Why's That: Are those old gaslights on the Michigan Avenue overpass?
After decades of passing under a railroad bridge on Kalamazoo's east side, Kalamazoo native Kim McBain-Maycroft spotted something interesting.
Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Nick Schirripa peers at the underside of a railroad overpass in Kalamazoo.
“I never looked so closely at this bridge," he says. "I’m having an absolute ball."
The overpass is on East Michigan Avenue where it curves to meet Riverview Drive. If you’re coming from downtown it’s just after you cross the river.
I'm standing near one of the bridge’s two pedestrian tunnels with Schirripa and Kim McBain-Maycroft. She’s our “Why’s That? question asker. After decades of driving under the bridge on her way to Parchment or Comstock, something caught her eye.
“One day, I just noticed it. Why is that there? It's just so cool.”
Kim’s talking about four Art Deco-style objects that look like light fixtures above the pedestrian tunnel entrances. She wondered: Are they old gas lights?
Before finding out, we learn about the rest of the bridge, a hard-won piece of infrastructure that was literally celebrated when it opened.
“There are a couple of features about this bridge that are unique,” Schirripa said. “The steel railing is a rare variant that we don't use anymore. We haven't used in decades if you look at most of our bridges even from the same era, or shortly after it, they’re concrete.”
Originally the bridge carried Michigan Central trains. Today Amtrak passenger trains cross the MDOT-owned track, and Grand Elk freight trains use the bridge as well.
A difficult place to cross the street
As we stand by the bridge, the flow of traffic is intense: cars and trucks stream past on this major artery through the city.
“This is the exact reason why they decided to construct this, is because this is a very busy part of town," said Ryan Gage, local history specialist at the Kalamazoo Public Library.
I asked him to join me, our question-asker Kim and MDOT’s Nick Schirripa at the overpass.
One hundred years ago, this bridge did not exist, and the junction of roads and rail in the area created a dangerous bottleneck for commuters and pedestrians.
“Just down the street, there were three paper mills: the Hawthorne Paper Mill, the Kalamazoo Paper Company, and Sutherland Paper Company, were all situated on East Michigan just a quarter of the mile down there,” Gage said.
The transition to cars that began in the early 1900s was a challenge for cities.
“I assume that 5 o'clock traffic was really bad here and that probably a lot of accidents occurred,” Gage said.
Around 1910, Eastside residents and industries began pressuring the city to do something, according to newspaper accounts. But Gage said it took years for things to get moving. Finally, by 1930, the city had a report from a Chicago consultant on its traffic congestion.
“Mr. Crane came back with several problems. And the biggest one was that there were too many railroad crossings in Kalamazoo — over 100 points in which the railroad went over a city street.”
Michigan Avenue was particularly bad. But “three years after they had identified this as a major problem, they still weren't able to come up with the financing to work on the project. And plus, it's 1933," Gage said.
The Great Depression meant many project were put on hold. But then in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration.
“One of the biggest reasons that the Works Progress Administration was put together was to take the thousands — tens of thousands, but thousands in Kalamazoo — of men and women who were out of work or underemployed to get them some labor opportunities,” said Gage.
The rail bridge is one of several WPA projects in Kalamazoo. The Michigan Avenue Courthouse, completed in 1937 and retired last week, was another.
The rail bridge took a year to build. It too was completed in 1937. The total cost of the project was about $7 million in today’s dollars.
The Michigan Avenue grade separation project was so popular, the city threw a parade complete with a band and procession of dignitaries, as well as a dinner, to mark its completion. The celebration was reported on page 10 of The Kalamazoo Gazette on Sunday, October 24, 1937. The paper said it was built “after 27 years of (public) agitation.”
The library’s Ryan Gage notes that our visit to the bridge comes as Kalamazoo gets ready for its next overhaul of downtown traffic patterns.
There is "certainly, plenty of talk right now about city planning and making major changes to our streets, which is just part of the continuity of history," he said.
Are they gaslights?
As for the Art Deco fixtures above the pedestrian tunnels, a closer inspection reveals blue electric bulbs inside. MDOT’s Nick Schirripa said the fixtures are original.
“Those were lights at one point. They have long since gone inactive and defunct. And we certainly don't maintain them anymore. Because out of necessity, there's no need for them.”
Neither expert could say when the lights stopped working, but one thing’s certain: In the 1930s, they were wired for electricity. Gas streetlights had their heydayin the 19th century; in the early 1900s, electric lights began to edge them out.
Our question asker, Kim McBain-Maycroft, is disappointed to learn that the lights on the Michigan Avenue Railroad Overpass are not converted gas fixtures.
“I imagined that they were gas-lit — somehow really, you know, ominous and cool. But it makes sense what they were. And I appreciate the rich history.”