Home for Thanksgiving from Farm Lane station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, November 20, 2017

Twin GP9s on the westbound Maple Leaf pass passengers waiting to board at East Lansing on Oct. 11, 1968 — the first day of service at the rudimentary station, which initially was just a sign at the Farm Lane road crossing. Gordon L. Kirkland Jr. photo
Thanksgiving week is for riding passenger trains — time for Amtrak’s annual trial by fire. The holiday conjures images of swollen consists on the Northeast Corridor, standing-room-only coaches, station concourses overrun with humanity.

My favorite Thanksgiving memory takes me to a place more prosaic: a windswept wooden platform at an isolated grade crossing, unremarkable except for the fact that the place was swarming with hundreds of college students.

I was in that crowd, huddled and freezing on a bench on November 25, 1970, awaiting the 2:45 p.m. arrival of Grand Trunk Western’s westbound Maple Leaf at Farm Lane station (officially, East Lansing station) at Michigan State University.

There were three of us that day, heading home to South Bend, Ind., for the brief holiday. In those last months before Amtrak, GTW was still running three passenger trains each way per day across Michigan, including four that stopped at MSU on Fridays and Sundays, two of which were the Toronto–Chicago Maple Leaf (with a connection at Durand for Detroit and its northwest suburbs).

They were fine trains for 1970, more or less indistinguishable from those of GTW’s parent, Canadian National, a railroad that still acted like it cared about passenger trains.

The Maple Leaf was especially exotic, at least for scruffy college kids. It was mostly coaches, but the day we rode it also boasted Diamond Lake, a parlor-buffet manned by friendly, white-jacketed, French-accented waiters who were admirably patient when we flooded their car, ordering club sandwiches.

GP9 4932 heads the westbound Mohawk at South Bend, where GTW shared New York Central's depot, on Apr. 25, 1971 — just 5 days before the advent of Amtrak would kill GTW intercity passenger service. Philip R. Hastings photo
I don’t remember much about the rest of the ride, other than it was fast. In those days, GTW’s trains had a reputation for burning the rails behind full-throated passenger GP9s, rakish with their rooftop-mounted air tanks. The train even made Donald Steffee’s annual speed survey in Trains, averaging a respectable 70 mph for the 44 miles between South Bend and Valparaiso, Ind.

That Wednesday evening, when we arrived in South Bend, my mother was waiting for us inside the city’s Union Station, an impressive New York Central-owned facility whose vaulted ceiling gave it the look of a vest-pocket Grand Central Terminal.

We repeated the trip, in reverse, the following Sunday on a crowded eastbound Mohawk, the evening Chicago–Detroit train. More than the train rides, though, my Thanksgiving memories center on that crude little station on the south edge of the MSU campus. The Maple Leaf was cool, but so was Farm Lane.

The station was the brainchild of Kevin McKinney, an ambitious MSU student who was four years ahead of me and headed for a career in transportation. During the summer of 1967, Kevin had a job at GTW’s Chicago City Ticket Office, working for Bill Berrington, the railroad’s general agent for passenger sales. While Kevin was there, he suggested to Berrington that a station at MSU would generate a lot of business.

The Grand Trunk already had a station nearby in Lansing, a stolid brick affair a mile or so south of the state capitol. Trouble was, students were hard-pressed to use it. As Kevin recalls, “At that time, there was very poor bus service in Lansing, so getting to the station required two bus segments and the buses ran only hourly, if they ran at all. Freshmen and sophomores could not have cars on campus, so the only alternative was to find someone to give you a ride.”

A healthy crowd of passengers and railfans greets the westbound Maple Leaf at Durand on April 25, 1971. Philip R. Hastings photo
Fortunately, as Kevin recalls, Berrington was imbued with Canadian National passion. “He didn’t say yes at the time, as the railroad was swamped with business to Montreal’s Expo ’67, but he obviously gave it some thought.”

The following year, GTW reached out to McKinney and agreed that an East Lansing stop would be a good idea, and asked him to be the agent. “I was to work on commission, a non-union position. I would receive 10 percent of gross revenues.”

Railroad officials eventually visited East Lansing, met with Kevin, and decided that Farm Lane was a good location. The stop was established in October 1968, but only with the weekend service, plus holidays. Four trains would call there: the afternoon Maple Leaf each way, and the new Mohawk. The International, an overnight train, sailed right through.

For McKinney, running the station was rough duty at first. “When the trains were to arrive, I drove to the Farm Lane crossing and sold tickets from my car,” he recalls. “But it soon got cold and it was unpleasant for students to stand on gravel, in the cold, waiting for the train. So I arranged, at my expense, with the local bus system to charter a bus for the afternoon trains to serve as a heated waiting room. I believe the cost was $40 every Friday.”

Fortunately, a GTW bridges-and-buildings crew soon arrived and built the wooden facility, basically a 60-foot-long bus stop with a small 5-foot-square ticket office. It was a start, but still inadequate. Kevin and two student assistants, Mark Campbell and Steve Reeves, put up a plastic cover along the front of the structure and got some portable heaters. “These expenses came out of my pocket, but I was making good money with my 10 percent commission,” Kevin says.

That first Thanksgiving 1968, Kevin’s crew was “swamped” with business, not surprising given how many students wanted to head home, especially to the Detroit suburbs of Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, and Royal Oak. By 1969, Farm Lane was boarding more passengers than any other GTW station other than Dearborn in Chicago.

At Detroit, crewmen of GTW train 169 confer before departure for Durand, where a connection can be made with the Maple Leaf for Chicago. Philip R. Hastings photo
The following Thanksgiving, Kevin was better prepared. His crew boarded more than 100 passengers on the westbound Maple Leaf that day and more than 200 on the eastbound, plus nearly 100 total on the two evening Mohawks. Which is about what I experienced a year later. “Well over 400 passengers in one day,” Kevin recalls. “I went home with a briefcase full of cash and life was good.”

Kevin graduated in June 1970 and turned the operation over to Campbell. McKinney went on to have a fruitful railroad career that included stints at Amtrak, Michigan’s DOT, Metra, and a Michigan short line. Today he works in refrigerated freight-car logistics and marketing. He might be better known for Passenger Train Journal, the magazine he started in his dorm room at MSU. Today, he’s listed on the masthead as the founder and writes a regular column, which I highly recommend. 

And what of Farm Lane? Amtrak elected to drop all service on GTW on May 1, 1971, only to bring part of it back in 1974 as today’s Blue Water to Port Huron. The East Lansing station then moved to a location on busy Harrison Road, a mile west of Farm Lane. In 2009, that lonely grade crossing was replaced by a grandiose grade separation.

For today’s MSU students, riding the train is a far more comfortable proposition, thanks to the new East Lansing station, a steel-and-glass affair built in 2015. Too bad they’ll never know what it was like for us hardy souls who, decades before, waited for the Maple Leaf in the cold at Farm Lane, eager to get home to family and mom’s Thanksgiving dinner.

I’d love to hear about your own holiday train-riding experiences. Happy Thanksgiving!

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