In 1831, private investors obtained a charter from the territorial legislature to build a rail line from Detroit to St. Joseph. Presumably, passengers and freight from the east coast would cross New York State on the Erie Canal; sail across Lake Erie from Buffalo to Detroit; then get on a train to cross the Lower Peninsula; and then back on board a boat to cross the southern end of Lake Michigan to Chicago. These investors sought to raise 1.5 million dollars but had great trouble securing investments. Finally, in May, 1836, they were able to begin building west from a point in downtown Detroit near Campus Martius.
Michigan became a state in January, 1837. The first governor, Steven T. Mason, proposed linking Michigan to the nation with one rail line across the southern tier of counties, another Port Huron to Lake Michigan. Governor Mason had the state take over the struggling rail line that was to connect Detroit to St. Joseph. The new state sought to sell five million dollars in bonds to pay for the building of the railroad. This was known as the Central Railroad of Michigan. Unfortunately for Governor Mason and for Michigan, the economic recession known as the Panic of 1837 gripped the nation, making it difficult for states to pay their bills or raise funds for projects such as rail lines and canals.
Despite the shortage of funds, the Central Railroad of Michigan built a minimally adequate line that reached Ypsilanti in February, 1838; Ann Arbor in October, 1839; Dexter in June, 1841; Jackson in December of that year; Battle Creek four years later and Kalamazoo in February, 1846. No funds were available to extend or even maintain the rail line. The state legislature was tired of supporting railroads since that were viewed as not paying off financially. State officials sold the Central Railroad of Michigan to private investors for two million dollars. There was so much opposition to state financing of railroads that Michigan, in 1850, adopted a new constitution that prohibited such investments. The new owners renamed the line the Michigan Central. They secured capital and, by this time, it was becoming clear that railroads were needed for economic growth. Tracks extended to Michigan City Indiana by 1850 and, two years later, Michigan Central had a line that linked Detroit to Chicago.
In the 1850s, railroad entrepreneurs assumed that shippers would bring their products to depots on the main line for transport to distant points. However, that changed quite quickly. In the days of water transportation, almost all of Michigan’s population lived along the Great Lakes shore or on or near navigable rivers. But railroads opened most of the state for settlement. In the 1850s, the extensive swamps of Michigan were drained and new farm lands established along with dozens of villages. The Civil War generated a tremendous need for manufactured products. Aggressive investors and entrepreneurs realized that the white pine forests of Michigan would supply the wood needed for the nation’s emerging industries. But getting to those stands of trees and shipping the manufactured products to markets across the nation demanded rail lines.
A rail building boom occurred in Michigan shortly after the Civil War. Towns—small and large—feared they would be isolated and eventually disappear if they had no railroad to bring in settlers and take their agricultural goods and manufactured products to the rest of the nation. So residents of most cities strongly supported building branch lines that would link their communities to the growing national rail network. Railroads would bring settlers to make small towns bigger ones and would take local agricultural and manufactured goods to markets.
The Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw Railroad constructed a line north from near Jackson. By December, 1865, they reached Leslie, Michigan in Ingham County. The line got to Lansing in 1865 and its northern terminus in Bay City in 1871 when it was leased by the Michigan Central. Presumably, the Michigan Central transported freight from the Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland area to Jackson where it entered the main east-west line that connected New York City with Chicago. Railroad service continues to offer freight service to customers in Leslie. The line from Jackson to Lansing is now the Jackson and Lansing Railroad, a subsidiary of the Adrian and Blissfield Railroad. Every railroad has an alphabetic code known as their reporting mark. This line has one of the most unusual: JAIL.
The depot you see is a rectangular building with the deep eves that characterize railroad stations, eves that protected passengers as their waited for trains. It also has the traditional bay window facing the tracks, a place where the local agent watched for the arrival of trains from Lansing or Jackson. In 1910, six trains each day stopped at this depot and they made round trips from Jackson to Bay City and return. In the 1930s, the depot ceased to be used as a passenger stop.
Mr. Elijah Woodworth was the first settler in this community in 1836. He named it Meekerville using the surname of another early settler. However, another early resident—Jerry Cornell—decided that the name should be Leslie to honor one of his friends who had that name.
Architect: Unknown to me. Presumably the same architect who designed the very similar Mason depot for the Michigan Central Railroad.
Date of construction: About 1902
Use in 2012: Restaurant, The Leslie Depot Diner
Ingham County Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; June 6, 2012
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