Business

When Michigan rode the rails

In 1936 a streamlined Grand Trunk steam engine sits alongside a tiny steam locomotive from 100 years earlier.

Michiganians embraced railroads from the first horse-drawn car on the tracks of the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad in 1836 through the train’s turn of the century heyday. It was not until the introduction of the automobile that Michigan’s love affair with the train began to falter.

The first railroad in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for which Charles Carroll, the only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone on July 4, 1828.

 The first steam locomotive arrived in Michigan on the E&K in 1837.

The first steam locomotive arrived in Michigan on the E&K in 1837.

 

 

As early as 1830, articles promoting railroads started to appear in Detroit newspapers. The Michigan Territorial Council granted the first railway Charter of Incorporation to the Pontiac & Detroit Railway Co., which was approved by the governor July 31, 1830. The railroad was not actually begun until some years later.

The migration westward in the country had been greatly aided by the construction through New York state of the Erie Canal, a waterway that connected Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo on Lake Erie. The canal was completed in 1825 and allowed Easterners from New York, New England, and the Atlantic coast to travel by water to the sparsley settled Northwest, for which Michigan was then an important entry point.

The canal launched a land boom in Michigan during the 1830s. Because at that time water provided the easiest mode of travel across long distances, the initial railway was envisioned simply as a link from Lake Erie at the mouth of the Maumee River to the Kalamazoo River and thereby to Lake Michigan. The Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad was approved by the Territorial Council in April of 1833.

 

The Michigan Central Railroad's first depot on the north side of Campus Martius circa 1870.

 

 

The Michigan Central Railroad’s first depot on the north side of Campus Martius circa 1870.

 

 

Construction was started in 1835, but the Northern Ohio-Michigan war intervened. The area at the mouth of the Maumee River, part of a 468 Square Mile strip including present day Toledo, had traditionally been part of the Michigan Territory. Its residents voted in Michigan and were served by Michigan courts. But when Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1805, surveyors included this strip of land within Ohio boundaries. As Michigan prepared to petition for statehood, they decided to get it back. The Michigan Militia under Acting Territorial Governor Stephens Mason (appointed by President Jackson at age 19) invaded the contested area and arrested Ohio surveyors. Finally, after two years, the Congress worked out a compromise and Michigan voters approved the trade of the Toledo strip for the Upper Peninsula.

The Erie & Kalamazoo went ahead and on Nov. 2, 1836, to great fanfare, the first train ran from Port Lawrence (Toledo’s original name) to Adrian. It was the first train west of Schenectady and consisted of one coach, much like a stagecoach, pulled by a team of horses inside the rails. No regular service was maintained that winter. The rails ran through a boggy cottonwood swamp that was underwater much of the year, and the mud made the rails almost impassable. The 40-mile journey could take up to two days one way!

Regular operations began in the spring of 1837 and in July, the E&K announced that they would put into operation the first locomotive west of the Alleghenies. The first was named the “Adrian” and the framework was made of wood. The boiler was seven feet long; the firebox stood upright and the smokestack was the most prominent feature of the wood-burning engine. Sparks from such locomotives had set passengers’ clothes on fire on the Albany & Schenectady line. On rainy days the danger of fire was lessened, but the locomotive skidded on the slippery rails, and passengers eagerly looked for the “horse car” at the junction points so they could proceed with less delay.

 

A Michigan Central train from 1842

 

 

A Michigan Central train from 1842.

 

 

Early rails were of oak, cut from trees along the right of way and flattened on two sides. These were replaced with iron “strap rails,” 5/8 inches thick and 2 1/2 inches wide, laid along the old wooden rails. These frequently loosened, curled up above the rails and alarmingly penetrated the floor of the coach, earning the nickname “snake heads.” The four passenger cars that came to be standard on the line were four-wheel carts with 24-passenger capacity. Twenty freight cars completed the holdings of the line.

