.
For more information about the SMRS, the train schedule or scheduling a group event call 456.7677 or visit the website at southernmichiganrailroad.com.