Business | Life

Riding the first rails brought excitement, danger


“It is hard to make railroading pleasant in any country. Stage-coaching is infinitely more delightful.”

— Mark Twain

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

The desire for a railway began very early in Detroit, considering it was a frontier town on the western extremes. The first railroad chartered in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, started in Baltimore in 1827, then the third largest city in the United States. Detroit had fewer than 2,000 people at that time and yet the dream of a railroad in Michigan was strong in the early decades of the 19th century. On December 17, 1829, the Detroit Gazette wrote prophetically:

“Ten years hence, or before, the citizens of Detroit will be able to reach the Atlantic in twenty-four hours. In twenty years … the navigation of our broad and beautiful lakes will be of no manner of use to us, because land transportation will be so much cheaper. It will be a comfortable thing to get into not a coach or a steamboat – but a snug house built over a steam engine, and, after journeying smoothly and safely at the rate of thirty or forty miles per hour, find yourself at breakfast next morning in New York or Washington.”

Michigan was driving hard to become a U.S. state and people in the territory knew that railroads would have a strong appeal to immigrants and investors, or “capitalists” as they were called at the time, much more so than simple dirt road improvements.

The need was pressing: Settlers from New York and New England were pouring into the state. The following 1836 letter is from a former resident of Utica, N.Y. who had recently moved to Detroit:

“There have been several railroad meetings here and elsewhere on subject of the Detroit St. Joseph Railroad [later to become the Michigan Central], and it is determined to prosecute that work without delay… another railway is contemplated from Monroe to the River Raisin …

“The country is rapidly, very rapidly filling up with inhabitants… one cannot avoid a little enthusiasm in finding himself a citizen of such a thriving and attractive country… It is a source of satisfaction and pride to be thus a witness to the building up of a community, a people, a state…” -from the Utica (N.Y.) Observer, Feb. 10, 1836.

Seas of mud


Perhaps the most urgent desire for rail travel stemmed from the fact that roads out of Detroit and many areas along the waterway from Toledo to Port Huron were described as “seas of mud” in nearly every direction, especially in the spring when rivers overflowed their banks. Many times stagecoaches became so mired in sticky mud, the passengers got out of the stage and walked with the horses back to Detroit, the stagecoach abandoned, half sunk in the mud. Some of the roads, especially the Old Chicago Road [Michigan Avenue], were considered critical military roads linking Detroit with Chicago. Newspapers in Detroit declared it a national concern that there were not better roads across the territory.

In 1836 the national debt was paid and a surplus had accumulated in the treasury. President Jackson approved a bill in Congress to distribute the surplus among the states starting January 1, 1837. In anticipation of this money, states adopted extravagant plans for railroads and canals.

By the time Michigan achieved statehood in 1837, the Detroit Free Press reported that 24 companies were chartered to produce 1,011 miles of railroad. The Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad would build the first railroad west of the Alleghenies, initiated by the pioneers of Adrian, Mich. The roads from Adrian to Toledo, Ohio and Lake Erie were so deep in mud and water during the wet season that they were impassible even with oxen. If a better method of transporting goods to the lake could be found, the investors saw great advantages.

After three years the tracks ran nearly 33 miles from Toledo to Adrian. The ultimate goal was to connect Lake Erie to the Kalamazoo River and eventually Lake Michigan.

Cars on the railroad were called “pleasure cars.” They were very top heavy and ornamented, making one author describe them as “traveling chapels.” The trip from Toledo to Adrian cost 12 shillings, and 50 pounds of baggage could be brought along for free. It was slow and at times facetiously referred to as the “E&K Flyer”.

Old Pete and the Pontiac Railroad

Although it had problems getting started, the first chartered railroad in Michigan and the Northwest Territory was the Pontiac Railroad, which ran from Detroit through Royal Oak and Birmingham, then on to Pontiac. It was started by entrepreneur Sherman Stevens, who later wrote about the experience.

Sherman began by buying timbered land in Royal Oak, and then building a saw mill to produce railroad ties. Once the saw mill was operating he hired a crew to clear the roadway toward Detroit. He laid large logs, partially squared, on the cleared road bed, and then on these logs placed ties having a “gain cut” [a notch] at each end to receive the oak rails, called “sleepers”. When the rail was set inside the gains, a wooden wedge was driven alongside the rail, which fastened it solidly in place.

Two teams of 20 men, one headed by John W. Hunter, the first settler in what was called the Village of Birmingham, dug trenches along both sides to keep rain water away from the roadbed, then used that dirt to build up the space between the rails. The train was initially pulled by a horse and that was where the horse walked. The black horse, named Old Pete, did it all.