By 1838, the journey took three hours; freight and passengers traveled together at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. The trip from Port Lawrence to Adrian cost $1.50 (4.5 cents per mile). Shorter distances were five cents per mile. The Erie & Kalamazoo line ran until its last journey on Nov. 19, 1956, when 31 train buffs, nostalgia seekers and sentimentalists rode the historic line for the last time.

 

A horse-drawn rail car from 1829

 

 

A horse-drawn rail car from 1829.

 

 

After achieving statehood, Michigan thought it should get into the business of building railroads. Run by the Internal Improvements Commission, funded by grants from Congress for federal lands, the state run railroads were a colossal economic failure, due in part to an economic depression that swept the country in the late 30s and hit Michigan in 1839. The Southern Michigan line and the Central route were taken off state hands in 1846 by private investors.

John W. Brooks and James F. Joy bought the Central line with various Boston backers for $2 million and named it the Michigan Central Railroad. Brooks, a young engineer, had been instrumental in the construction of New England railroads. Joy was a Detroiter from New Hampshire by way of Dartmouth and Harvard. His son Henry was to become the president of Packard Motors. Their price was $238,289 less than the cost of construction of the line, which had progressed from Detroit to “Dearbornville”, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Marshall, and reached Kalamazoo in 1846.

 

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The Southern state railroad had begun from Monroe, which hoped to rival Toledo as a port, and reached Adrian and then Hillsdale by 1843. The line was sold for $500,000, $625,000 less than the cost of construction.

The Central and Southern lines then began a race to Chicago, which both reached in 1852. Along the way, there was the Great Railway War.

The railroads were not without difficulties and opponents. Work began on the Detroit and Pontiac Railroad (chartered in 1830) in April 1836. The line was finally extended to Royal Oak in 1838, Birmingham in 1839 and Pontiac on July 4, 1843. People along the line in Detroit, where it ran on what is now Gratiot Avenue, complained of noise, frightened horses and house fires started by sparks from the engine smokestack. When their complaints were ignored, they tore up the tracks along Gratiot. When the owners replaced the track, the residents tore it up again. The owners finally got the message and relocated the track and the depot.

 

 The Thomas Jefferson, a steam locomotive with an upright boiler, from 1835.

 

 

The Thomas Jefferson, a steam locomotive with an upright boiler, from 1835.

 

 

The Michigan Central Railroad was both less accommodating and more persecuted. When the state had owned the railroad, farmers along the route were routinely reimbursed for full cost of any cattle, sheep or horses killed by the trains. As the right of way was not fenced, nor were the neighboring farms, this happened with some frequency. Even questionable claims were paid since the Internal Improvements Commission did not want to antagonize the voters, and of course the money spent was not coming out of their own pockets.

With improved rails and higher speeds, ambling cattle had less time to get out of the way. When Brooks and Joy bought the railroad, they didn’t have to answer to the electors and refused to pay questionable claims, offering only partial payment for proven livestock losses. The farmers along the route began serious retaliation. They derailed locomotives, greased upgrades with tallow (purportedly from railway-slaughtered animals) and threw switches. Tracks were torn up near Ann Arbor, and trains and passengers were shot at. Trainmen were attacked and beaten. The worst of the actions took place east of Jackson, between Grass Lake and Michigan Center.

 

The Detroit & St. Joseph was granted a charter in 1831 and was taken over by the state in 1837, changing it's name to the Michigan Central. This old engraving shows the line in Dearborn

 

 

The Detroit & St. Joseph was granted a charter in 1831 and was taken over by the state in 1837, changing it’s name to the Michigan Central. This old engraving shows the line in Dearborn.

 

 

Abel F. Fitch, a Connecticut native and prosperous Michigan Center landowner, headed the local opposition to the railroad. His brother-in-law ran a tavern in town that was the meeting place for the group. On April 15, 1851, in Detroit, the Michigan Central depot was destroyed by fire. Fitch was arrested with 32 others and charged with arson. Public opinion, fueled by one-sided newspaper reports, ran strongly against the jailed men; the judge set bail so high that none of the accused plotters could afford to get out to prepare for trial or to escape the summer heat and sickness of the detention cells.

