For the past 23 years, Robert Michalka has been researching, collecting stories and photos, to make sure the history of the Flint Division of the Detroit United Railway doesn’t vanish like it did.
“It was there for 30 years and then it was gone,” Michalka said. “And it was pretty much gone without a trace.”
His book, “Rochester and the Detroit United Railway,” will discuss and show the history of the Flint Division of the DUR – which lasted from the 1890s until the early '30s – and its importance to the Rochester area.
Michalka said it was a pretty big deal in Rochester.
First off, Rochester was where the headquarters for the Flint division were located. Therefore, the powerhouse was located there, which produced power for the entire division. Second, it provided a lot of jobs. The DUR had a great effect not only on Rochester but also the communities along the DUR, like Detroit, Flint, and Lake Orion, among others.
“From the time that I was little growing up in Rochester, I was hearing stories from people about the railway, talking about their remembrance of it, or having had worked on it,” he said. “At that time, the railway had been gone probably less than 30 years – it was still fresh in people’s memories.”
The book – which is scheduled for publication later this year by the Rochester Historical Commission – also has personal stories from people who remember it. Michalka’s father owned a store in town from 1927 until 1982, so he knew lots of people to talk to, and word-of-mouth also helped him find people to interview.
While Michalka has been interested in trains and railways since he was a kid, the idea for the book didn’t come until 1969. Michalka had been working with Ray Russell, late Rochester police sergeant and local historian, on a section of the book “A Lively Town” about railroads and interurbans.
Russell’s dad worked in the DUR car barns at Rochester so he gladly shared his knowledge with Michalka.
“That’s when I got the idea that down the road I’d like to do something to expand on the electric railway. Through the years, it’s certainly been in the back of my mind,” he said. “I was building a base of photographs even in the '60s.”
The book has over 150 photos in it from both public and private collections. Michalka traveled all over the country to collect them, including a trip to Arizona. He originally went there in search of some of his own photos he had loaned the photographer for “The Lively Town.”
In an ironic twist of fate he never did find his own photos. But he did get a number of negatives that were used for the 1969 book.
“I did get the others and then some,” Michalka said. “So that worked out.”
The sheer volume of photos he was able to collect surprised even him.
While getting photos was time-consuming, so was the writing. For the first few years, Michalka was handwriting everything. He then started using a computer, which made things move a little quicker.
“I also went through probably five or six re-writes,” he said. “As things changed, I ended up re-writing it.”
So with all the information he collected, does Michalka have plans on writing any more on the DUR?
“I think this is the last word on that subject,” he said.
Photo: Laurie Tennent