An art exhibit showing through photos and information. It is placed on a brick wall under the words The Interurban Railways of Grand Rapids

New exhibit commemorates remnants of Interurban tracks on Pew Campus, explains history of railway system

Remnants of Interurban railway tracks on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus are now commemorated with an informational exhibit explaining the electric transportation system created in the late 1800s.

The tracks, contained within a brick inlay on the Mount Vernon pedestrian pathway, are the last stretch of any Interurban tracks in West Michigan, according to a Grand Valley historian.

The exhibit placed above the tracks uses images and text to explain the Interurban system and its impact on the region. The piece also gives related historical context for the time, such as how the Grand River was a "working waterfront."

A remnant of an Interurban track in a brick inlay on the ground.
A remnant of an Interurban track in a brick inlay on the ground near the new exhibit.

At the heart of this project is a core narrative that is important to the community, said Nathan Kemler, GVSU director of Galleries and Collections, who helped lead the effort to create and install the piece.

"One reason this project is so impactful is that it was an early sustainable transportation method that was rooted in equity," said Kemler of the themes captured in the exhibit that is part of the GVSU Art Gallery. "Anybody could ride the Interurban, and it would take you into the city or outside of it to Lake Michigan, Lake Macatawa, or farms."

Kemler noted that someone could take the Interurban from Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan, then board a steam ship for Chicago, and it was all done through electric power.

Learning about the prevalence of such green technology long ago is eye-opening for students, said Matthew Daley, GVSU professor of history, who was the key researcher on the project. 

"Students are stunned that there was this huge integrated network of electric freight and passenger service that then tied into a citywide network of street cars," Daley said. "You could take an Interurban that produced no soot, no dirt, and at some point on West Michigan lines reach over 70 mph."

A worker grabs the corner of an art exhibit as it is lowered from overhead to be placed on a brick wall.
A worker holds a tape measure while helping to install a new art exhibit, which as straps attached to it as it is being lowered from overhead.
Workers install the new art exhibit above the remnants of the Interurban tracks.

The transportation system was first developed in the 1890s, starting in West Michigan in Holland, Daley said. Around the turn of the 20th century that railway connected with Grand Rapids and the overall system saw growth in the region in the ensuing years.

"It ran really well until Americans discovered in the 1920s that they liked cars," Daley said.

Daley and Kemler both said the story of the Interurban gives important insight into fleeting economic conditions, how people come together, the environmental impact on the Grand River and how the community has evolved.

"This is about the changing landscape of Grand Rapids itself and understanding this location before the Grand Valley campus was here and before downtown was revitalized," Kemler said.