The first question you might ask is why does a major Michigan city carry the unusual name of Bad Axe. You might think the Chamber of Commerce would insist upon something much more upbeat—a name that might generate warm feelings and enthuiasm. But it is easy to remember. In 1861, Captain Rudolph Papst was in the Thumb surveying a road through the wilderness. He camped at an abandoned or unused hunter’s cabin where he found an old axe. He drew maps as a result of his surveying and identified this point as Bad Axe. The name caught on, and in 1870, a Bad Axe post office was established by the federal government. At least you cannot confuse this city with any other place in the nation.
In 1879, businessmen and investors in Port Huron chartered the Port Huron and Northwest Railroad to build a line that would stretch from Port Huron to Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb. Presumably, they wanted to transport the agricultural products of the Thumb and bring them to Port Huron where they could be shipped across the nation and Canada on the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. However, they faced a shortage of capital so they constructed a narrow gauge line. By December of 1882, the narrow gauge Port Huron and Northwest reached Bad Axe.
A similar endeavor developed in Saginaw. Businessmen and investors there chartered the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron Railroad in 1882 to build into the Thumb so as to bring that area’s products to Saginaw for shipment across the country on the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad. They also faced a shortage of capital so they also constructed a narrow gauge line. It took them until July, 1886 to complete their railroad to Bad Axe. So two three-foot gauge rail lines intersected here in the Thumb.
The Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad—a line that extended from Flint through Saginaw to the Lake Michigan port at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River now called Ludington—purchased the Port Huron and Northwestern in 1889. In the early- to mid-1890s, both the Port Huron and Northwestern and the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron were converted to the 4 foot 8½-inch standard gauge size, allowing them to transfer their freight traffic to the rest of the North American rail network without moving products from a narrow gauge to standard gauge car. The Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad, through merger with and acquisition of other Michigan and Ontario railroads, became the Pere Marquette Railroad in 1899. In 1903, that line purchased the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron, so Bad Axe went from having two railroads to one. In the 1890s, I believe there were two different depots for the two lines. However, the depot you see pictured here was constructed in 1900 or 1901 and by the time it was opened, I think it served both lines. Indeed, they were soon to become part of the same railroad, the Pere Marquette.
This is an attractive and reasonably well-maintained gray stone depot with the type of hipped roof that was then popular with those who designed depots. Railroads often used the same design for many depots along their route. However, I know of no other Michigan depot similar to the one built for the Pere Marquette in Bad Axe. The 1910 schedule shows trains departing Bad Axe at 7:30 AM and 3:12 PM for the 2-1/2-hour journey to Port Huron. From this depot in 1910, you could have boarded a train at 7:35 AM or 3:30 PM for the two and one-half hour trip to Saginaw.
The Pere Marquette Railroad was taken over by the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1926 and merged into that firm in 1947. That line merged with other major southeastern railroads to became the CSX Railroad in 1987. In the 1980s, after deregulation, many larger railroads sought to divest themselves of lightly used branch lines such as those in the Thumb. The former Pere Marquette line from Saginaw to Bad Axe is now operated by the Huron and Eastern, a component of the large rail conglomerate, Genesee and Western. The former Port Huron and Northwest line through Bad Axe was abandoned in March of 1986.
A third railroad served the hub of Bad Axe for 38 years. In 1909, the Grand Trunk Western purchased the Pontiac, Oxford and Northern Railroad that operated a 99-mile line more or less directly north from Pontiac to the Thumb port of Caseville. In 1913, the Grand Trunk built a 18-mile branch from Cass City located on their Pontiac to Caseville line into Bad Axe. Apparently, this line generated little traffic and merited no more than a daily mixed train. Service ended and the line was abandoned in May, 1951. I have seen pictures of the Grand Truck Bad Axe depot but I do not know where it was located.
Bad Axe continues to be the second largest city in the Thumb with a population counted at 3,129 in Census 2010. That is a decrease of 10 percent since the Census 2000 count. Caro, the seat of Tuscola County is the largest place in the Thumb with 4229 residents in 2010.
Date of construction: 1900
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural style: Stone passenger depot with office and a frame freight shed attached
Use in 2013: Hair Gallery Beauty Salon
Tracks at depot: In use in 2013 by the Huron and Eastern Railroad
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; July, 2013
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