Today’s Kal-Haven Trail offers stunning scenery through southwest Michigan, while the right-of-way provides a relatively flat and easy surface for hiking, jogging, or cycling. For many years, however, this corridor hosted rail traffic and was owned by the New York Central (NYC), one of the largest and most successful Eastern railroads during much of the 20th century. Even before the NYC era, the property’s roots trace back to the 1870s and to a company by the name of the Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad (K&SH). Although, short-lived, the K&SH was able to finish the route between its namesake towns before being acquired by the much larger Michigan Central Railroad (MC). During its early years, the K&SH was a profitable operation, and the route ran several trains daily; however, as a branch, traffic slowly declined over the years. After the formation of the Penn Central, it was abandoned in the early 1970s. The trail opened to the public in 1991.
Railroads serving the state of Michigan closely paralleled the arrival of land speculators, who began arriving in the region during the 1830s (thanks to the new Erie Canal that allowed for easier and faster travel). Speculators were encouraged by the potential natural resources available, notably iron and timber. As more people came to settle the territory, railroads soon followed, and one of the first chartered was the Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad Company (D&StJ ) on June 29, 1832. The group of businessmen attempting to build the D&StJ hoped to connect the growing city of Detroit to the Lake Michigan port town of St. Joseph then establish steamship service into Chicago. On October 17, 1839, the railroad was able to open a line from Detroit to Ann Arbor but could push no farther west. As a result, the property was sold to the state in an attempt to finish the project. The company was renamed as the Central Railroad Company of Michigan, and with additional funding, completed the route to Kalamazoo on February 2, 1846.
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Once again, the company changed hands; a month later, on March 28, the state sold the property to a group of investors, who renamed it as the Michigan Central Railroad Company on September 25, 1846. Under private ownership again and strong financial backing, the new owners worked quickly to push the MC westward. However, the idea to connect St. Joseph was abandoned, and instead they chose a direct rail route into Chicago. By 1852, the Michigan Central opened to the Windy City and soon began to spread northward throughout its home state. One of the road’s important terminals turned out to be Kalamazoo. In the coming years, the city was served by many railroads, most notable was the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (also acquired by the NYC), Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad (eventually purchased by the growing Pennsylvania Railroad), Grand Trunk Western, and Pere Marquette (later taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio). Since trains first entered Kalamazoo, there have been a dozen railroad stations located there at one time or another (as well as two interurban stations).
Of all Michigan’s major railroads like the Pere Marquette, Ann Arbor, and Michigan Central, only the latter never operated car ferry service across the lake as either a bypass around Chicago or as a means of interchanging significant freight tonnage. However, it did operate some services to Ontario and the Upper Peninsula. This is because it was the only one of the three to connect directly to the Windy City. Still, some local Kalamazoo businessmen felt such a route was important. On April 14, 1869, they formed the Kalamazoo & South Haven to offer rail service between the two towns. The line, which ran 39.6 miles, was opened within a year. Almost immediately, in 1870, the Michigan Central acquired it, so whatever plans the original builders had for the property quickly ended.
Under MC control, the line essentially operated as a branch from Kalamazoo, although through the early 20th century it was quite busy with four passenger trains and two mixed freights daily. For the most part, this traffic remained until the Great Depression, when the rail was hit hard by the economic downturn; passenger service ended entirely after July 1, 1937. Following this, the branch mostly witnessed just a single daily freight for the next three decades. By that time, the MC had already been leased by the New York Central since 1930. At its peak, the Michigan Central not only served Chicago and Detroit, but also reached all of the way to Cheboygan and Mackinaw City, operating a 1,900-mile network. It also reached Buffalo, New York, through subsidiary Canada Southern Railway operating in southern Ontario (a system that later also became part of the NYC). Early on, MC’s freight traffic consisted of the state’s natural resources, although later, as industry grew, it ranged from general merchandise to Detroit auto-parts.
In the succeeding years, particularly after World War II, freight began a slow decline for the New York Central’s Michigan lines. By 1950, the MC was fully absorbed into the NYC. In 1968, the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania to form the poorly conceived Penn Central (PC). The PC began losing money right away and was in bankruptcy by 1970—the same year it abandoned the line from South Haven to Kalamazoo. After Conrail was formed in spring of 1976, nearly all of the original MC system outside of its Detroit–Chicago–Buffalo main line was either sold or outright abandoned.
Today, Michigan is home to a wide range of railroad museums and train rides. Some of the closest to the Kal-Haven Trail include the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad in Blissfield; Old Road Dinner Train in Charlotte; Clinton Northern Railway Center in St. Johns; Coopersville & Marne Railway in Coopersville; Huckleberry Railroad in Flint; and the Little River Railroad in Coldwater.