Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Day the World Came to Rochester

Early 20th century view of a track gang at work on the MCRR
Yesterday, August 24, was the 140th anniversary of the day that the world came to Rochester. For it was on that very date in the year 1872 that the first locomotive rolled into town on the newly laid tracks of the Detroit and Bay City Railway.

Before the D. & B.C. (later Michigan Central - or M.C.R.R.) came to town, the village of Rochester was isolated from the outside world. No telephone or telegraph lines existed to link the town to other communities. There was no local newspaper. The mail came by stage or horse and rider. Travel to any outside destination was accomplished on foot or by horse-drawn vehicle over plank roads or dirt wagon traces and was usually a multi-day excursion.  The arrival of the first railroad to serve the village and surrounding township was, therefore, a game-changer. Citizens of Rochester and Avon could now travel easily to major transportation hubs, ship farm products to market, and receive the world's news in a timely fashion.  They were no longer residents of an isolated outpost.

The excitement of the townspeople as the locomotive approached was palpable. We know this because we are fortunate to have preserved in our history an eyewitness account of the event.  The story was related by Olive Hamlin Burbank, a pioneer resident of Avon Township, whose recollections were recorded for us by Fidelia Wooley Gillette, a well-known Universalist minister and prolific writer.  From Fidelia Gillette's pen, we have this account of the watershed day as told by Olive Burbank just days before her death:

On the 24th of August, 1872, there sounded through Olive Burbank's house a strange unknown cry, - the voice of one of her children calling, "Mother, Father, the locomotive will soon be here," and then the aged couple hurried out with their children, and sitting side by side in the pleasant yard, kept watch amid the ringing of bells and the roar of cannon, and the shouts of the rejoicing villagers; for the first train of cars on the Detroit & Bay City railroad, down the hill and beyond the creek, slowly, slowly up the glen, and on the border of what was once to have been  "the great raging canal," slowly along the valley and between the hills came the new engine, drawing after it the construction train; slowly, slowly over the new track, and the yet unballasted road, where once this aged pair had seen only the unbroken forest, with its Indian trail. And now, at the last Olive Burbank knew that the home of her adoption, the little wild-wood village, dear to her heart for fifty years, was linked to the great, surging outside world.

Imagine the wonder of the aged Olive Burbank, who had come to the Rochester area with the earliest settlers and carved a home out of the wilderness, to see that locomotive engine coming through town!

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