Tag Archives: Elk Rapids

The Traverse Traction Company: Our First Bus Service

by Julie Schopieray, local historian and writer

Starting in the mid-1890s, there had been much discussion among the residents of Traverse City about the necessity for a rail line running from Traverse City out Old Mission Peninsula. It was thought that transportation for people residing, resorting and farming on the 20-mile-long peninsula would benefit from such a service. Years passed without the plan ever becoming a reality.  Farmers, residents and resorters would continue to rely on carriages, wagons and livery services offered in Traverse City. 

One last effort to raise funds for the electric railroad was attempted in 1907, but this dream (which had been debated for over a decade) eventually came to an end due to a lack of support. Early in 1905, however, entrepreneur Wm.H. Blake of Cheboygan, chose Traverse City for a new transportation enterprise that might finally resolve the Traverse City to Old Mission issue. The January 1905 edition of Automotive Industries  explained this emerging industry:

One of the greatest fields of usefulness for the commercial automobile undoubtedly will be in the interurban passenger and freight traffic between cities and villages that are not connected by steam or electric railroads. There has been for several years a constant and steadily growing demand for reliable and economical automobile stages and ‘busses for such work, and the effort to fill this want, together with the demand for gasoline delivery wagons and trucks, is just now furnishing the greatest development in the industry.

history-oldsmotorworksAuto manufacturers were looking for ways to expand their sales of these  “mechanical traction” vehicles. [Mechanical traction was a term used at the time to describe a mode of  mechanized transportation rather than that using animal power.] The Olds Motor Works company advertised a Wagonette  designed for exactly the service Mr. Blake envisioned for Traverse City. He saw it as a town that could benefit from “the establishment of the new rival of the electric cars.”   After founding a successful bus service in the downstate town of Chelsea, Blake arranged to have the manager of the commercial department of  Olds Automobile company of Detroit,  come to Traverse City and offer his opinion as to the success of the proposed Traverse City and Peninsula Traction Company.  He found it to be a sound prospect.

With the financial backing of several prominent businessmen, The Traverse Traction Company was organized in June,1905. The company was funded with thirty thousand dollars in stock and subscriptions. Officers and directors were elected with Blake as president and general manager of the company.

history-motorcarThe first vehicle arrived on May 30, coming in from Detroit on the steamer Missouri.  Over the next month, the fleet grew to eleven vehicles– three auto busses used in street car service in town, a second touring car and a twelve-passenger bus available to charter.  Two more busses were scheduled for twice daily service to Old Mission, and three heavy-duty vehicles for hauling freight. These freight wagons were equipped with twenty-four horse power engines, five-inch tires on thirty-six inch wheels and capable of running ten miles per hour. A Saginaw newspaper noted the usefulness of the freight wagons in an area famed for its orchards: “The freight cars will have a capacity of 500 fruit crates each way. As the peninsula is virtually an orchard  eighteen miles long, this will prove a great convenience to the farmers who heretofore have had to haul their produce to the docks.” 

history-fullautoadBeyond the practical value of early trucks, the novelty of the touring cars became a favorite with locals just wanting to get out and take a ride.   The Traverse City Record Eagle took note of the joys of auto touring: The Traverse Traction company…received yesterday a twenty horse power Olds touring car… and will be open to charter by private parties. The car is one of the most handsome in the city and will undoubtedly prove popular with those who like auto riding but do not own a machine… many have taken advantage of it to take the beautiful rides along the bay shore.”

On June 29, a trial run of the Old Mission routes was tested out. The vehicles were loaded up with company stockholders and prospective stockholders as well a newspaper reporter, all eager to experience the bus ride. Indeed, it may have been the first ride in a motorized vehicle for many of them. The trip out and back took an average of two hours and twenty minutes. One car had mechanical problems and had to stop for nearly an hour to make repairs, a common occurrence with early automobiles. The twelve-passenger bus went on its test run the following day, presumably without difficulty.  The trial run had not gone perfectly, but results showed promise.

