Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tour of the Interurban Car Barn on Michigan Ave.

Man, it sure is easy getting around on the interurban. The Detroit, Jackson, and Chicago lines go all over Southeastern Michigan, as seen in this Wikipedia map. Want to go shopping in Detroit? Just hop on at the downtown Ypsilanti waiting room and enjoy the ride. But how does this all work from a local standpoint?

The noisy, smoky nexus of the local interurban node stood just east of the Huron River, on the north side of Michigan Avenue. Though the main waiting area and boarding spot was downtown, this car barn was the site of cars coming and going for repairs, as workmen tended the enormous switchboard and rank of giant whirring dynamos.

The smoke belching from the plant was an issue in the southern River Street neighborhood, with residents complaining of laundry dirtied by falling soot; eventually the factory installed what were then called chimney "smoke suppressors," easing the problem somewhat. Many of the workmen at the plant, husbands of the wives battling with dirty laundry, lived in the same River Street neighborhood.

And we're in luck; look along River Street there--some workers are just walking back to work after lunch at home. How about this guy with the coal dust all over his pants? Let's ask nicely--does he mind if we tag along and take a quick look inside the plant? Yeah, he guesses that's OK, if we don't hang around. All right, we're in! Let's follow him and check it out.

Here's what we see as we approach the building, as viewed from Michigan Ave.

Our guide says that the bays on the left are the "car barns" proper. There's room for six cars. The central door leads to the main business office. On the right is a large bay leading to a big repair shop for the cars, which also houses a carpenter shop and a blacksmith shop. This is mass transit with a local DIY twist. Since our guide is headed there, let's tag along.

Our guide says he has to get back to work but that we can take a quick look around. Here's the repair shop. In the back right you can see the body of an interurban car. In the foreground lie stacks of...hmm, are these some kind of axle-transmission components? They also resemble motors. Don't want to bother one of the guys in back, but he could tell you...to most of us, the names of this part are lost. Now let's check out the nerve center of the plant: the nearby switchboard area.

What did the switchboard control? I would guess the flow of electricity to various lines, to start and stop different cars without the expense of keeping all of the lines electrified at all times. Before we can ask, the worker there asks us to leave. OK, OK, but we're not done checking out the plant.

Exiting the main building with its switchboard, office, and repair shop, let's go outside, and circle around to the back of the building. Here, on the northeast side housed in a separate structure, was the heart of the plant: the dynamo house. Jeez, what a racket! Wow, look at that!

This is arguably the most dangerous place in all the plant, here by the rank of whirling dynamos. None of them have safety shielding. Considering the mass of the flywheels and their velocity...not a place to come to work a bit hung over on Monday morning. In fact, it's a bit scary here and I think we've seen enough. Let's skedaddle.

We've bothered the guys enough; they have work to do. As we leave, let's take one look back from the perspective of Materials Unlimited to wave and say thanks, guys, for this insider's look at our onetime local mass transit system.

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