Stories Continued From the Front Page

Remembering the Rapid Railway Interurban and its
New Baltimore Electrical Power Station

A recent issue of the Pilot contained an article recalling how the interurban railroad brought my grandparents Adolph and Frances Reiter to New Baltimore, a pleasant little town hugging Lake St. Clair’s Anchor Bay.  Grandpa was employed at the Rapid Railway’s power station that was once located at Green Street and County Line road.  My curiosity about the interurban and its power station led to a Google search for what surely must be obscure information.  After searching for about an hour, I hit pay dirt.  Volume 20, 1902 of “The Street Railway Journal” and an excerpt from a 1904 Smithsonian report “High-Speed Electric Interurban Railways” by George H. Gibson provided considerable detail about the interurban and its power station in New Baltimore, including photos.  Google is amazing!


The Detroit & Port Huron Shore Line Railway, commonly known as the Rapid Railway system, ran north from Detroit through New Baltimore to Port Huron, a distance of 73 miles.  Interestingly, it is noted that “The road [i.e. railroad] is an excellent illustration of the great advances in building electric roads made possible by high-tension power transmission.”  It was among the earliest systems in the country to use this technology.  While a train’s electric propulsion motors required direct current (DC), Rapid Railway transmitted the electrical energy from the New Baltimore power station along the entire length of their interurban track utilizing alternating current (AC), as you have in your home today, but at 16,500 volts and 28 cycles per second.  This was a so-called high-tension transmission system.  Earlier interurban systems’ electrical transmission lines carried energy using DC at the relatively low voltage required by the train’s motors, which is an inefficient method of moving electrical energy over large distances due to associated resistive energy losses in the transmission lines.  Thus, multiple power stations were required along the tracks - - a costly way to go.  A bit of electrical theory tells us why AC was preferable.  Don’t be scared off, this isn’t difficult.  Energy is lost in any transmission line because the metal conductor tends to resists the movement of electrons, such movement being necessary to transmit electrical energy.  This loss can be dramatically reduced by transmitting at high voltage.  Trust me, this is true!  However, train motors required a relatively low voltage.  With AC transmission, one can transform to the required low voltageneededfor the motors.  Transformers function only with AC, not DC.  Thus, the old DC systems could not transmit at the more efficient high voltage, and were constrained to experience the undesirable energy losses.  But wait a minute, the trains required their electrical energy in DC form, and so far we have learned that Rapid Railway transmitted via AC.  Along their tracks were substations with transformers and so-called “rotary converters” where AC was converted to the required DC voltage for the motors.  This, in turn, was carried to the trains with transmission lines along the tracks.  The substations were located at Roseville, Mt. Clemens, New Baltimore, Algonac, St. Clair, and Pt. Huron. 


I had no idea of the New Baltimore power station’s sophistication.  Built by Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Company, its coal-fired steam engines turned electrical generators.  It was said to be “. . . equipped with all the latest improvements in the way of coal and ash handling machinery, mechanical draft, economizers, etc., and contains three 1000 horsepower Westinghouse tandem compound condensing steam engines, all direct-connected to three-phase generators.”  There were four Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers with mechanical stokers.  Steam-driven fans provided induced-draft to the boilers, and flue gasses were passed through Green economizers which heated combustion air and reduced the temperature of stack gasses.  This one power station provided the electrical energy for 110 miles of city and interurban track.  Many more details are provided in the references cited above.  Pretty sophisticated stuff for something already in operation in 1902!


It is noted that “Hourly service is given regularly over the whole line, and cars are operated at shorter intervals between points where traffic is dense.  The schedule time for cars is 27 miles per hour, including stops, and between stations the speed reaches 45 miles per hour.”  And furthermore that “One of the branches of the road closely follows the shore of Lake St. Clair, and the northern part of the road follows the St. Clair River, passing through many fishing, hunting and boating resorts.”  This sounds like northern Michigan! 


Back in the early 1970’s grandpa told me that he “ran the power house” and that he “could start it up today” if it was still there.  The Rapid Railway shut-down in the mid-1920’s when automobiles and busses became popular.  Grandpa lost his job.  Time and technology march on, but I sure wish that I could take a ride on the Rapid Railway Interurban today.


Dr. Gerald Nyquist, a retired biomechanical engineer, resides in Macomb County and is a past president of the Sanilac County Historical society.