Imagine it’s the early 60’s and you’re zipping westbound on I-94 just past the new US-23 interchange just being built when all the sudden a train crossing freeway! Red warning lights, stopped traffic and a freight train trundling across both lanes of traffic! It seems a bit crazy but these rail crossings actually existed 50+ years ago on I-94 and US-23.
Here is the I-94 crossing in 1961 from the DTE Aerial Photo Library at Wayne State University – that definitely looks like an at-grade crossing with the rail crossing a bit off perpendicular from the freeway.
And here is an Aerial from 1966 showing another crossing of that same line on the newly built US-23 from Washtenaw Counties’ GIS server. The crossing looks much clearer at US-23. You can tell it’s an at-grade crossing because we don’t see the characteristic shadow that a bridge would cast like on the Ellsworth Road crossing of US-23.
Rail lines were definitely not features that highway engineers wanted crossing their highways. The potential for traffic disruption is not something to be desired so there had to have been a good reason to allow it all. Especially when a bridge could have been built over the tracks.
A bit of backstory on then on why they exist. The line that you see crossing I-94 and US-23 is the “Ypsilanti Branch” of the Lakeshore & Michigan Southern Railway which ran from Hillsdale to Ypsilanti. I want to write more about that line in a future post but by the late-50’s, the section from Pittsfield Township to Ypsi was well on it’s way to abandonment.
I haven’t found any information on this but there probably weren’t many trains running on the line anymore and MDOT planners either knew the tracks’ days were numbered or were unofficially informed of that by the railroad’s owner. That is what justified the (cheap) at-grade crossing as opposed to a more expensive above grade (bridge) crossing. If the line was going to be pulled out – why not wait for it to happen and spare the expense of a soon to be useless bridge?
Indeed, the line was officially abandoned in 1969 and in the next set of available imagery we have from the county in 1979 the crossing is gone. It looks like you can still see the fresh asphalt on the I-94 crossing (crossings circled).
There are a few other instances of this in the State, where economics and impending abandonment made it make sense to have a railroad crossing across an interstate highway (at least for a few years). The best documented one of these crossings (that I could find) was on I-94 just north of Albion. We actually have a photo of what the crossing looked like. The Washtenaw crossings were probably identical (Courtesy of the Albion Michigan History Blog).
There are no gate arms and (according to some internet message boards) there was a lot signage to alert drivers of the train crossing potential. Apparently, they even put in Green-Yellow-Red style traffic lights to let drivers know of the crossing status (https://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?2,2842843).
So, an interesting infrastructure related historical footnote and one relatively unique to our county. I am glad these crossings no longer exist!
Have a great week!