Henry Ford’s Electric Railroad

These cantenaries are located across the former Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad at
its overpass crossing of Oakwood Boulevard. Melvindale is to
the south and Allen Park to the north

Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant increased it vehicle production rapidly in the years following World War I. Almost all components parts—except iron ore and limestone—arrived at River Rouge by rail and most of the cars produced there were shipped by trains to points across the United States. At this time, Ford was buying the firms that produced most component parts for his vehicles in his successful attempt to create an integrated production facility where raw materials would be turned into cars and trucks. Indeed, he owned forests and coal mines to supply his plant. Being a frugal man, Ford did not appreciate the high rates charged by the railroads.

A series of small and generally financially unsuccessful railroads that hauled coal and iron ore in southern Ohio—some dating from as early as 1849—were linked together to form a line that, by 1895, stretched from the outskirts of Detroit to Ironton, Ohio on the Ohio River. Interestingly, it bypassed Toledo. Lima and Springfield were the only Ohio cities of any size it passed through. After several name changes, it became the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad (D. T. & I). It struggled financially and was in receivership several times, but survived to December 31, 1917 when President Wilson and the federal government assumed control of the nation’s railroads. On January 1, 1920 railroads were returned to their owners. On July 9, 1920, Henry Ford bought the undercapitalized and rather dilapidated D. T. & I. with the intention of extending their rails into the River Rouge plant. He paid five million for the road and installed himself as president. The D. T. & I. interchanged traffic with the major east-west lines in Ohio: the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Nickel Plate and the Erie. Ford intended to ship the products of his River Rogue plant on his own railroad to points in Ohio where the rail cars were to be interchanged with other lines for shipment all over the United States. Ford also owned coal mines in Kentucky. Coal mined at his pits would reach Ironton, Ohio and then travel to River Rouge on Mr. Ford’s own railroad.

Henry Ford had a very dim view of the management of the nation’s railroad and gave a long interview to a reporter in November, 1921 explaining how he would shape up rail lines so that shippers’ tariffs would plunge. He wanted to reduce labor costs, change work rules and get rid of the many lawyers railroads employed. Henry Ford, for a brief time, took an active interest in its management and invested great funds in improving the physical plant of the D. T. & I. and in buying new equipment. In several places, he completely relocated and rebuilt the line.

Henry Ford had a persistent concern about the likelihood that the United States would run out of petroleum. He also had a strong interest in the use of electrical energy, perhaps because of his enduring friendship with Thomas Edison. On July 1, 1923, Henry Ford announced that he would convert the D. T. & I. from steam power to electricity. He foresaw eventually electrifying his railroad from Detroit to the Ohio River, then building a line from the Ohio River to a point near Charleston, West Virginia where he would link the D. T. & I. to the Virginian Railway—a line that already used electricity and stretched from the coal fields of West Virginia to the deepwater port at Newport News, Virginia. Thus there would be an electric railroad that could transport coal from West Virginia mines to ships at Newport News and to the factories of Detroit.

Steam engines had many drawbacks. At this time, they were not very powerful. They had many moving parts, so they required much maintenance from highly skilled craftsmen and they had to stop every two hours or so to be oiled and get large amounts of water and coal. Every railroad invested substantial funds in getting water and coal to many locations and built large service facilities for their complicated steam engines. Electric engines required much less maintenance, used no coal or water so they were much cheaper to operate. There were challenges with electricity. The railroad had to build a large power plant or buy electricity. Railroads, street car lines and interurban lines that used electricity at this time typically distributed electricity by direct current and then had to build a substation every ten miles or so to maintain the appropriate flow of electricity. Alternating current could be transmitted for much longer distances than direct current but the electric motors used by the rail industry in the 1920s demanded direct current so substations were needed.

Henry Ford often promoted innovation. He had his engineers design a system that would capitalize upon the ease of transmitting alternating current electricity long distances and avoid the cost of numerous substations. His electric engines were designed with a small substation-like machine on board each engine. It would take high voltage AC current from the catenary lines, step it down to power an AC motor that would, in turn, power a DC generator that would produce the low voltage DC needed to power the locomotive.

