Riding the Rails

St. Joseph County in southwestern Michigan has a very long history and a couple fairly interesting abandoned places to check out, such as the Old Cowling Road Bridge, and c.1870s Parkville Christian Community Church, which unfortunately was torn down in recent years.

The county was organized in 1829, several years before Michigan even became a state. It lies in the southernmost tier of counties (bordering Indiana), which were the first ones to be formed from the Michigan Territory. The Old Sauk Trail, or Old Chicago Road (US-12) crosses it, an ancient Indian trail that became a military road, and finally a highway.

I cruised over the Correll Road / County Route 145 bridge just northwest of Colon on the way to my first destination, and saw these ruined bridge footings in the St. Joseph River not far from the old Washtenaw Trail (another old Indian trail, whose path state highway M-60 basically follows in the present day).

I pulled over to investigate a little closer, and my feeling was that this had once been a railroad crossing over the river.

Thanks to a map of historic railroads in St. Joseph County on michiganrailroads.com, I was able to see that a branch of the Michigan Central Railroad from Battle Creek to Goshen, Indiana once passed through this area, though I am not quite 100% sure that explains these particular footings.

According to David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas, St. Joseph County was named after the St. Joseph River, which was in turn named for the patron saint of New France (Canada). The river was originally called the Miami River however, after the local Miami tribe, but it was renamed by the French missionaries who were based out of Fort St. Joseph, near Niles, during the fur trading days in the 1600s and 1700s. The first permanent settlers didn't begin putting down roots in this area until 1825 when the Erie Canal was opened. Today, the population of St. Joseph County is still fairly sparse, at about 62,000 people.

Once I reached Colon, the "Magic Capitol of the World," I stopped downtown for breakfast.

In 1832 Colon was also the site of Fort Hogan, a palisaded earthwork fort built by local militia during the Black Hawk War. I had come here to check out an old mill south of town, but had no luck there, so I kept going. In case you're wondering, Colon got its name from the shape of the nearby lake, which supposedly looks like a colon.

I then headed toward the city of Three Rivers to check on a mill there. For some reason I thought that all the covered bridges left in Michigan were up around the Grand Rapids / Ionia area...well I was wrong--there's the Langley Covered Bridge, which I crossed near the St. Joseph County seat of Centreville:

The bridge was constructed in 1887 by nearby Parkville builder Pierce Bodmer and named for the Langley family, pioneers who helped establish the Village of Centreville. It's the longest remaining covered bridge in the State of Michigan, and yes it is made out of wood (which is why covered bridges are covered in the first place).

Almost immediately after crossing the bridge my road came to a three-way intersection, with a large traffic island in the middle of it...except the traffic island was a cemetery:

The sign says that the Culbertson family owned all the land in this area back in the 1830s to 1860s, and this was their family burying grounds. It is still used to this day by three families, and it was featured on Ripley's Believe It or Not as "the cemetery in the middle of the road."

After traveling down some more gorgeous oak-lined country roads I eventually I arrived at my target, this old brick plant:

It was rather small and oddly shaped...and there was nowhere discrete for me to park without making my intentions obvious to all in this teeny town. I therefore drove about a half mile away, planning to hike back on foot along a former railroad grade that passed adjacent to the plant.

This village was settled in 1835, which is about when the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad came through the area, but as you can see this section of track was abandoned and the rails were removed many years ago.

I spoke more of the history of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad in older posts about the towns of Osseo, and Adrian.

This old viaduct still looked very much sturdy, being old riveted American steel couched upon solid stone blocks.

I also noticed another small culvert at a stream crossing that was equally well-wrought of the same quarried stone blocks:

Finally reaching the plant itself, I took notice of the cornerstone:

The inscription reads, "Sheffield Mfg. Co., Established 1889, George S. Sheffield and Adelbert C. Himebaugh, Incorporated 1899, Building Erected 1902."

As it would turn out, this company name was not so obscure as I thought, and researching its history proved to be fairly easy. According to one railroading website, Sheffield Manufacturing Co. was originated around 1877 by an ex-farmer from Nottawa named George S. Sheffield. At some point farming must not have been doing it for Mr. Sheffield anymore, and he picked up a job in Three Rivers at a pump manufacturing plant.

Sheffield's daily commute to work involved walking along the Michigan Central Railroad tracks for seven miles between his farmhouse and his factory job. During one of these exceedingly long walks, his knowledge of pump mechanics must have led him to conceive of the idea of building a three-wheeled railroad hand-powered car (called a velocipede).

