2005-05-13 / Columnists

Michigan Central RR Carried Passengers From Detroit to Straits

A Look at History Railroads Come to Mackinac
By Frank Straus

Michigan Central RR Carried Passengers From Detroit to Straits
A Look at History
Railroads Come to Mackinac

By Frank Straus

During the "golden age" of American railroads, three lines served the Straits of Mackinac. From the Upper Peninsula, the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic (DSS & A) tracks served St. Ignace. On the southern end of the Straits, two separate railroads, the Grand Rapids & Indiana (GR & I) and the Michigan Central (MC), both ran trains from southern Michigan to Mackinaw City. The Michigan Central, in its prime, was the state's largest and most profitable railroad line. Big as it was, however, by the time this railroad got to Mackinaw City it had already fallen under the control of an even bigger railroad, the Vanderbilt family's mighty New York Central System.

   Loading  passenger trains on the Chief Wawatam in Mackinaw City. Loading passenger trains on the Chief Wawatam in Mackinaw City. The Michigan Central had originally been chartered by the young state of Michigan's legislature to cross the southern peninsula from Detroit to Lake Michigan, helping develop frontier agricultural land along the way. The huge role played by railroads in the Civil War convinced the winning Northern government to establish a strategic alliance with the railroad industry and with Wall Street. During the 50-year period that followed the Civil War, known as the "Gilded Age," Washington policies were unswervingly oriented toward maximizing railroad development and profits. These were very good policies for the New York City-based Vanderbilt family.

Patriarch Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, originally an operator of little chugging steamboats on the Hudson River, had gone into railroads when he saw the small but ominous tracks of an "iron horse" paralleling the river. The aggressive "commodore" swiftly knitted together a series of short lines paralleling the Hudson River and Erie Canal to create a single railroad that stretched from New York City to Buffalo. By the 1850s, Mackinac Island was already tied to the New York Central through sailboats and packet freighters plying the Buffalo-Chicago route.

During the periods of boom and bust that followed the Civil War, the New York Central acquired control of the Michigan Central. With the Detroit-based railroad came an underutilized asset of major dimensions: the federal government had passed a law granting the Wolverine State's road the rights to a broad swathe of federal land, stretching from Saginaw to Mackinaw City. All that Michigan Central had to do to acquire title to this immense parcel of land was to build a railroad along its entire length.

New York Central lawyers decided to allow the Michigan Central to remain a nominally independent corporation so they could take advantage of this generous land deal. From the 1870s on, however, the Michigan Central was a wholly-controlled subsidiary of the New York Central, and was part of the larger system in all but name.

With New York capital behind it, the Michigan Central had no trouble financing the construction of a roadbed through what would be some of Michigan's richest pinelands. The new roadbed slashed from Bay City northward through the interior of the Lower Peninsula, reaching Lake Huron just southeast of the Straits of Mackinac at Cheboygan. The construction workers then laid track within earshot of the pounding lake surf up from Cheboygan towards the fledgling Mackinaw City. During the final weeks of construction, a race developed between two railroads to reach the Straits of Mackinac first. The Michigan Central won, pounding the final spike on December 18, 1881. Twenty-four hours later, the Upper Peninsula's railroad opened service to St. Ignace.

Two months before their line reached Mackinaw City, lawyers for the Michigan Central had signed an agreement with the GR & I and the St. Ignace railroad to form a joint venture to ferry railroad cars back and forth across the Straits of Mackinac. This joint venture eventually gave birth to the long-remembered railroad car ferry, Chief Wawatam.

The Michigan Central's immediate priority was to work with Michigan lumberjacks who swarmed northward to cut down the white pines and other old-growth timber that grew parallel to the tracks. The sandy but fungi-rich soil was superb ground for thick-trunked evergreens. The almost-10,000-acre Hartwick Pines State Park, a few miles away from the former Michigan Central tracks near Grayling, contains at its heart a tiny plot of 85 acres of uncut white and red pines. The tallest red pine in the United States, 143 feet high, and the tallest white pine in Michigan, 157 feet high, both stand tall within this remnant of old growth. No one knows what giants fell to the lumberman's axe during the "glory days" of Lower Peninsula logging in the 1880s.

Its profits swollen with timber profits, the Michigan Central sought ways to stimulate passenger traffic on its main north-south line. Its corporate parent, the New York Central, had earned profits by encouraging vacationing Easterners to visit a natural wonder located close to its main line, New York's Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the Michigan Central's joint venture with the GR & I to run car ferries across the Straits of Mackinac had also proved successful. In 1886-87, the two railroads joined hands with a third firm, the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company, to build a "destination resort" on Mackinac Island that would encourage long-distance travel on the New York Central system through Michigan. This new landmark, partly built with Vanderbilt and New York Central money, was the Grand Hotel.

From 1887 onward, Americans living in the New York Central's "territory" - which included everything north and east of St. Louis, Missouri - could step aboard one of the famed railroad's trains, ride north to Detroit, and change there for through service to Cheboygan or Mackinaw City. Once at the Straits of Mackinac, a selection of steamboats were waiting to carry the summer visitor the last few miles to Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel.

After the turn of the last century, the New York Central and its subsidiary lines established long-distance train lines that developed a legendary reputation for rolling luxury, such as the New York-to-Chicago "Twentieth Century Limited." However, train service to seasonal locations such as the Straits of Mackinac faded and failed.

(Postcard courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann)

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