When making rails, the oak timber was pulled through the mill by Old Pete, and he drew the first passenger car of investors over the road at a crucial time when Stevens needed more capital. For years he did the switching at Pontiac. As Stevens described: “Old Pete (the black horse) exhibited an intelligence rarely seen in an animal of any kind… he would not start [pulling the train cars] until he had first looked back to see the number he was expected to draw, and if more than a given number were in the train he would not pull a pound, but as soon as the extra cars were detached he would pull with all his strength.”

Locomotives appeared soon after; the first on the Erie and Kalamazoo was in August of 1837. The engines came from Baldwin and Company in Philadelphia.

The weight of the train caused the oak rails to “broom” or spread, so they laid thin straps of iron over the top, hammering them down with large spikes. For years the old strap iron would bedevil the railroads as the iron ends would draw up, pulling off the oak “sleepers” (rails) to create what were called “snake heads.” At times these snake heads ripped through the floor of a train.

In one instance a snakehead hit a train car heater, causing a fire. Railroads had full-time teams of “track-walkers” who carried sacks of spikes and sledges and patrolled the rails from dawn to dusk to re-spike the snake heads to the oak rails.


The view from the tracks of the Michigan Central Roundhouse in 1860.

The view from the tracks of the Michigan Central Roundhouse in 1860. (Detroit News archives)

Passenger hazards

Travel on these early railcars was an adventure. A plain pine board was considered a soft enough seat for railroad cars; cushions were provided reluctantly.

For many years cars were heated in winter with a single wood-burning stove placed on one side of the car in the middle. In 1898 it was described in Pall Mall Magazine by Angus Sinclair as “pleasant to hear the wood crackling and snapping but the pleasure was not shared by other senses. You would speculate why a spit was not provided for the passengers nearest the stove so they could be cooked evenly all round…”

There were also horrifying ordeals on American railways from train derailments causing fires. When a train derailed, red hot stoves and flaming logs flew across the car, burning the train and passengers. Later, the stoves were replaced by much safer steam heat produced by the locomotive.

Some early train cars were open air. Pall Mall’s Angus Sinclair described the early experience of riding in an open car:

“… As soon as the train started, the sparks made themselves felt. Umbrellas were raised, and garments were tucked close, and necks closed with heads. But the sparks got there. They went into pockets and set the clothes on fire; they dropped into ears that could not be closed, and into closed eyes…. Presently fires broke out in nearly every car, and the occupants were kept busy threshing out the flames on each other’s clothes. The people on the route thought a cargo of lunatics had taken possession of the train. Before anyone had got fatally roasted, a water-tank was reached, and a stream of water was played upon the suffering passengers.”

Sparks from locomotives set the entire countryside on fire during the dry summer months, in some cases burning down barns.

The cars in general were relatively safe at first because the frames of the cars were strong; however, when it was decided to increase the size of the car wheels, it raised the frames above the coupling mechanisms, a dire consequence that led to some severe accidents. When train cars were struck from the car behind, the impact was received below the car’s frame, causing it to jerk upward above the frame and sending it crashing through the body of the next car.

It was called ominously “telescoping” and the carnage was unthinkable, especially as the speed of trains increased with improved iron “T” rails. According to Sinclair, this would go on for 30 years until a change in the coupler solved the problem.

Passenger cars on the Detroit-St. Joseph line that reached Ypsilanti in 1838 were described as “an omnibus placed at right angles to the track and moving sideways on four wheels.” The speed was equivalent of “spirited horses.” Cars were built without springs and it was only when the engineers complained that the hard bouncing of the train was damaging the track that springs were considered.

Because of loose coupling chains, the travel was called “exceedingly jerky” but the reporter quickly added, “but with all that it was a much pleasanter way than the old Detroit and St. Joseph dirt road.”



Early rapid transit

In October of 1839 the Michigan Central Railroad held a huge celebration to honor completing the tracks from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Eight hundred people rode in four long trains to celebrate the event. At nine o’clock they left Detroit. A reporter for the Detroit Advertiser rode with the dignitaries.

“The progress of the train was rapid,” he wrote. “We flew as if ‘we were on the wings of the wind.’ … On we flew through the beautiful valley of the Huron. Upon arrival of the cars in Ann Arbor they were met by a vast concourse of citizens … who met them with loud and enthusiastic cheers.”

Then following speeches, several hundred people were escorted to a common square for an open air dinner with plenty of drink, resulting in no fewer than 13 toasts, including toasts to: “This day—long delayed, long to be remembered!”, “the State of Michigan”, “The Central Railroad”, “The University of Michigan — genius aided by science, the true source of all practical good,” and lastly, “To Women! Cupid’s Locomotive!”

