Saturday, January 5, 2013

Vanished Rochester: D.U.R. Car Barns

D.U.R. car barn fire, May 19, 1923
 It may be difficult to visualize now, but a century ago the village of Rochester was a mass trans-portation hub. On the east side of North Main Street, just south of the Paint Creek bridge, the Detroit, Rochester, Romeo and Lake Orion Railway built a powerhouse and car barns in 1899 when the company brought an interurban railway line through town.  The D.R.R. & L.O. was soon absorbed into the Detroit United Railway (D.U.R.) system, the name by which it is more commonly recognized. The Flint Division of the D.U.R.  line drew all of its electric power from the generating plant in Rochester, and rolling stock on the line was repaired in the adjacent car barn facility.

Early in the morning of May 19, 1923, the car barns were destroyed by a fire that the Rochester Clarion described as "the most disastrous and spectacular fire ever witnessed in Rochester." The Clarion's account of the event read in part:
     Fire, of unknown origin, had broken out in the vestibule of one of the six large limited cars which had been run under cover in the barns after their daily runs, and was being fought by the sweeper who was attending his duties in the barns, and for which purpose the power had been shut off -- water and electricity not mixing well together. Not being able to extinguish the blaze which was gaining great headway in the car and spread rapidly on account of the large amount of grease accumulated in the car and barns, it was then too late to turn on the power and run out the cars, which otherwise might have easily been done.
     Our local fire department soon responded and did valiant work in keeping the fire which was already beyond their control in the barns, from igniting the thousands of gallons of oil in the large transformer tanks, kept in a separate room at the rear of the burning building.
     An alarm call was sent the Pontiac fire department and a fire truck and several firemen were soon upon the ground, but only to aid in extinguishing the blaze as the building was then a complete wreck.
     The loss of the building, six cars, tools, etc. is estimated at above $200,000.
D.U.R. car barn fire, May 19, 1923
The company's intention at first was to repair the burned out car barns, as the walls appeared to remain sound. This effort soon proved unworkable and the structure was demolished, relegating it to the pages of Vanished Rochester. A short eight years later, the entire D.U.R. line through Rochester was abandoned as motor vehicles siphoned away the company's business.

The photos shown here were taken by one of the firefighters later in the morning when D.U.R. workers and bystanders moved in to survey the wreckage.  In the photo at the top of this post, notice the curved track which runs from the left side of the frame (beginning at the brick street) into the center of the car barn.  This is part of the track that was uncovered in the summer of 2012 during the Main Street reconstruction project.

To view a map of the Detroit United Railway system as it looked in 1913, click here.


  1. Hello people of Rochester/Avon,
    This might sound strange, but I am searching for a man named Evan Williams, the son of Helen S Williams of Rochester. Through some online searching I discovered that Helen once owned a bookstore called The Book Stall in Rochester and she passed in 2010. The reason for my search is the fact that I stumbled across a book titled "Dandelion and Other Poems" by Bert Penny, a book Helen was involved with at a local thrift store here in Tustin, CA. Inside the cover is a note from Helen to Evan expressing her joy of having a hand in this book and excitement to share it with her son. I'm not sure the circumstances for this book making its way to the thrift store, but I like the thought of returning it to the person it was originally intended for if possible. Any help in this adventure of mine would be greatly appreciated!
    Dustin Hall, Tustin, CA

  2. First of all, a very nice piece on the DUR in Rochester. It provided many jobs for area residents, both as motormen and conductors, as well as maintenance crews in the powerhouse, dispatchers office and car barns. I have only one nit-picky point: Streetcars and Interurban cars are two distinctly different animals. An interurban is designed for high speed inter-city mass transit and connects towns and cities with frequent, often hourly, fast service. Many express runs on the Flint Division of the CUR operated at speeds up to 60MPH. In contrast, a streetcar is designed for low speed electric mass transportation needs in a heavily populated city setting. Thank you.