At first glance, Mackinac City appears to be an unusual location for a major railroad junction since it is surrounded by water. However, the location occupies an honored spot in Michigan’s railroad and transportation history.
By the 1840s, knowledge of the mineral riches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula became widespread. The federal government invested in the nation’s infrastructure by building those canals at Sault Sainte Marie that linked Lakes Superior and Huron in 1855. It was then possible to ship iron ore and other aggregates from Upper Peninsula ports to the Great Lakes harbors that would soon serve the booming steel and iron industry. The original railroads in the Upper Peninsula were short ones that linked mines to ports. With the post-Civil War economic expansion, attempts were made to link the short lines, fill in the missing pieces and create a great railroad that would span the entire Upper Peninsula.
There were two major railroads in the Upper Peninsula. One was the Soo Line, or more formerly, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Sainte Marie Railroad. This line had the distinction of using the names of its original end points in its title, although its nickname employed the phonetic spelling for its destination. Throughout its existence, it was a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific. The Detroit entrepreneur, Tom Newberry, was responsible for building the rail line from Marquette to Saint Ignace and one of the larger towns on that line carries his name. The other major Upper Peninsula railroad became known at the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic. Before the end of the Nineteenth Century, the two lines were financially joined, although they operated separately. The Soo Line was the stronger line and, in essence, financially controlled the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic for much of its existence. Proponents of building both lines in the Upper Peninsula recognized that Midwestern grain going to Europe would take a shortcut if it crossed the Upper Peninsula, entered Canada at Sault Sainte Marie and then went to St. Lawrence ports such as Montreal. Hence the “and Atlantic” in the name of the Duluth South Shore.
There were several reasons for building a rail line across the Upper Peninsula into Saint Ignace. Little serious consideration was given to shipping massive amounts of iron ore by rail. Boats dominated and still dominate that endeavor. However, Detroit was a major copper-processing center while the Upper Peninsula was, in the 1890s, the nation’s leading source of copper ore. Railroad promoters assumed that refined copper in ingots could be shipped by rail from the Calumet area copper mines to Detroit. There was another reason. Wholesalers in Chicago found it easy to market their goods in the Upper Peninsula since several rail lines from Chicago crossed Wisconsin and then briefly poked their lines in the few population centers of the Upper Peninsula. Presumably, Detroit and Michigan wholesalers felt they were cut off from marketing to a major section of their state, a section that was becoming increasingly prosperous thanks to copper and iron veins. By 1881, the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic completed a line from the largest metropolis of the Upper Peninsula, Marquette, to St. Ignace.
Antoine Cadillac, in the 1690s, realized that the growing season was short in northern Michigan and encouraged his Parisian superiors to allow him to develop Detroit, rather than St. Ignace, as a major trading center. However, those who promoted railroads in the Upper Peninsula twenty decades subsequently believed that productive farms would eventually fill rail cars with shipments.
On the southern side of the Straits of Mackinac, two railroads were slowly extending their rails toward Mackinac City. A line that became known as the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad had, for forty or more years, been building short lines and joining existing lines in an effort to create a railroad that would extend well into Indiana in the south and have the Straits of Mackinac as its northern terminus. Eventually, the line built to Cincinnati, and in 1882, its rails reached their goal of Mackinac City. For much of its existence, this line and its predecessors were affiliated with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and just before the federal government took over the railroads in World War I, the Pennsylvania Railroad completely purchased the line.
The Michigan Central Railroad prospered after the Civil War because its Chicago to Detroit line was a key link in moving passengers and freight from the Midwest to the East Coast. It was also financially affiliated with the Commodore Vanderbilt’s New York Central, giving it access to capital to expand. In the years after the Civil War, the Michigan Central built several major branches such as the one linking Jackson to Grand Rapids and another from Jackson to Bay City. However, the owners knew of the great stands of white pine forest in central Michigan and wished to secure revenue from shipping that timber, so they constructed a line that more of less directly went north from Detroit to Bay City and then on to Grayling, Gaylord, and in 1881, into Mackinac City.
