Thursday, August 4, 1960
Watervliet has been privileged to have railroad service for a period of 91 years, for rec ords reveal the fact that the road through Watervliet was completed in 1869. A depot was built and L.A. Mason was its first agent. Two years later, in 1871, he was succeeded by W.E. Walden, a name familiar to many people now living. During the time that Mr. Walden served in the depot he was also postmaster and patrons went to the depot to pick up their mail, which wasn’t very heavy in those days. The name of the railroad was the Chicago and Michigan Lake Shore, later the Pere Marquette and now the Chesapeake & Ohio.
A grain elevator was attached to the depot and large quantities of grain were shipped from this station. I think in later years it was destroyed by fire. And aside from large shipments of grain from the local station, during the fruit harvest large shipments of apples and peaches were loaded and shipped to Chicago. Some 3,000 baskets of peaches were sent out on one train during the rush season and one apple grower alone shipped 2,000 barrels of apples during 1878. Apples were always shipped in barrels during those days and barrel-making afforded employment every summer to several “coopers,” as the workers were called.
Watervliet had excellent passenger service with six trains a day between Grand Rapids and Chicago and all trains stopped in Watervliet to pick up and let off passengers until passenger service was curtailed and some trains didn’t even slacken their speed when they neared the local depot which was a surprise and a big disappointment as old residents declared that a contract between Isaac Swain and the railroad company when right of way was given the company stipulated that passenger trains make regular stops at Watervliet. It was believed that the agreement still held good, but apparently nothing could be done about it.
In 1949, being curious to know more regarding that agreement, I asked George K. Ferguson, then president and general manager of the Paper Company, for further information, and this is what he told me:
“We have in our files two agreements made between Mr. Swain and the railroad, the first dated June 1, 1870, and the second October 7th of the same year.
“Mr. Swain was very anxious to have the railroad construct a siding down to his sawmill (now the Paper Company) and also to be permitted to erect a large warehouse for general business purposes on the railroad on whatever site he might select. For this reason he gave the railroad $4,000 and considerable land, and practically all of both of the agreements are concerned with the details of this transaction.
“It is further understood and agreed by and between said first named parties to this agreement that a first class full station and railroad depot shall be located and permanently established in the Village of Watervliet.”
Mr. Ferguson said that this is the only part of these agreements that could be construed to refer to the operation of the railroad, and that presumably a first class full station, permanently established, might mean that all trains should stop, although it does not specifically so state.
Now Watervliet is just a flag stop with two passenger trains a day. But the advent of the railroad 90 years ago gave Watervliet and other towns along the line new leases of life. Rail service speeded the clearing of the forests, provided shipping facilities for farm products and brought new residents to the area. Watervliet enjoyed a boom that lasted for several years.
The building of the Chicago to Grand Rapids railroad gave Watervliet its first “fast” communication to the outside world. Prior to that citizens here were dependent upon the stage coach that operated between St. Joseph and Kalamazoo and their own horse-drawn or ox-drawn vehicles. Very early the Paw Paw River was navigable and commodities were loaded on scows plying between here and St. Joseph, but the building of a dam interrupted that river traffic.
But railroads have had their day and some communities have no train service at all, so Watervliet is to be congratulated on having one train a day each way, as well as freight service, which is considerable.