The trial began May 14, 1851, and went to the jury Sept. 25. During their internment through the hot summer months, Abel Fitch and another man died of dysentery. Public opinion turned against the railroad. A police informer who had come up with the original accusation was discredited. Eventually 12 were found guilty and the rest exonerated. Those convicted were all pardoned and released by 1855, except for one who died in prison.

The Michigan Central did make it to Chicago on May 21, 1852, three months after the Michigan Southern’s arrival there Feb. 20.

 

Nearly the entire town of Gladwin turned out in February 1887 to welcome the first train from Detroit.

 

 

Nearly the entire town of Gladwin turned out in February 1887 to welcome the first train from Detroit.

 

 

The Detroit and Pontiac Railroad also had joined the rush to Chicago, via Grand Haven on Lake Michigan and became known as the Detroit & Milwaukee. It was aided by the Great Western Railway of Canada, which acquired controlling interest in that line, thus setting it up in competition with the Michigan Central, which used Great Western lines to bring passengers from New York through Canada to Detroit. That line had arrived in Windsor from Niagara in 1854. Great Western initially used a ferry to cross the river from Windsor, but eventually a rail tunnel was built in 1910.

The Michigan Central, run by Joy and Brooks and backed by eastern money, particularly Vanderbilt money, switched to the Vanderbilt-owned Canada Southern for their eastern connection. This gave it a more direct route to Niagara and Buffalo, and to the throngs of people traveling west.

In the 1850s, the Federal government donated millions of acres in land grants to railroad companies, and the states thousands more. A railroad sold the unneeded land along its right of way to investors or settlers and used the money to build the railroad. Michigan got 3,809,826 acres of federal public land for railroads under an 1856 Act, and the state of Michigan granted 1,695,500 more. The more people living along the line, the more riders. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad even sent representatives to Norway and Sweden in 1870 looking for settlers to buy their land.

 

Unlike European trains, early American railroad cars reflected the democratic heritage of the young nation. Prosperous Americans did not mind rubbing elbows with farmhands. First class accommodations did not come into being until establishment of the Pullman Co.

 

 

Unlike European trains, early American railroad cars reflected the democratic heritage of the young nation. Prosperous Americans did not mind rubbing elbows with farmhands. First class accommodations did not come into being until establishment of the Pullman Co.

 

 

In the northern Lower Peninsula, vast tracts of virgin timber were the draw for businessmen who wanted to sell it and workers who wanted to earn a living. The Railroads provided the means of moving the lumber to the cities where it was needed and the passengers from town to town, as well as bringing settlers into the former wilderness. Antrim County quadrupled its population between 1870 and 1880 after the railroad came. In this manner the interior and northern reaches of Michigan were settled. Even the Upper Peninsula was crisscrossed with railroads. The iron ore and the copper mines, as well as lumber, provided the freight; the workers provided the passengers.

There was another group of passengers for northbound trains.

The Michigan Central reached Mackinaw City in 1881. In 1887 the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was completed as a joint project of the Michigan Central and the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroads. William Vanderbilt, who by then had gained control of the Michigan Central, attended the grand opening. A new industry was born, tourism, to take the place of the now dwindling lumber business. All along the northern lakes and rivers, from Charlevoix and Petoskey to Grayling and Gaylord and Vanderbilt (named after the tycoon), to Cheboygan and Mackinaw, the trains brought visitors to resorts and hotels and touted the clean air, beautiful scenery, excellent fishing and freedom from hay fever. Easterners came to see the wild western reaches of the country, and southern Michigan city dwellers came north to see the wilderness.

 

Detroit's second Michigan Central Depot in 1883

 

 

Detroit’s second Michigan Central Depot in 1883.

 

 

Early lumber camps gave way to resort communities, and tents gave way to gracious hotels and cottages. Wequetonsing near Harbor Springs and Bay View near Petoskey were initially Presbyterian and Methodist religious resorts, for families arriving by train from across the Midwest. Gingerbread railroad stations dotted the landscape. The Grand Rapids & Indiana operated the Northland Limited, with sleeper cars originating in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, to join up in Fort Wayne, Ind., for the trip to Traverse City, Petoskey and Mackinaw City. The Michigan Central ran trains through Bay City, Grayling, Gaylord, Vanderbilt, Indian River, Topinabee and Cheboygan to Mackinaw City.

