Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

November 25, 2012

Book details authors' fascination with trains

LANSING — For novelist-to-be Maritta Wolff, the stone train station at Grass Lake near her grandparents' Jackson County farm represented escape from small-town living.

Twenty years ago, and shortly before her death, Wolff returned to her hometown via Amtrak for the dedication of the restored depot that inspired the title of her first best-seller, "Whistle Stop."

For Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian Bruce Catton, the train that served his Benzie County hometown of Benzonia sparked a restlessness.

It also sparked nostalgia later in life that Catton captured in a best-selling memoir, "Waiting for the Morning Train."

For Robert Frost, the future American poet laureate, arrival in Ann Arbor by train marked his becoming the University of Michigan's first "fellow of the arts."

These three writers were linked by Michigan ties, eventual renown as writers — and trains.

"Ink Trails: Michigan's Famous and Forgotten Authors" (Michigan State University Press, $19.95) by brothers Dave and Jack Dempsey, tells the stories of Wolff, Catton and Frost, as well as 16 other writers who were born or lived in the state.

The others range from the well-remembered, such as Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner and John Voelker, to the once-famous-now-forgotten, such as George Adams, Eugene Ruggles and Carroll Rankin.

Writers and railroads are both part of the state's historic legacy, and both symbolize movement, creativity and yearning for change.

"Michigan's Historic Railroad Stations" (Wayne State University Press, $39.95) describes 31 of the state's architectural marvels — depots dotting the map from Iron Mountain in the western Upper Peninsula to Detroit to Three Oaks to Lansing to Columbiaville to Petoskey and to Lawton.

One of the depots that author Michael Hodges chronicles is Grass Lake's, which helped inspire Wolff's fiction.

Erected by the Michigan Central Railroad in 1887, the building that served passengers until 1956 "bears no resemblance" to the one described in her novel, Hodges cautions.

The Ann Arbor depot where Frost arrived in 1921 welcomed other luminaries as well, including Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, as well as 1960 presidential rivals John Kennedy and Richard Nixon — although not on the same day. It's now a restaurant.

Hodges doesn't mention Catton or his Benzonia railroad dreams, but does include three restored depots that served visitors and residents in resort communities in the Northwest Lower Peninsula.

In Petoskey, the 1892 depot often used by novelist Ernest Hemingway now houses the Little Traverse History Museum. In Charlevoix, the local historical society holds events in the Victorian-style depot facing Lake Charlevoix. And in Suttons Bay, the cobblestone station now hosts a law office.

Hodges writes of the railroad: "Looking back, it's got to be hard for modern travelers to imagine how stunned our ancestors must have been by the novelty of it all. Cities across the country that had been as remote as other planets — unless you could get there by boat — were suddenly and dizzyingly within reach."

In an age when rail travel is marginalized in fast-paced America, Hodges professes a particular love for abandoned stations such as the 1913 Michigan Central Station in downtown Detroit.

The book's introduction opens with an account of meeting a homeless man who lived in the 18-story structure. The squatter, nicknamed Catfish, called it "the big tomb" and "did his level best to protect what was left of the lavish detailing within the station that once was the tallest in the world," Hodges writes.

Jack Dempsey, an Ann Arbor lawyer, tells "Ink Trails" readers, "Place was key to the writer's legacy." His co-author, brother Dave, was Gov. James Blanchard's environmental advisor.

Jack Dempsey writes, "As with too much about Michigan these days, its literary heritage is underappreciated. Marked by diversity in gender and geography, fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry, it is rich indeed."

Of necessity, both books have many omissions.

Hodges photographed 40 to 45 depots while researching his book and says it was tough deciding which ones to include.

For the Dempseys' book, the brothers discussed and discarded other dead authors with Michigan ties, although some could appear in a sequel, Jack Dempsey said.

Why was Hemingway omitted? After all, he frequently rode the train to Petoskey and often wrote about Michigan in his fiction.

"Hasn't that story been told?" Jack Dempsey responded.

Eric Freedman writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.

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