By the mid-1800s, the railroad industry was huge, and getting bigger. The Michigan Central Railroad built a state-of the art complex on the Detroit River that was described in a Feb. 9, 1850 article in the Illustrated London News:

“This extensive range of buildings presents a specimen of the vast scale upon which railway depots are constructed in the United States,” the paper said. “The site of the structures once formed part of the bed of the river Detroit, which has been filled in at a vast expense, and the depot founded upon piles. It is one of the largest works of its class in the States, having a waterfront of nearly 1900 feet, and a wharf 40 feet wide.

“The depot itself is 100 feet wide and 800 feet in length. Two storehouses have lately been added, together with a circular engine-house, 150 feet in diameter. Vessels lying at the wharf can directly load and unload from the warehouses.”

The dome of engine roundhouse became the biggest landmark in downtown Detroit.

By this time, the railroad had pushed west across the state. Two trains daily departed Detroit for New Buffalo on Lake Michigan, traveling about 250 miles in 24 hours.


Sleeping like a baby from Detroit to Chicago


The first trains did not run at night but with longer rides and the addition of lanterns they soon did, and the notion of sleeping on a train was born. The earliest sleepers appeared in the 1830s and were slow to catch on; perhaps the “excessive jerking” made sleeping not likely. However, in 1850 a car was built to accommodate a sleeping train staff, and very soon thereafter it was converted to a passenger sleeping car.

The early sleeping cars were not much more than cushioned shelves, three high; stuffy, cramped, with sheets described as “greasy.” Curtains covered berths from ceiling to floor to provide the illusion of privacy.

Later sleeping coaches were luxurious and were given names like “La Somnnambula”, “Buckingham Palace,” “Montcalm” and “Kennybunk.” They accommodated between 40 and 60 people. By the Civil War sleeping cars had washrooms and saloons at the end of the cars. They were heated by a single register and lit with adamantine candles that were considered safer than kerosene lanterns.

This one described by the Detroit Free Press in 1875 ran on the Michigan Central Railroad. It was made by the Wagner company, a competitor to Pullman:

“… The sleeping cars are finished in German black walnut panels and inlaid scrolls, monograms, and crests of hand mosaic woodwork. The seat arms, window fastenings, racks, hinges, window frames, doorknobs, in fact all iron work are heavily plated with nickel, while the ornamentation by the fresco artist are of modern style excellently put on … The berths are fitted with spring and hair mattresses, fine linen and rich coverlets.”

One of the most opulent sleeping cars was made by the Mann Boudoir Car Company, whose “boudoir cars” ran from Detroit to Chicago in the 1880s. In these cars people slept in separate compartments with their head to the center aisle and feet to the window. Along with exotic wood panels from Africa, beveled edge mirrors on side walls, and a pressed leather ceiling, the cars carried a 100-book library, a ladies toilet room described as “particularly elegant” and a gentlemen’s toilet nearly as fine. Both had hot and cold running water.

At the end of the cars were smoking rooms and a buffet. The buffet was served by the porter at tables with hand-painted china, silver and crystal, offering a light menu of Vienna coffee, poached eggs and sandwiches. A berth on La Somnnabula cost two dollars, which was quite expensive in those days.


Pere Marquette parlor car No. 30, circa 1900-1910.

Pere Marquette parlor car No. 30, circa 1900-1910. The Pere Marquette Railway operated in the Great Lakes states and Ontario. (Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection)

Dinner in 15 minutes

The dining experience on trains up until the Civil War seemed to have encouraged the American trait of wolfing down food. The Michigan Central provided “eating houses” along its lines, many times owned and operated by outside contractors such as Hurty and Maxwell, which owned seven eating houses located at stations in Detroit, Jackson, Marshall, Grayling, Mackinaw City, Bay City and St. Thomas, Ontario.

One of the first reports of U.S. railroad travel in 1839 was described by Frederick Marryat, an author and friend of Charles Dickens. In his book Diary in America he described what it was like to stop the train and let passengers eat.

“The cars stop, all the doors are thrown open and out rush all, the passengers like boys out of school, crowd round the tables to solace themselves with pies, patties, cakes, hard-boiled eggs, hams, custards and a variety of railroad luxuries too numerous to mention. The bell rings for departure, in they hurry with their hands and mouths full…”

Trains advertised half an hour breaks for meals, but if the train was running late the conductor had the power to cut the break back to 15 or even 10 minutes. A standard joke at that time was:

“How long will the train stop here for dinner?” a passenger asks a porter.