One issue that came to light during the trial run was the sorry condition of roads.  At the time, rural roads were maintained by the people who used and lived on them.  Pleadingly, the Traction Company asked local farmers to try to keep the roads near their farms in good condition.  For the most part, they were willing to do their part, though some demanded proof the company was serious about providing transportation service to friends, visitors, and family. Even with their compliance, washouts were common, and sand on the road and in soft areas could make it difficult to get through.

Daily Old Mission service began on July 10.  It was scheduled twice daily with fares .75 cents one way or $1.25 round trip. This service was to provide transportation for resorters as well as Peninsula locals wanting to go into town and back. The Traverse City Record Eagle was enthusiastic about the possibilities of success for the new company, “…the facilities for rapid transit which the project provides are certainly attractive, and when the regular street schedule is perfected the service will prove of great convenience and benefit. To the peninsula people the line will be of especial value, both as to convenience of passengers and to quick handling of fruits…in addition to the proposed street and freight service the arrangement is for charter parties to the various resorts is admirable and will be favored during the summer season.”

The Traction Company employed twelve drivers, two wipers, a stenographer, and a chief engineer, who maintained the vehicles. A facility to house and maintain the cars and busses was established in the Boughey building on the corner of State and Cass streets. Large double doors and an approach from the street were added in order to accommodate the busses into the building.  The facility not only serviced the busses, but also operated as a general auto repair shop.

Prominent citizens of Elk Rapids also showed an interest in the bus service and talked with company officials to see if Elk Rapids could be added as a stop on the route.  Everyone could see the advantages of road travel over the horse-and-buggy or even the infrequent trains.

The busses were used for just about any need one would have to get from one place to another: taking people from train depots to resorts on the Peninsula; conveying them to dances, the circus, or other entertainments; or providing a means for chartered group outings.  One car took two doctors from Elk Rapids to deliver a man to the Asylum. Even locals who had cottages at one of the East Bay resorts used the bus service regularly.  It was not only cheaper than keeping a horse, but more convenient.

Only one accident was reported during the summer of 1905. While on its East Bay route, one of the busses hit a tree.  The Record Eagle reported that its top caught some low hanging branches which drove the car into the tree. The top was wrecked, one front wheel sprung and the lights damaged, but no one was hurt. 

The service was successful throughout the summer months, but as tourist season came to a close, the need for the busses dwindled.  Sadly, on September 23, 1905, this posting appeared in the Record-Eagle: “…owing to the decreased traffic, the Traverse Traction company will cease operating their busses tomorrow for the season. It is stated that the busses will be shipped soon to some southern city for the winter.”  The September issue of The Motor Way reported that the company was pleased with the patronage received and the service will probably be repeated next summer.”  Mr. Blake told a Record-Eagle reporter that he liked Traverse City and had considered making it his home. However, the service must not have been profitable enough for the investors, as Mr. Blake stayed in Cheboygan and there is no evidence of the company still existing the following year.   

Bus service in town was not dead, however. In October 1908, Morgan’s livery added an auto bus and a touring car to their fleet, providing service to Edgewood and East Bay resorts in the summer months and were available for hire as well. It took some time for riders to convert from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles. During the years the two modes overlapped, the noisy machines spooked horses, causing runaways and novice drivers sometimes didn’t realize the speed of their machines, resulting in accidents. 

As years passed, the novelty of the “horseless carriage” wore off as automobiles became affordable for just about everyone.  As better roads made travel more predictable and less hazardous, autos forever changed how people traveled. Some tourists began bringing their own machines in on the ships they arrived on, or else braved the uncertain condition of roads and drove themselves up from major centers of population like Chicago or Grand Rapids. Locals too, eventually set aside the old ways and purchased vehicles. Over time, the demand for passenger ship and rail service diminished, finally disappearing altogether–thereby bringing to a close the era of big resorts and summer-long vacation stays in Northern Michigan.

Julie Schopieray is a local historian and writer. She is currently working on a project concerning Jens C. Petersen, a Traverse City architect who practiced in this city from the early 1900s to 1918.

The Tonic of Wildness

by Annie Spence, first-time contributor to GTJ

“All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

waldenbeach4 copy
Walden with his father Mike Spence at the Old Bathing Beach in Elk Rapids, Michigan.

