There are few cities in Michigan that welcomed their first railroad as recently as Port Hope. The rail line to this city opened in October, 1903. The economic panic of 1892 was a turning point in railroad construction in this state. That financial crisis stunted the railroad building boom that began in Michigan just after the Civil War. There were a few substantial lines constructed here after the nation’s economy returned to consistent growth about 1897 and many of those that were built did not survive the Depression of the 1930s. An exception is the Detroit Toledo Shore Line Railroad built by the Grand Truck to give that line access to Toledo and now a component of the Canadian National Railroad.
After the War of 1812, the federal government allowed veterans to buy warrants for land in the then-unsettled Midwest. The government, at that time, owned a great deal of land in Michigan and other states as a result of treaties with Indians. William Rogers Stafford and his partner Clark Haywood purchased many such warrants for land in Michigan. Mr. Stafford was responsible for the development of Port Hope.
Departing from his native New Hampshire for health reasons in 1850, Stafford moved to Lexington, Michigan—just north of Port Huron—and began working for a merchant. He was quite familiar with the fortunes that had been amassed by cutting and selling the trees of New Hampshire. That industry was closing in Maine and New Hampshire by the 1850s since the final trees were felled. Stafford quickly realized that Michigan’s Thumb was covered with huge pine trees that might bring similar wealth. He returned to New England, raised money from investors, and then came back to Michigan’s Thumb where he purchased more warrants for property in the Port Hope area from a Dr. DiMond. This gave Stafford the option to cut trees in this location.
Timbering in the area near Port Hope apparently began in 1855 or shortly thereafter. William Stafford went into that business about 1858, established a lumber mill here and then built a large dock so that Great Lakes vessels could call for the wood he produced. He was a major holder in a ship line called the Hope Transportation Company whose major steamer was named the W. R. Stafford. Gradually, a town developed focused upon the processing of the pine trees of the Thumb. Stafford also discovered salt near Port Hope and successfully mined and shipped it. Once the timber was harvested, I believe he invested in agriculture in the area.
Much of Michigan was well connected by rail line by the late 1870s, but not the Thumb. The first effort to build a rail line in this area began in 1878 when nine Port Huron businessmen established the Port Huron and Northwest to construct a line from the namesake city to Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb. At this time, water was a less expensive way to transport goods than rail, so many of the state’s railroads brought timber and agricultural products to ports. Lacking capital, the Port Huron entrepreneurs decided to build a three-foot gauge railroad. Standard gauge lines were 4 feet 8.5 inches between the rails. It was much less costly to construct a narrow gauge line, the engines and cars were less expensive and it was cheaper to operate—but narrow gauge trains carried less freight. Even more importantly, narrow gauge lines could not exchange their freight cars with the national rail network. All freight had to be transshipped. Those who established the Port Huron and Northwestern knew that the lumber industry was coming to an end since most of the pine trees were felled. And the great forest fire of 1881 consumed some or most of the standing trees, so the railroad’s business was designed for shipping the farm products that grew on the rich soil of the Thumb once the trees and their stumps were removed. By 1870, the Port Huron and Northwestern reached Croswell. However, the owners decided that a line from Port Huron to Saginaw would be profitable so they built that railroad, completing it in 1882.
Harbor Beach is located about seven miles south of Port Hope. Jeremiah Jenks ran a flour mill in that city milling grain grown on the farms of the Thumb. He realized that a railroad would be a great boom to the city where his investments were located. He successfully convinced the owners of the Port Huron and Northwestern to build a 13-mile branch from the Palms depot on the Port Huron to Port Austin line to Harbor Beach. Actually, I suspect he invested quite substantially in the railroad to have line branch line built. Mr. Jenks’ efforts were successful, and by 1880, the rail line reached Harbor Beach. Thus, Jencks had an efficient way to ship his flour to markets across the country, although that required transferring freight from narrow gauge to standard gauge rail cars in Port Huron.
