Terry Bloom is in his shop, grinding a tiny piece of metal for the steam locomotive behind him. He wants to make sure the Little River Railroad is in perfect condition for visitors this year.
“We cater mostly to families, but we get people from as far away as Australia and other countries,” Bloom says. Why? Train fans want to see the No. 110 steam engine, which Bloom bought in Appalachia in the 1970s for a few thousand dollars. The gigantic 1911 locomotive is the only one of its kind in the world.
“What you’re looking at is a piece of machinery built six months before the Titanic sank,” he says.
Since 2005, the nonprofit Little River Railroad has made Coldwater its base for one- and two-hour sightseeing and party trips. Passengers ride historic railroad cars as the locomotive chugs down the tracks, its steam whistle trilling. Trips depart from the Coldwater train station.
If the clickety-clack attraction wonderfully captures the feeling of the “olden days,” it’s the same feeling that Coldwater itself strives for every day.
The Michigan town near the Indiana state line was founded in 1833. Named Huck-saw-ya-bish (“cold running water”) by the Potawatomi people, it has been a stop along the old US-12 Chicago Road for more than a century. With two chains of lakes, Victorian mansions, the iconic Capri Drive-In movie theater, antiquing and an opera house, Coldwater is a classic summer destination.
It also features some unusual attractions. The Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary in Athens has more than 120 of the reptiles. The Hidden Ponds Horse Rescue has a fascinating story to tell, and offers trail rides. You can watch planes take off and land from the Prop Blast Café at Branch County Memorial Airport. Back in town, you can have coffee in an old mansion.
Still, Coldwater is mostly known for its alluring waterways. Thanks to ancient glaciers, Coldwater has two chains of lakes—the 17-mile long south chain, and the 12-mile-long north chain. That made it a popular Native American spot, and later a huge vacation spot for boaters, fishermen and families. It still is.
“We get a lot of out-of-staters from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio,” says Debra Yee of the Coldwater Country Conference and Visitors Bureau. “We dubbed ourselves as, let us be your Up North. You don’t have to go up to Mackinac, you can get your Up North right here. We want to be a little Mayberry.”
The lakes are connected to one another by canals dug back in the days of industrial cement works. Boaters can easily transit from one lake to another.
In the summers, Coldwater blossoms with families who stay along its lakeshores. Vacationers fish for bluegill and perch. People stay in rented cottages or at campgrounds. They visit town for root beer, drive-in movies and shopping. They drive go-karts and play mini-golf and golf at beautiful old rolling courses.
Popular events in the Coldwater area during the spring and summer include Civil War Days, a Polish festival and a magic festival. Another unique attraction is Blue Hat Coffee. Stop by, and you may find chief operating officer Phillip Jewell roasting coffee in a small building behind the 1840s era Fisk House mansion that he inherited from his mother.He and his wife, Catherine, spent six years renovating the house before opening it as a coffee shop in 2014. They peeled off two layers of carpet and linoleum and found beautiful wood floors underneath. The tables are black walnut and maple made from wood harvested from their property. They began roasting their own coffee and wholesaling it a couple years ago, and have recently expanded their food offerings to “more baking, more biscotti, apple pie, pulled pork, puff pastry, croissants,” he says.
The old mansion is on the Chicago Road (US-12) next to The Home Depot, an RV park and across from Walmart, but it brings a level of sophistication to Coldwater.
The city is diverse. It has a large Muslim and Hispanic population, many of them immigrants drawn by jobs. Its industries include an aluminum factory, pork processing plant, prison and pallet factory.
Coldwater may seem like a small town, but it’s not far off the beaten path. It is just 15 miles north of the Indiana Toll Road (I-80) and 40 miles south of Battle Creek, roughly halfway between Detroit and Chicago.
It’s on the way to everywhere, and not far from anywhere. A sort of Up North without being up north.
PLAN A LAID-BACK GETAWAY
Amish Country Stops: In neighboring Quincy, a tidy white bake shop at 1003 Herricksville Rd. sells pies, bread, candy, cookies, noodles and more that are modestly priced. Also try Amy’s Basketry at 911 Clarendon Rd. (No websites or phones).
Blue Hat Coffee: Coffee roasting, breakfast, lunch and an art gallery. bluehatcoffee.com
Capri Drive-In Theater: Famed 1964 two- screen drive-in has HD projectors and is loads of retro fun. capridrive-in.com
Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary: In nearby Athens, visit the home to nearly 120 alligators and other reptiles that were mostly former pets and needed a permanent home. alligatorsanctuary.com
Hidden Ponds Horse Rescue: Jeff Friend takes care of abused and neglected horses on 78 acres of wooded countryside just west of downtown Coldwater; usually about 20 rescue horses are in residence. Trail rides are offered. Visit by appointment only. 517-278-2360.
Little River Railroad: Train rides aboard historic railroad cars and steam locomotives; many special holiday weekend packages offered. littleriverrailroad.com
Narrows Boat Rental: Kayaks and pontoon boats for rent. narrowscampground.com
Short’s Old Fashioned Root Beer Drive-In: Homemade root beer and traditional dogs, hamburgers and shakes. facebook.com/shortsrootbeerstand
Tibbits Opera House: Live stage plays, concerts and classic films in a 500-seat theater that dates to 1882. tibbits.org
Visitor Info: coldwatercountry.com, 800-968-9333
Photo by Coldwater Country
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.