“Well, that depends on how hungry the conductor is.”

Michigan Central eating houses were loved for their chicken pies, but all too often train passengers “hurriedly gulped down codfish balls and corn bread,” as reported in the Detroit Free Press in April of 1876. An expert on passenger rail travel, John H. White, described in his book The American Passenger Car the depot dining experience from accounts of the times:

“… Most depot eating houses seemed to fall below any conceivable standard of decency and were vigorously denounced in the nineteenth century press. One account insists that they were the most infamous of all the ‘pernicious institutions’ in America. It described piles of moldering dishes and crumpled napkins amid swarming flies and an atmosphere ripe with the smell of yesterday’s breakfast. It portrayed the help as unkempt, rude, and slow; the coffee as a black, gritty fluid; the fruit as knotty and decayed. It said that everything was dusted with coal soot, and that the prices would cause Delmonico’s to blush … ”

But not all experiences were horrible. During the Civil War, A.V. Pantlind, a famous hotel keeper, took charge of the Michigan Central Railroad eating houses at Marshall, Niles and Jackson. These eating houses, under the efficient management of Pantlind, became very popular.


Dinner on the train

The decades after the Civil War witnessed a massive expansion of Michigan’s railroad network: in 1865 the state possessed roughly 1,000 miles of track; by 1890 it had 9,000 miles. The travel time for freight travel from Detroit to New York fell from two weeks in 1830 to just over 24 hours in 1857.

During the first two decades of the 20th century additional track was laid by the electric “interurban” companies. Interurbans were often extensions of existing streetcar lines running between urban areas or from urban to rural areas. Thereafter, the automotive and airline industries broke the railroad monopoly.

George M. Pullman gained world wide attention with his “palace sleeping cars” and his “palace hotel cars” which included sleeping and light dining. So, the next logical step was the full dining car, introduced in 1868. Pullman designed it and called it the “Delmonico” after the famous New York restaurant.

It was introduced to railroad executives and the press and was an immediate sensation, as the Free Press reported: “The object is to do away with railway eating houses by substituting a passenger coach therefore devoted to restaurant purposes alone. … The “Delmonico” is divided into two parts with the kitchen in the center. The kitchen is neat and compact with an icebox underneath, a special range, a steam boiler communicating by pipes to a carving table, and a pump for ice water.”

The kitchen was just 30 inches wide and manned by four cooks who did not just warm up pre-cooked food, but in a swaying, jostling train cruising at 55 miles per hour, using one coal burning stove, they broiled steaks, baked pies, roasted potatoes, fried eggs, made sauces, cooked bacon and served up to 400 passengers at tables with tablecloths, napkins and silverware — a truly amazing feat.

Here was the standard bill of fare for the Pullman dining car in 1868.

Soup — Tomato, vegetable

Fish — Broiled Mackinac Trout with Egg sauce

Roast — turkey, cranberry sauce, spring lamb mint sauce, roast loin of beef

Boiled – turkey oyster sauce, tongue, corned beef, ham

Entrees — oyster patties, apple fritters, wine sauce; chicken salad palace car style; teal duck game sauce

Game — mallard duck, teal duck

Vegetables — boiled potatoes, green corn, oyster plant, cabbage, turnips, mashed potatoes, onions

Relishes — Worcestershire sauce, radishes, mixed pickles, lettuce, tomato catsup, tomatoes, horse radish, chow-chow

Pastry — Delmonico pudding, tapioca pudding, sponge cake, pound cake, strawberry pies, apple pies

Fruit — raisins, almonds, filberts, oranges, apples, figs

Tea and coffee


The down side of train dining

Dining cars were intended for first class travelers; a meal on a dining car cost the equivalent of the same at a first-class restaurant in New York: 75 cents. The crew was usually large and expensive: seven to 16 men depending on the status of the train. The very best trains such as the Broadway Limited in New York were manned by no less than a steward, an assistant steward, a chef, three cooks and 10 waiters.

The dining car was heated, ventilated, had dining room fixtures and lighting, tablecloths, napkins, plates and silverware. It was the heaviest car on the train, weighing 80 tons, and cost $20,000 to build and furnish — the same price of an entire train station hotel with eating house.

While a great favorite with the public, the dining car was viewed by the railroads as a costly liability; it rarely made a profit and generally incurred hefty losses.

Michigan Central was the first railroad in Michigan to install a dining car, in 1875. It was not a Pullman but was designed and built by Assistant Superintendent Robert Miller of the Michigan Central for $17,000. The railroad company had three dining cars, and they offered roughly the same lavish meal as the “Delmonico” but a la carte.

