Thomas Edison Depot Museum
by the Blue Water Bridges

Port Huron, MI

June 20, 2001

The last town we stayed in before we crossed into Canada was a small town called Port Huron, Michigan. One of the museums that they had in Port Huron was the Thomas Edison Depot Museum. The depot was chosen as a site for a museum dedicated to Thomas Edison because he had worked for the railroad as a boy. It seems that he was hired to sell candy and newspapers to train passengers but was also allowed to conduct some of his first scientific experiments aboard the train.
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. In 1854, the family moved to Port Huron where Edison's father, Samuel, ran a farm, dealt in grain and feed, and was active in the lumber business. Al, as the 7-year-old was called, went to school for the first time, at a private academy in Port Huron. It was not a pleasant time. It seems that Al's teacher described the boy as "addled" apparently because he never quit asking questions. Al's mother, however, thought this was rubbish. She withdrew Al from school after just three months. It was the end of Al's formal education. His mother, a former teacher, educated him at home. At age 11, the boy became fascinated by physics and chemistry. He obtained a copy of Parker's "School Philosophy," an elementary book on chemistry and tried every experiment in it. The cellar of his home, located near present-day Pine Grove Park, became his laboratory. He eventually accumulated 200 bottles of chemicals, carefully labeled "Poison" to keep anyone from disturbing them. By 1859, the
Grand Trunk Railroad reached Port Huron and the 12-year-old boy decided to seek a job as a news butcher on the railroad. He thought it would give him pocket money for experiments and books. He also realized that he would have spare time for studying at the Detroit Public Library. The train from Port Huron reached Detroit at 10:30 a.m. and did not begin its return trip until late afternoon. Edison had an unusual notion about libraries. He did not select books by their titles or subject matter. Instead, he chose them by their location on the shelves. He would methodically read every book on a shelf, then move to the next shelf. Nor did he idle away time spent on the train. The boy took over a portion of a baggage car for his chemical laboratory. In Port Huron, he opened two stores - one selling newspapers and magazines, the other selling vegetables, butter and berries that he bought from area farmers. He put other boys in charge of these stores. Port Huron in the mid 19th Century was second only to New York City as a U.S. port of immigration, and the enterprising Edison also took advantage of this. He employed another boy to sell bread, tobacco and candy on the train that carried Norwegian immigrants from Port Huron to the farmland of Iowa and Minnesota. In 1861, the Civil War began and there was a great demand for newspapers. Edison went into the publishing business. He bought a second-hand printing press. His newspaper, the Weekly Herald, was printed in his baggage car/laboratory. It sold for 3 cents and eventually had a circulation of 400 copies. In August 1862, at the Mount Clements station, Edison rescued the small son of the station agent from being run over by a loaded boxcar. Edison himself was nearly killed. The grateful agent, J.J. Mackenzie, offered to teach Edison railroad telegraphy. The lad eagerly accepted and hired another boy to take care of his work on the Mount Clements-Detroit portion of the railroad. Soon after, however, the train was running over a rough section of track when a sudden lurch knocked a bottle of phosphorus from a shelf in Edison's baggage car laboratory. A fire broke out. Edison was trying to extinguish the fire when the conductor arrived and tossed the boy - along with his laboratory and printing press, off the train at Smiths Creek. Edison's railroad days were over. And his days in Port Huron were nearly concluded. He did return home for a few months, changing the name of his newspaper to Paul Pry and filling it with Port Huron's gossip. But his calling was machines and not publishing. In 1863, at the age of 16, Edison left Port Huron and embarked on his remarkable career. He would invent the phonograph at age 30, the electric light at age 32, and the motion picture at age 44. His glorious career never slowed. In 1930, a year before his death, he patented a process of extracting rubber from goldenrod. He had left the world a legacy of light and sound.
Port Huron's Depot Museum does an excellent job of highlighting Edison's early life as well as his later life and achievements. They present his life through a number of different mediums that make your visit there very entertaining as well as educational. If you ever get to Port Huron a stop at this museum is certainly worthwhile.

Good Luck! Have Fun! and Stay Safe!