One other major cost for the electric railroad involved building the strong caternary arches from which the electric lines were suspended, arches that would withstand rough weather. What you see are the extremely sturdy structures that were designed for Mr. Ford’s railroad. These were erected along the D. T. & I. line from the River Rouge manufacturing complex to Carleton, Michigan: about 20 miles. However, electrical lines were only strung from River Rouge to Flat Rock. Bases were set for cetenary for a few miles further—from Carleton to the rail junction point at Diann, Michigan but the arches were never built.

Henry Ford’s attempts to electrify his railroad were unsuccessful. Two large engines were built at the River Rouge plant with extensive help from Westinghouse. They began running from Dearborn to Flat Rock in late 1927. I do not know all of the problems that developed. Apparently, Mr. Ford thought that the huge power plant at his River Rouge factory could supply enough electricity for both vehicle production and the railroad but it could not. The original voltage was set at 11,000 but it was later increased to 23,000 and then to 46,000 suggesting that numerous modifications were needed.

The two electric engines were used for six years but, apparently, only sporadically. Railfans, in that day and this, take hundreds of pictures of ordinary trains and thousands of pictures of unusual engines or trains. It is difficult to find pictures of Mr. Ford’s electric engines in action. I read that crews of the D. T. & I. detested using the electric engines and would avoid them if possible.

Henry Ford grew tired of the railroad business in 1929. Unlike making cars, the railroads were tightly regulated by the federal government. There were numerous rules about safety, the rail unions were recognized by the government as legitimate bargaining agents and all changes in rates had to be approved by federal bureaucrats since the government wished to protect the financial interests of railroads. When Mr. Ford attempted to make changes at the D. T. & I, he ran into the federal regulations and the federal bureaucrats that he disliked. And, of course, it was necessary for him to hire lawyers to protect his interests. In 1929, Ford sold his rail line to the Pennroad Corporation, a rail holding company backed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He received 31 million so he probably made money as a railroad entrepreneur, but he did make very substantial investments in the line so it is challenging to know about his profit. The new management promptly investigated the cost of operating trains the short distance from River Rouge to Flat Rock by electricity. They found out it was much cheaper to use steam engines. The power was turned off on March 1, 1930. The two massive locomotives—each of them weighing about 175 tons—were cut up at Ford’s River Rouge plant.

Henry Ford had his catenary designed to last for the ages. Each support consisted of a pair of bases for the arch—the straight component perpendicular to the ground. Each of these bases required 95 cubic feet of concrete and 257 feet of rebar. Then there was an arch of eight feet sitting on the bases that actually held the wire. These catenaries were spaced 300 feet apart. After the end of the electric era, the D. T. & I. began to take down the cantenaries, but found that it took a good sized crew two days to remove each one. So quite a few of them remain in place almost 90 years after Henry Ford installed them.

This is still a very active railroad serving Detroit. The D. T. & I survived as a separate entity until the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central formed the Penn Central Railroad in 1968. That line went broke in 1970. The D. T. & I. was sold to private investors who held it for ten years before selling it to the Canadian National. In the 1990s, that line abandoned the 126 miles of line south from Washington Court House, Ohio to the Ohio River. Then the Canadian National sold the 214 miles of line from Diann, Michigan to Washington Court House to a short line operator: the Ohio and Indians Railroad. The line you see in the picture above is the Canadian National.

The catenaries in the picture are at Oakman Boulevard in Melvindale. I believe that similar cantenaries are still standing—in 2008—in several other locations.

• Near where the former D. T. & I. crosses Southfield Road in Allen Park
• Near where the former D. T. & I. crosses Pelham Road in Taylor
• Near where the former D. T. & I crosses Pennsylvania Road in Taylor

Architect: Designed at the Fordson concrete plant within the River Rouge complex
Date of Construction: Summer1925
Use in 2015: A railroad historic artifact. They have not been used since March 1, 1930
Relevant book: Henry Ford: When I Ran the Railroads: A Chronicle of Henry Ford’s Operation of The Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad (1920-1929) by
Scott D. Trostel (Fletcher, Ohio: Cam-Tech Publishing, 1989)
Website for information about the D. T. & I. Railroad:
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed but they merit a listing.
National Registry of Historic Places: Not Listed
Photograph: Ren Farley, November 6, 2008
Description updated: June, 2015

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