However, having a burning coal stove on a moving train carried some risks. The Wentworth, one of Michigan Central’s proud new dining cars, caught fire a month after it was put into service.

“The call for supper had just been sounded… when the car began to fill with smoke and flames from the forward end. The cooks and waiters rushed from the range and pantry in the front end with the startling announcement that the car was on fire. There was no waiting for ceremony and everyone rushed for the sleeping cars in the rear…. The train was stopped and the burning car, by this time completely on fire inside, was cut out and left blazing on the track where it burned down to the trucks.” – Detroit Free Press, Nov. 14, 1884.


The Union Depot,

The Union Depot, located on Fort Street at Third, opened for business in 1893. Built in the trendy Romanesque Revival style of the day, the dark red sandstone building featured a tower with four huge clocks. (1951 photo, Detroit News archives)

Pulling into Detroit


In 1875 the Michigan Central Railroad had 4,800 employees and its general offices were in Detroit. The company owned 108 locomotives of 30 tons or greater weight, 107 passenger cars, 40 baggage and express cars, 2,924 box cars and 1,541 other freight cars. The railroad carried 862,416 passengers in 1875 as well as 1.7 million tons of freight.

The Michigan Central’s first train station in Detroit was at Griswold and Michigan Avenue, before it opened its riverfront complex in 1848, which operated until the 1880s. Detroit had several other train stations over the years. The Grand Trunk Railroad took passengers to Canada or other stops in the Great Lakes region from its station at Brush and Atwater streets. The busy Fort Street Union Depot – union depots accepted trains from multiple railroad companies – opened in 1893 at Fort and Third streets. The Union Depot’s Romanesque Revival architecture and red sandstone exterior made it a memorial to the golden age of railroading. Its tower with four huge clocks was a landmark in Detroit for many years. It finally closed in 1971 and was demolished in 1974.

A few blocks down Third Street from the Union Depot was Michigan Central’s “new” station at Third Street and West Jefferson, opened in 1884. The elegant brick-and-stone building with a soaring cupola was the pride of Detroit; numerous turrets made it look like a medieval castle. Sadly, it burned to the ground on the day after Christmas in 1913.

The floor of the central waiting room, which was 125 feet long, must have been beautiful. As a Detroit Free Press reporter described it just before the depot opened, in March of 1884: “The floor is inlaid with large squares with borders of black walnut, marble, black ash, and cherry and centers of quarter sawn oak.” It had stained glass, black ash wainscoting and a huge Queen Anne style fireplace.

Eventually though, the thriving railroad needed more room, and before the building even burned, its successor was built – the iconic and impressive Michigan Central Station at Roosevelt Park, which still stands, empty and vandalized, today. In a matter of days after the fire on Third Street, the new $15 million station was opened for business.

The Beaux-Arts Classical style building was designed by the Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem firms, which also designed New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. It is 16 stories high and had 500 offices. Street cars and interurbans dropped off passengers at the east end of the building, while taxis and private autos took the west end. At the beginning of World War I, the peak of rail travel in the United States, more than 200 trains left the station each day and lines would stretch from the boarding gates to the main entrance. In the 1940s, more than four thousand passengers a day used the station and more than three thousand worked in its offices.

One stepped off the train onto the glass covered platform, through a gate, and then up an incline to enter the main waiting room, which was breathtaking: 230 feet long by 95 feet wide, with an arched ceiling 76 feet high, roughly five stories. An article from the Detroit Free Press on December 31, 1913 described the interior:

“…At the entrance are bronze finished and mahogany trimmed doors, and the waiting room itself is of cream colored brick finished in marble, with the arch decorated to harmonize. There are fourteen marble pillars set against the walls… there are four square pillars that give a sense of grandeur … in addition there are 10 columns of dark marble… In the main room there are 24 hardwood and mahogany finished benches for the convenience of the passengers. The lighting scheme is such that the main room is brilliant at all times. Windows of unusual height serve on the bright days, and they are supplemented by 16 bright clusters set in bronze and resembling a pear in shape, hanging from the high arched ceiling.”

Off the waiting room was a smoking room for men, a reading room for women, a taxi gallery, a full service restaurant, baggage room, rest rooms, flower shop, manicurist, café, lunch counter, cigar stand, tea room, lounge, drugstore, first aid station, and a newsstand purported to be the biggest in the country. The innovative electrically lighted bulletin board replaced the time honored “caller” who as the Free Press said, “spoke a language of his own.”

As the article concluded: “Every thing moves as smoothly as possible and one of the greatest needs of one of the greatest cities has been realized.”