Tomme Maile lives near the rail yard on Mills Street in Kalamazoo - so close, he says, he can smell the diesel from his house.
The short-line railroad Grand Elk puts trains together there. Maile says he’d always known it as Botsford Yard. But sometime in the last few years he noticed the name had changed to Gearhart.
“I was kind of concerned that rich history would be lost with the name change,” he says, noting that the yard has been around a long time.
Maile wanted to know: how long has there been a rail yard on Mills Street, and why the new name?
At his home in Portage, rail fan Greg Peet watches a model train make its way around the track. It’s an elaborate setup modeled on an Upper Peninsula railroad circa 1960.
Peet’s interested in railroads of all scales. He grew up in Kalamazoo, watching trains out the window as soon as he could crawl to it. Peet says in the 1950s and 60s, all kinds of trains came through town.
“If you’re on summer vacation you don’t want to get up too early, but you could get up and go downtown and see those leave,” he says.
Peet says railroads go way back in Kalamazoo. The first train arrived in 1846, on the Michigan Central Railroad. It was Michigan Central that built an east side yard around 1904, to add to its switching powers downtown. Newspaper articles show it was known as Botsford Yard no later than 1913.
Peet says the name Botsford will probably stick with him.
“I think railroad fans and railroaders in particular, names hang on a very long time, I – I would say Botsford Yard is part of the New York Central, well that was about three different railroads ago.”
In fact it’s at least four railroads ago (Grand Elk, Norfolk Southern, Conrail, Penn Central…)
So, why change the name of the yard on Mills Street? We go there to find out.
Carl Gearhart greets us in the parking lot. He says it’s been a while since his last visit to the the yard that bears his name. Gearhart retired a few years ago after a long career as a track inspector, checking for problems on the lines.
“Broken rails, bad tie conditions, just general overall condition of the rail,” he says.
“There’s real specific measurements and benchmarks and so on and so forth that you have to go by to make sure everything’s proper.”
Gearhart got a job here just out of high school, in 1970. At the time this was Penn Central’s yard but the company was not doing well. Gearhart says things got better when the government put Conrail together out of several struggling railroads.
“Conrail took off like crazy, got the business back. Just done a really good job,” he says.
Eventually Norfolk Southern bought the yard. Grand Elk began to operate it in 2009, near the end of Gearhart’s career.
“About six months after I retired they called me up and told me well, we’re have a safety gathering next Friday, come on up. And that’s when they, I seen the sign and they sprung it on me,” Gearhart says.
Asked how he felt about having the yard named after him, he adds, “It’s a tremendous honor because that doesn’t happen like that. This was Botsford Yard for probably 100 years, since they built the railroad.”
Tomme Maile, who asked our question, says meeting Gearhart has changed his perspective.
“When I submitted that question I never dreamed that I’d meet the namesake and get a tour and learn all of this stuff so, very interesting,” he says.
Both Maile and rail fan Greg Peet remember hanging out at the yard when they were young. That’s not really done anymore. But Peet says you can get a good view of the trains in Gearhart Yard from the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail east of Mayors Riverfront Park. Peet says it’s best to go before the trees leaf out.
“I used to take my grandchildren there and we could – I’d say you know, to learn the colors we’d say, there’s a red box car, there’s a blue box car, and whatever. She saw one once with graffiti all over it and said, that one’s polka-dot.”