The velocipede was somewhat like a bicycle inasmuch as the driver used his hands and feet to push and pull the pedals for propulsion, but there was a third wheel for balance, and it was light enough to be pulled off of the tracks to make way for trains.

Mr. Sheffield built the contraption, but since he had no clearance to operate such a device on the railroad, he had to test his invention covertly at night. On one of his test runs he discovered a severely damaged rail; knowing that it would cause a disaster for sure, he waited until the next train came along and used a lantern to flag it to a safe stop. For his benevolent act the railroad thanked Sheffield, then requested that he build them a velocipede for their own use, by which they could conduct routine track inspections.

He patented the design in 1879, and opened the George S. Sheffield & Company to manufacture them. In 1882 he incorporated as the Sheffield Velocipede Car Company, and by 1883 was expanding his product line to include other railroad maintenance vehicles to his company's repertoire, including the classic "up & down" two-man handcar that has been made famous by so many slapstick cartoons.

It's not clear who invented the first railroad handcar or when, but it was an invention that appeared on a small scale in the 1860s, and came into widespread patent manufacturing in the 1880s; it had proven itself by then as an absolutely indispensable piece of equipment for railroad maintenance and construction.

Sheffield, along with the Kalamazoo Velocipede Co. and the Buda Foundry & Mfg. Co. (of Chicago) were the three main builders of handcars and velocipedes, and Sheffield was sort of the industry that put Three Rivers on the map. The website railroadhandcar.com has several historic images of the Sheffield factory.

In 1888, the industrial giant Fairbanks, Morse & Co. bought half interest in Sheffield Velocipede Car Co at which time F-M became general sales agency for all of their products, though the Sheffield name was still used for them. Three years later, George Sheffield withdrew from (or was forced out of?) the company, and it was reorganized as the Sheffield Car Company in 1892, with Charles H. Morse as president.

Mr. Sheffield then partnered with a banker named Adelbert C. Himebaugh, and in 1898 they incorporated as the Sheffield Manufacturing Co., with Himebaugh as president and Sheffield as vice-president, building this factory in 1902.

Sheffield himself designed and built most of the machinery in the new plant according to midcontinent.org, but it seemed as if he was going back to his farming roots; their product line included a patented hand corn planter, hand potato planters, garden cultivators, and steel hand sleds. The corn planter is illustrated under the brand "American Standard" in a postcard image I found on Ebay.

By 1905 the Sheffield Car Co. had begun building gasoline- and battery-powered streetcars for interurban railways and passenger coaches for steam rail. Another historic postcard image of this plant from about that time shows a sign advertising their popular corn planter.

By 1910 the Sheffield Car Co. produced “light motor cars (up to the size of a street car) and...dump cars, mining cars, marine engines, stand pipes, electrical machinery, and an endless variety of drills and track tools” according to midcontinent.org. Supposedly they continued operating until at least 1925.

Since I was starting in the basement, I tried to make my way up to the first floor, and passed this dissected boiler:

After passing through a couple halfhearted barriers that someone(?) erected to stop people from getting to the main floor, I slowly peeked up from the basement steps in a sudden moment of caution and realization that this place might not actually be abandoned...

Afraid to step out into the room for fear of setting off a motion detector, I slowly scanned my surroundings to see that there was a lot of junk in here, as if this might actually be an active business, or someone's storage area.

After a few moments of remaining completely still to listen for movement or the hum of electricity, and looking for blinking lights or tiny surveillance camera lenses, I worked up the courage to creep around the place.

It would appear that this had very recently (or might still currently) have been an antique flea market...

Now suddenly on a tight schedule, I quickly made my way up to the second floor where there would be a lesser chance of being seen, or of tripping security devices. A view of the rear of the plant out a second story window:

There wasn't much up here but more junk.

This must have been the storage for antiques that weren't ready for sale yet.

There was some interesting writing on this wall, obviously put there a long time ago:

For sorting different types of lumber into organized stacks?

Still worried that I may have tripped a silent alarm, I made my way back out as quickly and discretely as possible, hastily re-securing my entrance.

I guess that's the catch of this strange hobby of mine: occasionally having to face the rather uncomfortable fact that when it comes down to it I am nothing more than a common burglar in moral terms, slinking around in places I shouldn't be, and hoping that I don't cause anyone any undue harm. But in the eyes of police these days, intent is nine tenths of the law....

Michigan County Atlas, Second Ed., David M. Brown, p. 158
Michigan Shadow Towns, A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, by Gene Scott, p. 141

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