By 1881, the Straits of Mackinac were the destination point of three lines but there was the great challenge of crossing the water. So far as I know, no one ever proposed a railroad bridge or tunnel to connect Michigan's two great peninsulas. The distance between the rail heads was almost eight miles. When the railroads first reached the Straits, goods and passengers were transshipped. Copper in barrels and ingots, for instance, was taken from box cars in St. Ignace, put on a ship and then moved from the boat to box cars in Mackinac City. The lines had purchased a ship for this purpose, the Algomah. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a barge that would carry four freight cars and could be towed across the Straits. The Algomah and its barge, however, could not plow through ice so freight cars could be transferred from one peninsula to the other for less than nine months per year.
To solve this challenge, the rail lines asked Detroit’s most famous and innovative naval architect, Frank E, Kirby, to design a vessel than could carry rail cars and serve as an ice-breaker. He designed the St. Ignace, a vessel that could carry ten freight cars. This ship proved to be a very capable ice breaker because of technical developments that Kirby added. She was so successful that the rail lines ordered, in 1892, a new and larger boat, the Sainte Marie that could carry 18 rail cars and break through ice up to 27 inches in depth. By the 1890s, the railroads could move freight and passengers between the state’s peninsulas twelve months every year.
Business continued to expand, and in 1910, the railroads decided to replace their two powerful wooden ships with a more modern vessel, a boat that became one of the most beloved and discussed ships on the Great Lakes. This was the Chief Wawatam, also designed by Frank Kirby. She was a much larger vessel and could accommodate up to 26 rail cars. This boat entered service in October, 1911 and served until rail service ended in August, 1984. She was the last vessel on the Lakes propelled by steam—a hand-fed coal boiler, at that. I recall seeing this vessel entering the harbor at Mackinac City in the 1970s but did not have a camera with me.
At one point, both the Michigan Central and the Grand Rapids and Indiana maintained their own yards, facilities and stations in Mackinac City. I infer that local residents concluded that too much of their town was used by railroads and that they were inconvenienced far too often by smoky trains. One solution was to build the Union Station that you see pictured above. If you visit the restaurant that now serves meals and drinks in this station, you will see many pictures of trains arriving and departing. I do not know for sure when the final passenger train departed from this station. I suspect that it was in 1963 when the Michigan Central terminated passenger service north of Bay City. This never was an exceptionally busy station. By the end of the Depression, the Michigan Central served this depot with one train in each direction every day—an overnight service to Detroit. The Grand Rapids and Indiana, or at this time, the Pennsylvania Railroad had a day train that made the 12-hour trip from Mackinac City to Fort Wayne with intermediate stops in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
After the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads were merged in 1968, they sought to route all traffic through Chicago and to abandon their northern Michigan services. State and federal agencies forced them to keep their money-losing lines open. When the merged, Penn-Central Railroad went bankrupt in 1970 but struggled on for almost six years. When the government took over the failing rail companies of the eastern United States in 1976, the lines to Mackinac City were obtained by the State of Michigan. The state sought operators who would provide service. The Detroit and Mackinac Railroad had a line along the sunrise coast from Bay City to Cheboygan. They assumed operation of the former Michigan Central line from Cheboygan to Mackinac City. A different railroad, the Michigan Northern, obtained operating rights on the former Pennsylvania line from Mackinac City to Grand Rapids. For a brief span, the rail ferry service across the Straits was promoted, but there was not sufficient business to sustain the service and the State of Michigan was unwilling to subsidize the money losing business. In August, 1984, rail service to the Straits completed its 103-year skein. The Michigan Central line from Cheboygan to Mackinac City has been turned into a modern developed bicycle trail. The Pennsylvania line south from Mackinac City has yet to be refurbished for use by pedestrians and bicycle riders. The former Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic line north from St, Ignace to Trout Lake had been converted into a trail for snow machines and mountain bikers.
Architect and builder: Unknown to me
Date of construction: Early 1900s
Use in 2010: Restaurant
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; September 22, 2010. 2010
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