2005-05-20 / Columnists

Railroads Like Michigan Central Helped Create Time Zones

A Look at History Railroad Travel
By Frank Straus

A Look at History
Railroad Travel

The Mackinaw City Railroad Depot in 1888. The Mackinaw City Railroad Depot in 1888. The tracks of Michigan’s largest railroad, the Michigan Central, came to Mackinaw City in December 1881. Soon afterward, the Michigan Central built a “depot” close to the docks to serve its trains. Travelers could easily transfer from the depot to ferryboats serving Mackinac Island. In the summer of 1882, for the first time, many of Mackinac Island’s visitors were men, women, and children who had come by train. With trunk lines stretching from Detroit to Chicago and Mackinaw City, the Michigan Central was one of the most profitable units of the Vanderbilt family’s New York Central system. During the “gilded age” of railroad travel to Mackinac Island, the New York Central was one of America’s most successful and powerful business firms.

One of the outgrowths of the “Central’s” success and power was a permanent change in the way Americans kept time on Mackinac Island and elsewhere throughout the country. Traditionally, men and women with watches had set their timepieces by the sun. (This is easier than it sounds; if there are clear skies on March 21 or September 21, wait for the sun to rise or set, and then set your watch to exactly 6:00.)

Local “sun time” had worked for centuries in an era when each town could set its own time, but this system obviously did not work well for railroads that were trying to keep schedules along long distances of track. In 1883, a convention of railroad executives, led by the two largest railroads of the time, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania, created what they called the Standard Time system, in which the 48 states and territories were divided up into four newfangled “time zones,” each one hour apart. Starting November 18, 1883, every train running in each time zone ran on a synchronized time within that zone.

The new invention caused a good deal of hostility. An anonymous Michigan citizen is reported to have exploded, “Damn old Vanderbilt’s time. We want God’s time.” However, everyone who wanted to catch a train had to follow the new schedules, and starting in the summer of 1884, Mackinac Island found that the passenger steamboats that came to or left the Island in a manner calculated to meet the trains in Mackinaw City had to keep Standard Time, too. Soon, almost all Americans were setting their lives to railroad time, as their descendants have continued to do to this day, even though by 2005 many of us have never boarded a train in our lives.

That summer of 1884, cottages were rising around Gurdon Hubbard’s semi-circular Annex. Soldiers at Fort Mackinac were practicing their marksmanship on the Rifle Range behind the Fort. The Astor House, Island House, and Mission House were the largest hotels on Mackinac Island. An ambitious journalist, Charles Dow, that summer co-founded a newsletter covering the fledgling stocks of Wall Street. On July 3, 1884, Dow published his first index, listing the top 11 of what he considered America’s leading equities. The New York Central was a pioneer member of this pioneer “Dow Jones average.” The capitalists who bought Dow’s newsletter (which would grow into the daily Wall Street Journal ) had the means, and the desire, to enjoy summer vacations in the cooler parts of the United States.

With these triumphs behind it, and with this potential demand, it was no wonder that the New York Central and its corporate-controlled subsidiary, the Michigan Central, would make a major investment at its northernmost point. Joining with the Grand Rapids & Indiana R.R. and the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company, the Michigan Central put up the venture capital in 1886 to construct Grand Hotel. The hotel was built during the winter of 1886-87 and opened for business in July 1887 as America’s largest summer hotel, a title of which it continues to boast to this day.

As the Michigan Central’s headquarters of Detroit became America’s auto capital, the NYC subsidiary continued to thrive. The Michigan Central’s new Detroit railroad station, built in 1913, was a majestic 18-story skyscraper. From this gargantuan celebration of the golden age of railroading, trains bound to all of the points in the New York Central’s universe came and left. In the 1910s, Detroit’s Ty Cobb was enjoying the peak of his career and major league baseball, with its 16 teams in almost a dozen cities, including Detroit, was in those years almost a New York Central subsidiary, as every team in both leagues, except Washington, D.C.’s Senators, was in a city served by the “Central.” Meanwhile, two trains daily each way, including the much-loved “Timberliner,” traveled from Detroit to Mackinaw City.

As Mackinac Island tourism became increasingly dependent on service from Michigan Central and other railroads (and less oriented toward disembarkations from the once-dominant lake steamboats), lower Michigan businesses located in Michigan Central’s territory also grew. The 1916 merger of five motor car companies, with factories located in Detroit, Flint, Lansing, and Pontiac, could never have happened were it not for the network of Michigan Central and other railroad tracks connecting these four cities to bring in and interchange tires, sheet steel, and auto parts. The name of the merged company was General Motors.

In January 1930, after prolonged negotiations, lawyers for New York Central finally succeeded in getting their Michigan Central subsidiary to sign a 99-year lease in which the smaller railroad ceded all of its remaining identity to the East Coast railroad. The Michigan Central name began to disappear from the Wolverine State. January 1930 was the end of an era in more than one sense, for the downturn in business conditions that took a grip during the winter of 1929-30 would be, for America’s passenger railroads, the opening twinge of a sickness that would put an end to their entire world. The 1930 document provided that the Michigan Central would get back the rights to its corporate name and independence in January, 2029. Long before that date, however, the New York Central would itself be gone.

Cars made by General Motors and other Michigan automakers chipped away at passenger train traffic. After a brief oasis during the years of World War II, train ticket sales went into a nosedive. Services to one city after another became unprofitable. The New York Central eliminated services on branch lines, then began hewing away at what had once been the trunks of its operations. New York Central passenger service to Mackinaw City dwindled to a one-car “Beeliner” operated in 1961-62. Soon it was gone, and in 1991, even the tracks themselves were torn up. The Michigan Central’s time at the Straits had lasted for 110 years. The former Mackinaw City depot, after lying unused for many years, was extensively rebuilt as the centerpiece of a thriving Mackinaw City tourist mall, Mackinaw Crossings.

As modern-day tourists speed northward toward Mackinac Island on the modern Interstate 75, one reminder of the old Michigan Central might catch their eye. North of Gaylord, a freeway exit for a small town in northern Lower Michigan serves as a final relic of a once mighty railroad family. The town of Vanderbilt, Michigan, is named after the once-all-powerful family of railroad CEOs that helped build Mackinac’s Grand Hotel and controlled a significant share of the overall American economy.

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