For more than 20 years now, my wife has marched her little flock of day
care kids downtown to take rides on the pint-sized train at the former
Clinch Park Zoo. Many of the kids are now grown and have children of
their own. They too are devotees of the Spirit of Traverse City, carrying
on a tradition that fills a childs heart with joy and the air with
laughter and the sound of a chugging choo-choo.
But those sounds will cease forever after Labor Day when the old bugaboo
of budget concerns and other priorities kill off the little engine that
could. As noted in an article in this issue by Pat Sullivan, the park
designers ditched the train as being inconvenient when they re-imagined
Obviously, there were no kids advising the design team, and perhaps no
young parents either.
Happily, theres a plan being considered to move the train over to the
Grand Traverse Commons, which would be a boost for the merchants at the
Building 50 development and in keeping with the old-time ambiance of the
But the train serves as a symbol of the many traditions that are rapidly
disappearing in Northern Michigan, and not necessarily for the good.
As outdoor writer Mike Terrell wrote in our last issue, this will be the
last summer of existence for Brown Bridge Pond, which is shriveling away
due to the removal of a dam on the Boardman River. Similar ponds all down
the river are dwindling away, and although heartbreaking is perhaps a
stretch, the sight of waterfowl habitat being destroyed is at least
sobering and sad. The jewel of Sabin Pond near the Boardman Valley Nature
Center is a thin reflection of its former glory as the nesting grounds of
loons and swans dribble away.
Not all traditions are worthwhile. In the early 60s, for instance, the
Sleeping Bear Dunes served as an anything-goes racetrack for dune buggies;
a howl was raised by adjoining business owners when then-Senator Phil Hart
created the park in 1968, ending the joyrides. Similarly, some
landowners along the Leelanau Trail were furious when a bike path was
established along the bed of an old railway line in the 90s, ruining
their private snowmobile track.
And does anyone miss the tradition of smoking in restaurants or bars?
Smokers, sure, but the rest of us are grateful that people now take their
coffin nails outside.
Sometimes traditions fade away for lack of use or interest. How many
recall the miniature city that used to occupy a corner of the Clinch Park
Zoo? It was a replica of Traverse City from early in the 20th century,
with detailed models of all the old buildings in town. But the Lilliputian
city lost its charm as modern tastes changed and there was little outcry
when it was removed. The same could be said for the old Con Foster Museum,
also located at the former zoo. With too few eyes stopping by to visit,
its dusty exhibits called for a better presentation.
We all have our favorite lost traditions. The Cherry Festivals Heritage
Parade comes to mind: an event that brought out the areas farmers along
with their tractors, buggies and steam engines. It reminded us of the
age-old agricultural heritage that the Cherry Festival was supposed to
represent, but was deemed to be one too many parades a few years back --
another victim of that villain, budget concerns.
Paul Bunyon, whatever happened to that guy? Years ago if you traveled to
Northern Michigan you could find evidence of the 200-foot-tall
lumberjack everywhere, along with his blue ox, Babe. A generation ago,
Paul Bunyon signs, statues and crude wooden carvings were scattered
across the region reminding us that this was once the heart of lumber
Unfortunately, what we think of as traditions are to some extent being
replaced by the private sector, ie., visits to the dairy hut and the mall
carousel are the warm fuzzies that kids raised today will remember once
the last toy train has stopped chugging in a public park.
In an age where a me first libertarian outlook and the selfish
philosophy of Ayn Rand has taken deep root, the community spirit and
enterprise of the past always seems to hold a weak hand. Thus, the Spirit
of Traverse City is deemed an expendable relic in a time when its no
longer conceivable that public funds can be squandered on something as
uplifting as a kids train or a zoo. Swimming pools and bike paths
receive a portion of funding from local government but must rely largely
on fundraisers and contributions for their creation.
Its a new tradition in the making, and not a good one, with the watchword
all too often being privatization.
In the meantime, lets hope the Little Engine that Could gets over its
hill with a boost from those of us who love the sound of childrens