In Michigan, Bluewater says it’s bowing out

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, July 12, 2019

Bluewater Chapter's blue-and-yellow cars were a fixture on Midwestern excursion trains for more than a quarter century. On October 16, 2005, combine Haverstraw Bay was in the consist of a train powered by Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225 at Pinconning, Mich. Jeff Mast
I lived in the Detroit area back in the 1970s when it was still a fairly interesting railroad town. When I left for Milwaukee in 1980 I had some fleeting regrets over things I’d miss — the grand old Michigan Central Station, Grand Trunk Western freights, SEMTA’s commuter trains to Pontiac, and the occasional meeting of the venerable Michigan Railroad Club.

Then I lost track for a while. That is, until I began working at Trains and found myself covering railroad news for my boss, Editor Dave Ingles. Suddenly I began hearing about a new organization near Detroit, a railfan group with some real excitement. It was the Bluewater Michigan Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society, and its members were out to make their mark. They certainly had more mojo than any other railfan group around the Motor City. 

The chapter grew fast, at one point getting to 900 members. The organization ran fan trips and charters across the upper Midwest and became the owners of a sizeable passenger fleet, based for years in leased space in the former Pere Marquette Railway roundhouse in Saginaw. Bluewater cars, mostly in the familiar yellow and blue, could be seen all over the place, running on the chapter’s own trips and leased to other operators. The chapter became a major player in the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance.

All that appears to be coming to an end after an announcement recently that the chapter is folding. I say “appears” because the issue seems to be unresolved as it relates to the national NRHS office. More on that in a moment. 

Bluewater cars trail Tuscola & Saginaw Bay GP35s at Boon, Mich., on a trip in October 1985. Jeff Mast
For now, what I do know is that Bluewater President John C. Moore Jr. issued a press release announcing the group’s demise. In his headline he even evoked the classic “fallen flag” term. “The last train has passed, the station is closed, and the rails are coming up,” he wrote. As if to emphasize it, the chapter’s website was quickly shorn of virtually all its information. 

In his press release, Moore listed a number of problems contributing to the chapter’s demise, vexations familiar to countless groups involved in running excursions. First was the 1994 closure of the Norfolk Southern steam program, which severely dented Bluewater’s ability to run some mainline trips. The organization shifted its emphasis to short lines and regional railroads, but that only got them so far. The short line Lake States Railway later acquired the Saginaw roundhouse and put Bluewater out on the street. And there’s always the unrelenting rise in cost for liability insurance.

So now the chapter is down to a comparative handful of members and two operating cars — a former Seaboard Air Line lounge-observation now called Global Star and former Grand Trunk Western buffet-parlor Silver Lake — and the chapter says they’re up for sale. 

“Unforeseen events began grinding down on Bluewater,” wrote Moore. “The lack of excursions and trips of any consequence caused our membership to dwindle. Without a healthy membership the purpose of Bluewater has ceased to exist.”

A 15-car Bluewater fan trip over the Tuscola & Saginaw Bay is at Howell, Mich., on May 7, 1988. Note the Bluewater sign on the tailgate of the last car. Jeff Mast
The fate of Bluewater might not be completely sealed. I checked with NRHS National President Al Weber for a comment on this, and he explained that the chapter has not disbanded, at least officially. “Bluewater is still a chapter in good standing,” Weber told me. “Yes, there are vocal Bluewater members claiming they have left the NRHS, but as far as I know it has not gone to a vote. Even if they do cut ties with NRHS, we still will have many members in southeast Michigan who are not part of the chapter for one reason or another.”

I hope for NRHS’s sake that something can be salvaged in southeast Michigan, but even if Bluewater is throwing in the towel, they deserve credit for making waves during their relatively short, potent existence. 

Bluewater built up a considerable reputation as a car owner and operator. In a six-page story in the August 1992 issue of Trains called “Keeping the Faith of the Day Coach,” writer Aarne H. Frobom showcased the tireless dedication of the chapter’s crew, detailing the never-ending work volunteers were doing in the Saginaw roundhouse. “As Saginaw crew members are fond of pointing out,” he wrote, “‘There are more seats available in big steam engine cabs than there are in coaches where the lights the toilets work.’”

Actually, when it came to lights and toilets — along with trucks, brake rigging, and everything else — Bluewater had a reputation for reliability. In their heyday, they ran trips all over Michigan: long trips on Tuscola & Saginaw Bay to Frankfort via the old Ann Arbor and to Petoskey on the former Pennsylvania; a series of memorable steam excursions on Lake States on the former New York Central to Grayling, pulled by PM 2-8-4 No. 1225; even some trips on famously hostile CSX.

The surrounding photos here by the estimable Michigan photographer Jeff Mast show just how successful Bluewater was, once upon a time. It was a good ride. I hope the members and volunteers who made the chapter a vital force can take some satisfaction in that. 

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