Michigan Transit Museum rides still on track after nearly 40 years

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published September 20, 2012

 Inside the museum are model train displays and a wealth of information about the history of the railroad, including historical data on mass transportation systems and equipment.

Inside the museum are model train displays and a wealth of information about the history of the railroad, including historical data on mass transportation systems and equipment.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

MOUNT CLEMENS/CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Nestled inside Joy Park in Clinton Township is something many people are still unaware of, even after close to 40 years in operation.

Warren residents Jeff and Erin Zarro only recently learned about the Sunday-only train rides offered by the nonprofit Michigan Transit Museum Inc. Coincidentally, Jeff Zarro is an admitted “train buff.”

“I’ve ridden Amtrak, the VIA Rail from Windsor to Toronto, I’m into the HO scale model trains, but I never knew about these train rides,” he said. “I was surprised.”

He and his wife — as well as his parents, John and Joan, who all enjoyed a Sept. 16 ride — learned a bit about the history of not only Mount Clemens and Clinton Township during their sojourn, but also about the two passenger cars, the caboose and the engine that make up the historic amalgam.

“It’s just great,” said John Zarro, of Troy. “What a great thing to offer people. It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”

The train leaves the boarding area behind the covered picnic area inside Joy Park, located off of Joy Boulevard, just east of Gratiot, at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. every Sunday. The train moves at a relaxing 10 mph east, then reverses and heads west to just past southbound Gratiot before it arrives back at the park 30 minutes later.

During the trip, longtime chief conductor John Jamison provides a history lesson that includes information about the museum, located at the old depot off Cass Avenue in Mount Clemens. That depot celebrated its 150 anniversary in 2009.

“The depot was built (in 1859) for the Chicago, Detroit and Canada Grand Trunk Junction Railway at a time when the area was really starting to grow,” said Jamison. “The surviving tracks were built in the late 1890s to service the Franklin Sugar Beet Mill along the Clinton River, across from where the Gibraltar Trade Center is today.”

At the same depot in 1862, a young Thomas Edison saved the station agent’s child, who was standing on the tracks, from being struck by a rolling box car. In appreciation, the station agent taught Edison telegraphy, which launched his short career in railroading. Historians say that some of Edison’s earliest inventions were based on what he learned at the station.

The depot continued in railroad use until 1980 when the City of Mount Clemens bought it and leased it to the Michigan Transit Museum for use as its headquarters and museum. The depot is now restored to its 1900 appearance, and inside are exhibits surrounding railroading of that era, as well as a gift shop.

Train rides have been offered to the community at various locations around the area since 1973 and have been at Joy Park for the past 10 years.

Assistant conductor John Siemieniak has been involved with the Michigan Transit Museum since 1980 and has taken an untold number of trips over the years.

He said passengers frequently ask questions about the cars, about some of the sights seen along the way and about the museum’s history.

“The most common question is, ‘How old is the train?’” he said.

The equipment is continuously undergoing restorations, upgrades and historical renovations, and Jamison said riders will normally see the former U.S. Air Force Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton RS4TC #4040 diesel switcher, which was built in 1951 and re-built by the military in 1992, operating with a Southshore #11, 84-passenger-capacity car, which was built around 1927. When one project takes equipment out of service, members replace it with another historic piece of equipment.

Members and volunteers who work and operate the trains are open to answer any questions about the museum, which is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, and the train, and they offer tours of the engine and caboose.

Jamison said they used to give rides onto Selfridge, but that ended for security reasons in 2008. Back then, the train rides were 45-minutes long.

The train rides will continue each Sunday through the end of October. The cost is $3 for children 4-12 and $5 for all others, however children under 4 ride for free.

The Michigan Transit Museum train is decked out for the holidays in December when the Clinton Township Parks and Recreation Department hosts their annual Polar Express train ride with Santa. Jamison said the event is a huge draw for families with children, who all get to enjoy hot chocolate and Christmas carols.

The Zarro family plans to return next summer for another ride.

“I thought it was really cool,” said Erin Zarro. “I really enjoyed the history.”

Joan Zarro felt the same way.

“I just loved all the information and the history,” she said. “That ride made me wish I could just go hop on a train and travel the country.”

“It’s the only way to see the country,” John added.

To become a member of the Michigan Transit Museum, Inc. or to volunteer, go to www.michigantransitmuseum.org or call (586) 463-1863.