Burns Park Trolley: An Illustrated History

By Donna K. Tope


It all began in 1837 for Ann Arbor, and by extension, North Burns Park.  That year, the University of Michigan moved from Detroit to the foot of the 2-acre square at East University and South University avenues, the southern entrance to the Diag.  By 1890, the town, along with 3,000 students, had outgrown walking, bicycling and the horse and buggy to get around.  Local investors built a streetcar line to connect the railway station, the Depot, to downtown and campus.  Students and residents alike fell in love with the quick, cheap, and convenient trolleys from the train station to campus, and from the residential neighborhoods south of campus where the carbarn was located in North Burns Park.

Trolley #6 at North University Ave. and State St.

This spanking new beauty is captured in 1891 at the corner of North University Avenue and State Street.  It was trolley #6, whose route began at the Michigan Central Rail Road (MCRR) station, ran south on Main Street, east at William Street  to the U of M via North University, around the east side of campus, out Washtenaw Avenue to Hill Street, south through NBP, down Lincoln Avenue to Wells Street, and north along Packard Road back to Main Street.  In 1892, local investors built a steam-driven line that ran from Wells south on Packard Road, connecting Ann Arbor/U of M with Ypsilanti/Michigan State Normal College (later Eastern Michigan University). Passengers on the trolley could transfer to the steam line at Wells and Packard. The line was electrified in 1896, and extended to Detroit in 1898, providing excellent–and popular–travel between the three cities.

The carbarn housing the trolleys was in NBP, at the corner of Lincoln and Wells, and stored six cars.  A trolley car could turn around at the carbarn and retrace its tracks back north on Lincoln to Hill to State Street and back to Main. This was a very popular run with students of all ages who rode the trolley to elementary school, high school and college (see Personal Historic Note, below.)

The route can be traced on the map below, showing the steam train routes (hatched lines) and the trolley routes (solid lines) in 1922, along with the boundaries of the city of Ann Arbor, the passing “lanes” and the carbarn location.

Map of Trolleys and Trains, 1922

Personal Historical Note:  My family moved into 1600 Cambridge Road, at the southeast corner of the intersection with Martin Place, in 1978 and lived there almost 30 years.  When we moved in I cleaned out the built-in cherry buffet and found a handwritten note on the bottom of a drawer:  “John Karl Malcomb moved in July 7, 1909.” It gave the names and ages of his children, one of whom, Karl Malcomb, Sr., was a friend and medical school classmate of my father-in-law.  We had no idea of the connection until I read that message from 70 years earlier.  We acquired the original handmade dining table that was crafted by the skilled woodworker who built the buffet, mantels, plate rails, library, stair rails, etc.  Several times we invited Dr. Malcomb to come for lunch or dinner.  He sat at his family place at the table and told my children, Melissa, Christy and Rick Richter, stories of his life in the house and at that table while he lived at home.  He was 5 when his parents built the house and lived there with them until he was married. He attended Ann Arbor public schools, the U of M undergrad and medical school, and did his internship at U of M Hospital.  These were priceless conversations with a true Ann Arbor founding family member, a gentleman and a scholar, and a wonderful friend to us.  One of his many gifts was the story describing how he would sit at his spot at the table, peering out the window to the northwest toward Lincoln in the winter eating his oatmeal and intently watching.  When he could see the trolley coming south down Lincoln from Hill Street to Cambridge, he’d announce to the house “It’s here!”  That was the signal for the children to scramble into their boots, coats, mufflers, and mittens, and run out the back door plowing through the snow along with all the other neighborhood schoolchildren just in time to catch the trolley on its return trip back up Lincoln to take them to the elementary school on South University, or on to the new high school at State and Huron built in 1907  (now North Quad).  The trolley had gone south to the carbarn at Lincoln and Wells and turned around, giving the children just enough time to catch it on its return trip.  He said he rode the trolley to his education until it ceased running in the late 1920s.

This Ann Arbor line car is standing in the middle of Lincoln Avenue in front of the Ann Arbor carbarn (at Wells and Lincoln).  The curving tracks in the foreground lead into the two bays of the carbarn.”  IRETWC page 59.

Line car at the carbarn, Lincoln Ave. and Wells St.

The carbarn burned in 1894, destroying five cars, and again in 1925.  The only other reported trolley related mishaps involving the NBP route were derailments with no injuries–mostly a reason to take a break from the books!

“One cold Sunday afternoon in about 1912, the southbound trolley on State Street jumped the tracks onto South University Avenue.  A switching pole is attached to the right end to pull it back on the tracks.  Several students from the nearby fraternities came out to get their photograph taken.  In back of the trolley is the Alpha Delta Phi house on the left, and the old Sigma Chi house is behind the trolley.”  IRETWC page 49.

Derailed trolley, corner of State St. and South University, 1912

In the sequel to the story above, “the other trolley has been called from the carbarn on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Wells Street to rescue this trolley that jumped the track at the corner of State Street and South University Avenue.  The excitement draws a crowd of students from the Psi Upsilon fraternity house in back of the trolley or from the Alpha Delta Phi and Sigma Chi fraternities across State Street”.  IRETWC page 49.

Derailed trolley rescue, State St. and South University, 1912

The photo below, taken in 1912, suggests that derailment could be pretty common since the roads were mostly unpaved.  This is looking north on Washtenaw Avenue toward campus from Hill Street, the northeastern corner of NBP.  “Take a stroll along muddy Washtenaw Avenue in the fall around 1912.  This photograph shows a couple of ghostlike college students strolling down the concrete sidewalk on the right (blurred silhouettes).  Every 15 minutes the local trolley rolls by in the middle of this street on its way to campus.  Next to the sidewalk on the left is one of the brick pillars erected by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, which moved into the Chauncey Millen house on the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Hill Street”.  IRETWC page 48.

Looking north on Washtenaw Ave. toward campus from Hill Street

Then, as now, NBP was at the center of football game day travel.  In this photo below, a line car “usually assigned to the Port Huron Division, travels down Packard road near Wells Street in 1923.  On this double-track section of Packard, as many as 20 interurban cars were lined up during University of Michigan football games in the Ferry Field Stadium on south State Street.  After the game, every interurban was chock-full of football fans returning to Detroit” along the line built out Packard at Wells in 1892.

Line car #7263, on Packard near Wells, 1923

Once the state passed a huge bond issue to pave roads in 1918 and bus franchises were subsidized, cars and buses took over the roads.  By the late 1920s, it was the end of the line for streetcars in Washtenaw County.


All photos and quotes are attributed to H. Mark Hildebrandt, and are used with his permission, from his book, coauthored with Martha A. Churchill, entitled IMAGES of Rail  ELECTRIC TROLLEYS OF WASHTENAW COUNTY (IRETWC), published by Arcadia Publishing in 2009.  This excellent resource preserving our local heritage is a treasure, and we thank both authors for sharing their wealth of knowledge. Mark is also a NBP neighbor, just across Washtenaw on Cambridge.