Mr. Stafford and other entrepreneurs in Port Hope recognized the value of a rail line. It would have been easy to construct a line along the shore covering the seven miles that separated Port Hope from Harbor Beach. However, Mr. Jenks had an agreement with the Port Huron and Northwestern that they would not build north of his city. Apparently, he feared that if Port Hope had rail service it would become a rival to his economic interests in Harbor Beach.
The leaders of Port Hope strongly wanted a rail line. In 1882, a group of investors in Saginaw began building another three-foot gauge line, the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron—a railroad named after the three counties where it was to lay track. By 1886, a line was completed covering the 66 miles from Saginaw to Bad Axe. Business leaders in Port Hope sought to extend the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron another 20 miles from Bad Axe to their city. For some time, it looked as though this line would be completed, but that line was never built and Port Hope remained without rail service.
The two most extensive Thumb area rail companies—the Port Huron and Northwestern and the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron—were purchased by the much larger Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad in 1889. The following year they were altered for standard gauge operation. By this time, the Flint and Pere Marquette had one major line from Flint to Ludington and another from Flint to Toledo. In 1899, several major Michigan railroads including the Chicago and West Michigan; the Detroit, Lansing and Northern and the Flint and Pere Marquette were merged to form Pere Marquette Railroad. It is the Pere Marquette that eventually constructed the seven-mile line linking Port Hope to Harbor Beach. The Pere Marquette was likely motivated to lay down tracks because the growing of sugar beets flourished in the Thumb early in the Twentieth Century. Crosswell Sugar was a major firm processing the beets and they may have contributed to the cost of building the line to Harbor Beach. Crosswell Sugar, in 1899, built a huge factory to produce retail sugar from beets in Crosswell. It continues to operate and is, I believe, the oldest sugar plant in operation in the United States, although it is now known as Michigan Sugar. It can process 4,100 tons of sugar beets daily. It is quite impressive and surprising to drive through sparsely populated rural Michigan and then come upon a huge factory from the Dickens era.
The Pere Marquette Railroad was purchased by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1926 and merged into that line in 1947. This railroad became the CSX Railroad in 1987.
The depot that you see pictured here was constructed with the arrival of the railroad or shortly thereafter. For some time, two round-trip passenger trains served Port Hope, but for much of the time, there was only one trip. The 1910 schedule shows a departure from Port Huron at 10:30 in the morning with an arrival in Port Hope three hours later. The return train left Port Hope at 2:55 and got to Port Huron at 5:55. I do not know when passenger train service to Port Hope ceased. I have a January, 1926 copy of The Official Guide that shows one train operating from Port Huron to Port Hope and return. The March, 1932 publication of the same volume shows no passenger service on this branch line. This makes sense since vehicle ownership increased in Michigan in the 1920s and the state paved many roads.
This depot was moved about 300 feet from its original location so that it might be restored at a desirable location close to the site of the mill William Stafford built on Lake Huron in 1858. This depot has the traditional bay window so that the agent could see the forthcoming arrival of the train from Port Huron. There was a small waiting room for passengers and a larger room where less-than-carload lot freight could be stored. This was at the northernmost point of the Pere Marquette in this immediate area. Since this was the end of the line, an engine house and a turn table were built near the depot.
Freight trains ceased to operate from Harbor Beach to Port Hope in 1982 and, four years later, the line from Harbor Beach to Palms was abandoned by the Chesapeake and Ohio.
The village obtained its name from an event in 1857. A Mr. Southard and Mr. Witcher were sailing in a small skiff along Lake Huron. I don’t know if they were looking for land to purchase or were cruising to some destination. Apparently a storm came up and they feared for their safely. Fortunately for them, they got to shore and gave the site the name Port Hope.
Date of Construction: 1904
Architectural style: Vernacular
Use in 2015: Undergoing restoration
Website for organization restoring depot: http://porthopedepot.org/
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Picture: Ren Farley; July, 2013
Description Updated December, 2015
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