My husband and I chose the name Walden for our expected son, a tribute to both nature and literature from Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, or Life in the Woods. What better aspects of character could we hope to instill in our child than those of simplicity, self-reliance and reverence for the natural world? And for our boy with such a purposeful name we of course planned the most simple and natural of births and, of course, ended up with the exact opposite.

Our namesake of simplicity, self-reliance, and the natural world came to us by way of an emergency surgery, a team of doctors, and all the miracles of new science. Walden was born in early September and after a week tucked into a plastic pod in ICU with tubes attached to his chest, legs and perfectly round little head, we brought him home. By the time we’d bumbled through the haze of his first six weeks, winter had crept in. We’d only taken him on a handful of strolls through our hometown of Elk Rapids and now we’d be sentenced to Life in the House until spring. We stayed bundled inside and read The Fledgling by Jane Langton (another tribute to Thoreau) and when forced to go outdoors, baited by promises of holiday gifts or hot cocoa, our aim was to get our sweet fragile son from car to door and back again with the least amount of exposure to the elements. Not wind nor snow nor hail could penetrate the layers of Walden’s pilled hand-me-down snowsuit, topped with several layers of homemade blankets.

waldenbeach2 copyBy March, the whole family was more than ready to get outside and “blow the stink off”. We started small, with stroller walks on any day that poked up above 30 degrees. By May we had graduated to sitting on a blanket outside and by the time Walden learned to crawl and sit up, it was time to help Mom and Dad pull weeds in the raspberry patch. I worried that after so many months inside, our little one would have grown soft from the comforts of a temperature-controlled cozy home filled with toys and pillows and music. To my delight, though, Walden took to the outdoors like a true-blue naturalist. He could sit outside for hours (hours! a baby!) watching us do yardwork or mowing the lawn with our new self-propelled lawn mower. Seeing sunlight filtering through tree leaves put him into a trance.

It was almost summer and finally (finally!) time for the beach.

Finally (finally!) time for the beach.


“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

In the hottest days of August last year, at nine months pregnant, there were days my only solace was wading in the bay at The Old Bathing Beach on the north end of Elk Rapids. It was the only place I could feel both cool and weightless, big belly up and watching the sun set.

The Old Bathing Beach* is one of four public beaches in Elk Rapids, a public spot fitted snugly next to a private stretch reserved for condos. It’s either not known by many tourists or not preferred. This year especially, since the water levels have risen, there is sometimes only a blanket’s worth of smooth bare sand to stake claim to. The rest of the area is covered in slender and sinuous dune grass. Often we’re three of only four or five people nearby and we like it that way. The combination of wind and waves are sometimes loud enough that it won’t do you much good to try and hold a conversation. The three of us are prompted by natural forces to be still.

“I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”
“I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”

Taking Walden here has brought a sense of peace to our hectic lives. We daily feel the familiar tugs of conflicting work schedules, night wakings, late bills and last minute out-of-town visitors and often find ourselves living what feels like the opposite of Thoreau’s declaration, “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!” and “as long as possible, live free and uncommitted.” Still, at the end of the day we are a bike ride away from a quiet spot where baby and I can sit and make comb marks in the sand while my husband kayaks. On our way back, we hear locals and visitors laughing and enjoying the long warm days (getting shorter, minute by minute and so, that much sweeter). We come home and for at least a day after can feel the grit of strayed sand under our feet and are reminded of our remarkable luck.

As the weather turns cooler again and The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts more snow and frigid temperatures, as we blow out Walden’s first birthday candle, and unpack our sweaters  and hats when it seems like we only just put them away, our small family will try and sometimes fail to remember Thoreau’s advice to “live in each season as it passes”.

*: I have inquired about the history of the Old Bathing Beach, but haven’t found any such information. If you have any knowledge this area, please consider submitting to Grand Traverse Journal about it!

Annie Spence, when not being mother and wife in her wonderful little family, serves as a reference librarian at the Traverse Area District Library, Woodmere Branch. She is a recent transplant to Elk Rapids, and finds “up north living” very appealing.