A Tiny Park With A Tragic Story

Jun 10, 2016

West Main Park at the corner of Elm and West Main streets in the Stuart neighborhood of Kalamazoo
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

West Main Park is at the corner of West Main and Elm in Kalamazoo—right across from Comensoli’s Italian restaurant. You can walk across it in about 30 seconds.

Arcadia Creek runs through it. There’s a bench, a few picnic tables, and that’s about it. It’s not a quiet spot, but it’s one of the oldest parks in Kalamazoo—founded just a few years after Bronson Park downtown. It's also the oldest city-owned park.

You can see the entire length of West Main Park in this photo. It's what's called a "flat iron" park - because it's shaped like the old ironing tool.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

But when it was created is not the interesting part. It’s why. The park is actually the result of a horrific train accident.

It was May 1889 at about 6:30 in the evening. A train was coming from Kalamazoo’s downtown across West Main Street when, suddenly, it collided with a horse-drawn streetcar at the crossing.

“It was called a disaster, a tragedy and it was probably one of the worst of those kinds of accidents that had happened up to that time in Michigan," said Graydon Meints, a member of the Lexington Group—a national organization of railroad historians. 

Meints worked for the New York Central railroad for 10 years. He says about five or six people died in the crash. The train pushed the street car about a block down the track to Academy Street.

“The car disintegrated as it was being shoved down the track. But there were two women—when it all came to a stop—there were still two women seated in the car that were unhurt,” he said.

Most women on the trolley weren’t so lucky. Sharon Carlson is the director of Western Michigan University’s archives. She says the streetcar would take passengers—often women—to and from the Stuart neighborhood, which was at that time considered the outskirts of town. Men would often stand on the sides of the trolley, while women would ride in the middle.

“There were some men who were on this trolley and they actually could see what was going to happen and they jumped off. And the women though were seated in the middle and that was the part that got the greatest impact. In fact, the driver of the trolley and the horse survived,” she said. 

Carlson says the accident made headlines across the country. The accounts were pretty explicit. One woman was described as unrecognizable after the accident.

“Her husband identified her just by the clothing she was wearing. So it was awful,” she said.

Meints says the wreck spurred locals to make some safety changes.

“The streetcar company put in a rule that every streetcar had to stop when it came to a railroad track before it went across,” he said.

The city also started enforcing its 10 miles per hour speed limit for trains.

But how did all of this lead to the creation of West Main Park? Meints explains:

“There was a house here on the corner of West Main and Elm Street and that was the home of the man who was the gate tender of the crossing gates on the railroad at West Main Street. And after the accident he did leave finally the railroad, sold the land to the City of Kalamazoo as a park.”

Meintz says the gate-tender was held partially responsible for the crash. He was scheduled to work until 7 p.m., but went to dinner at 6 p.m. with the intention of coming back for the last train. 

“But this was a special move by this engine and so he had no advanced notice that it was coming so he was at home. Right here on the corner having supper,” he said. 

After the accident, Meints says the gate keeper packed up his things and moved to Oshtemo where he later became a farmer.

Sharon Carlson says surprisingly, the park hasn’t changed much. It’s always been about the same size—not even an acre wide. Just like the accident that led to its creation, she says West Main Park has brought people together. The Stuart Neighborhood Association often uses the park for National Night Out—an annual event that encourages neighborhood safety.

“An accident today involving five or six casualties and five injuries would be pretty horrible. And at that point Kalamazoo was probably somewhere in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 people. And so when you think about it and think about how much smaller it was, it would have been the type of accident that very few people would have not been touched in some way," says Carlson.

That’s how a tragedy led to the creation of one of the oldest and tiniest parks in Kalamazoo.