The Pere Marquette line, begun in 1857 as a land grant railroad under the name of the Flint and Pere Marquette, had consolidated close to a hundred smaller lines that had been built to serve the timber industry in Western Michigan. It included the Chicago & West Michigan Railroad, the Detroit, Lansing & Northern and a number of small lines in the Thumb. The line ran sleeper cars that originated in Chicago, Toledo or Detroit, and went north to Traverse City, Charlevoix and Petoskey, via Grand Rapids.

Detroiters who vacationed in the North Country in the 50s may remember the “Timberliner”, a Michigan Central train that left downtown on Friday afternoons in summer, filled with businessmen, and wound its way north to cottages along the Michigan Central route from Grayling to the Inland Lakes north of Indian River, and Cheboygan or Mackinaw. There was a return trip Sunday evening so Dad could be back in the office Monday, while Mom and the kids stayed up north and enjoyed the fresh air for the summer. The Friday evening trips up were often convivially spent in the bar car playing cards and trading fish stories. More than one traveler was decanted into his family’s arms slightly the worse for wear.

 

 Construction of the railroad tunnel under the Detroit River in 1904

 

 

Construction of the railroad tunnel under the Detroit River in 1904.

 

 

Railway lines reached a mileage high of 9,100 miles in Michigan in 1910; but down in Detroit Henry Ford had been at work producing a new mode of transportation. Just as the railroads had replaced steamships as the preferred mode of cross country travel, automobiles were on their way to killing the railroads. The 20s saw a decrease in ridership and a cessation of building new track. The 30s had an upswing in riders, despite or perhaps because of the Depression. The railroads had begun efforts to improve service, and offer more comfortable accommodations. Running time was shortened on popular runs such as Detroit to Chicago, and streamlined trains such as the Mercury, the Twilight Limited or the Wolverine rekindled the romance with riders.

With the advent of war and gas rationing, there was a huge increase in ridership in the 1940s. Stations were jammed with soldiers and with citizens who had no gas for their cars, or no cars at all. But the 50s and the postwar economic boom cemented the public’s love affair with the automobile. When this was coupled with the vast expansion of air travel, the railroad’s fate was sealed.

 

The busy yards behind the Fort Street Union Depot, circa 1931

 

 

The busy yards behind the Fort Street Union Depot, circa 1931.

 

 

The many unique railroads gradually consolidated into a few trunk lines. The Michigan Central, which combined with the Lakeshore & Michigan Southern, merged into the New York Central. The Great Western joined with the Chicago & Grand Trunk and the Detroit & Milwaukee to form the Grand Trunk Western, which bought the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton. The Pere Marquette came under the Chesapeake & Ohio, which merged with the Baltimore & Ohio. The Grand Rapids & Indiana became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Now one by one the lines were disappearing. The Erie & Kalamazoo had its last run in 1956. The Beeliner, the Michigan Central’s daily train to the north country, ended in 1962. It had been carrying fewer than 12 passengers a day. Service to Hillsdale, one of the earliest Michigan towns to get the railroad, lost its service in 1955. The old Pontiac line had become a commuter service into downtown Detroit for the northern suburbs, with stops on Grand Boulevard and Jefferson & Brush. Despite efforts of the Friends of the Grand Trunk, became a SEMTA service, then Amtrak, and was ended in 1983.

 

Footsteps rang hollowly in empty railroad stations built to reflect pastoral charm or urban grandeur. Some were turned into shops or cottages. Some deteriorated into scars on the gritty urban landscape.

Michigan's first railroad was the horse-drawn Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad, which began operations in 1836.

Michigan’s first railroad was the horse-drawn Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad, which began operations in 1836.

 

 

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries.)

By Jenny Nolan/ The Detroit News