ALPENA - Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan's planetarium held a standing room-only crowd to see a presentation on Alpena's railroad history and the hobby of riding the rails in motorcars.
Ron Cady gave the first half of the presentation, dressed in an authentic Detroit and Mackinac Railway uniform from the 1950s. It's the railroad that served Alpena from when its predecessor came into town in 1886 until Lake State Railway bought the line in 1992. The tracks are still in place and the freight still runs, but a lot has changed in 127 years.
Cady started off the presentation with the city's historic buildings, some lost and others remaining. Alpena is noteworthy for having so many older structures still standing, including many Victorian-style homes, the Centennial Building and several downtown structures. Others were lost to fire or demolition, like the Alpena Hotel, torn down in 2011.
"Alpena is a gem for having so many of these older buildings still around," he told the audience.
The Centennial Building was 10 years old when the Detroit, Bay City and Alpena Railroad reached town. Another line, the Alpena and Northern, was built to tap the rich lumber resources of the area. The two merged in 1895 to form the Detroit and Mackinac Railway. While the line never reached Detroit by its own trackage, it did reach Mackinaw City in 1976 when it bought the tracks from the bankrupt Penn Central.
In 1911, the D&M built what Cady said was among the finest passenger depots in the state on Saginaw Street. It was built with native limestone, terrazzo floors, Romanesque support columns and decorative plaster castings. His presentation included two shots of the interior, the only known photos taken inside.
That depot served until March 31, 1951, when the last regularly scheduled passenger train left for Durand, Cady said. The line saw a large dropoff in passengers after World War II, when it had to compete with automobiles and cheap gasoline. The D&M had extended passenger service to Durand via Grand Trunk Western tracks shortly after the war in an attempt to pick up more passengers.
Freight service continued, and the line still carries freight to Lafarge's cement plant and other customers. He showed the audience a collection of his own photographs showing freight operations through the years. One showed a train passing through Bolton, and several others showed cars being pulled to Fletcher Paper and Abitibi.
Many photos showed the D&M's fleet of Alco diesel locomotives. Cady said the line is believed to be the first to completely switch from steam to the new type of tractive power.
Lake State Railway abandoned the spur line to the Paxton quarry and Hawks some years after bought the D&M, Cady said. The Saginaw Street depot, unused for many years, burned in 1994, and attempts to restore it never materialized. The remains were cleared away in 1995, but a few railroad structures remain. One is the freight warehouse on Fletcher Street, now the Fletcher Street Brewery. Another is Lake State Railway's roundhouse on Long Lake Street, where some of the original stalls still stand.
The audience learned about a different kind of railroading by hobbyists. Dave Moore talked about riding motorcars, formerly used by railroad employees to inspect and maintain the line. Many were sold off when railroads switched to a system that attaches to regular vehicles, and enthusiasts who keep them running take them on organized outings.
Moore showed a video of one outing in Ontario from North Bay to Noranda. The three-day trip included a few stops, lots of safety instructions and several pauses to let other trains pass. The trips are very regimented and done with permission of, and escorts from, the host railroad.
It's an expensive hobby, but one that's allowed Moore to pursue a lifelong passion for railroads, he said.
"That's what I'm always telling young people," he said. "Find something you like to do, and do it."