Many Michigan towns find their roots along the railroad tracks that connected people nationwide for nearly a hundred years. And while train traffic isn’t what it once was, the impact of railways can still be observed today by the preservation of depots, rails-to-trails programs, and the resurgence of rail travel.
Originally supported by the logging industry and freight transports, railways also are credited for the establishment of many resort towns in Northern Michigan.
History of railways
By the late 1870s, Northern Michigan had mostly been lumbered out. So the railroads, which were originally built to transport lumber, decided to switch gears. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad (GR&I) rebranded and called themselves “the fishing line.” Instead of transporting only materials, the railway transitioned to moving tourists.
By this time, the GR&I had laid tracks all the way up to Mackinaw. Towns like Oden, Conway and Alanson were able to thrive in an otherwise remote and hard to traverse area because of these routes. As the lumber was depleted throughout the state, several rail companies underwrote the cost of hotels and summer resorts in Northern Michigan in an attempt to keep the railways viable. Many of the hotels were not profitable for the first few years of business.
Settlements like Bay View were also established thanks to the efforts of the GR&I railroad. In November 1875, a Methodist group in Jackson, Michigan, received an offer from the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad to purchase the land neighboring the town of Petoskey for their annual summer camps. After the group met certain conditions, the land was transferred from the rail company to the group. At the peak of the rail era, trains were running through Bay View every 20 minutes; 148 years later, the summer community is still thriving.
The Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Northern Michigan Railway reached Cadillac on Jan. 1, 1887. The railroad, built diagonally across Wexford County, expanding commerce in Boon, Harrietta, Yuma, Mesick and Bagnall, finishing the route in Frankfort on Lake Michigan. The construction of the Ann Arbor Railway was paid for by the communities it passed through.
Michigan families made a living working the railroad
Fran Christensen’s family moved to Six Lakes, Michigan, in 1939. Her father and grandfather both worked for Western Union railroad. Her grandfather was the section foreman for the rails in the Central Michigan area. A railroad foremen examines rules, checks the qualifications on every train, and assists the pilots, student engineers and train dispatchers.
“My grandpa was a section foreman,” Christensen said. “He had a very good job and was doing well, but the interesting thing was he couldn’t read or write. He started working the railroad in the 19-teens, and I did not know growing up that my grandpa couldn’t read or write. But my brother always got to go with him because he’d ‘forget his glasses’ and he’d say ‘Charlie, would you read that for me? I forgot my glasses.’ ”
Still located in the small town of Six Lakes, the train depot once was a bustling station on the Central rail line. Offering passengers travel from Detroit to Grand Rapids, the train made stops frequently in other towns along the route, Six Lakes being one of them.
“I used to love to come up here even though I wasn’t supposed to and watch Mr. Paulson,” Christensen said. Art Paulson - an agent for Western Union - was in charge of the depot.
“I was fascinated by Morse code,” Christensen said. “Mr. Paulson was a nice man and he would just talk to you until your mother called and you had to go home.”
Later, Christensen attended Western Union school thanks to her frequent visits to the train depot. The school in Indiana paid for her education. Upon graduation, they’d help students find a job and housing.
“When I first got out of school I went on as a relief operator. So I moved to Benton Harbor, then I went to Elk Hart, Indiana, then I went to Sturgis, Michigan, then Holland.”
As a relief operator, she answered phones. sent telegrams and waited on customers.
A gateway to interstate travel, in its heyday, depots were at the center of it all. Most trains contained passenger cars, mail cars, cargo cars, dining cars and sleeper cars.
“What I remember the railroad went through here three to four times a day. If you ordered something from the catalog it would get delivered by train to the depot,” Christensen said.
Her mother’s family had free passes for the train because of their grandfather’s job.
“Taking the train was fun, but even as a young person I traveled by train quite often. It was out of the ordinary then back in the 1950s to ride the train; it was nice,” Christensen said. “I went to school in Indiana, then I would take the train to Grand Rapids, and the bus from Grand Rapids to Howard City, and my dad would pick me up from there.”
“When I’d come from Indiana I would be in a sleeper. It was nice because you could walk around and it was a nice way to travel.”
The historic mark the rail system left behind
Many depots still stand today, serving as a reminder of how connected Michigan towns are to each other and their past. The depot in Six Lakes is a museum housing artifacts from the late 1800s through the 20th century. Glenn Kebler calls Six Lakes the center of his life. His family was a part of the effort to establish the depot as a historical museum. Fran Christensen’s dad was first president of the museum. Kebler remembers making trips from farm to the museum to bring his father’s treasures. Old maps, photos, artifacts and centennial books are all there for the public to enjoy and learn about the history of the small town.
In Northern Michigan, the Little Traverse Wheelway runs along the route of the retired rails. The bike path, runs 26 miles from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs in Charlevoix and Emmet Counties. Doubling its users in the past decade, retail and restaurant spending along the route now has been estimated at $4.5 million per year.
Other depots like those located in Petoskey and Battle Creek have been revitalized and repurposed as office buildings or community gathering spaces. At the Oden State Fish Hatchery, adjacent to the visitor center sits a re-created 1914-1935 Wolverine train car. This historic exhibit depicts how employees of the old Michigan Department of Conservation lived on the train while transporting and stocking fish across the state.
Traveling by train today
Today, Michigan’s rail system has approximately 3,600 miles of rail corridors, operated by 29 railroads, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. The system carries about 17 percent of all the state’s freight tonnage and 21 percent of the commodities by value. MDOT provides capital and operating assistance, technical support and safety oversight of Michigan’s passenger rail system. The department also sponsors three separate intercity passenger rail routes that are operated by Amtrak and serves 22 station communities.
In 2022, 623,989 people utilized passenger trains in Michigan. In 1994, 589,142 users rode passenger trains in Michigan, the number has been steadily increasing in recent years.
“Amtrack is a nice way to travel, it’s much more relaxing than going by bus or airplane. I’d like to be able to travel that way, When they took the railroad out, I think people were sorry,” Christensen said.
“With the traffic on the highway, it’d be nice to get away from that,” Glen Kebler added.