Pinckney Depot, Grand Trunk Western

North Pearl Street at the intersection of the former Grand Trunk Railroad

The Civil War led to the very rapid development of a modern industrial country, especially in the Northeast and in the old Northwest Territory states.  Railroads were very important to both the Union and Confederate Armies  since they could, at times, quickly and efficiently move substantial numbers of soldiers and much equipment.  Industrialization occurred rapidly because rail lines supplied manufacturers with raw materials and then transported their goods across the nation.

Into the late 1860s, getting from the East Coast to Chicago and the Midwest by rail was possible but involved quite a few challenges and several changes of conveyance.  By 1855, rail lines linked Chicago to Detroit where freight and passengers could board a ferry to Canada and then get on a rail line that would take them across southern Ontario to Buffalo where they could transfer to a different train for travel to Albany and, eventually, New York City.  Another route, completed in 1860 by the British-owned and Canadian-managed Grand Trunk Railroad extended from the port of Portland, Maine to Montréal and then on to Toronto and to Sarnia, Ontario where passengers and freight would transfer to a ferry that would take them across the St. Clair River.  On the United States side, the Grand Trunk could take them to Detroit where they could  then change to a Michigan Central train that would further freight and passengers to Chicago and points West.

Shortly after the Civil War, quite a few investors and planners sought to build an efficient railroad that would directly link the Midwest with the East Coast.  An entity called the Michigan Airline was part of that planning.  The aim was to lay out a road bed as straight as an arrow and as flat as possible from Chicago across Michigan to a point on the St. Clair River where passengers and freight would board a ferry to the Canadian shore where they would find a Canada Southern Railroad line that would take them east.  Apparently some of the planning assumed that the Canada Southern would take passengers and freight to a  location near Buffalo where a connection would be made with the New York Central line to New York City.  Other planning called for a line that would cross Ontario directly to reach a point on the St. Lawrence River southwest of Montréal.  There a connection would be made with a rail line to be built from Boston to the Connecticut River Valley, across the Green Mountains to the northern tip of Lake Champaign and then directly west to the St. Lawrence River.

This grandiose plan was never completed.  Railroad entrepreneurs in the Nineteenth Century seldom found the capitol they needed.  Several hundred railroad companies were chartered in Michigan but never laid any track.  These are comprehensively listed and described  in Graydon M. Meints  Michigan Railroads and Railroad Companies (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press: 1992).  But a fairly straight and nearly flat airline eventually extended from Niles, Michigan in the west to Richmond, Michigan in the east not far from Port Huron.  The Pinckney freight depot, pictured here, was located on that line.

Construction of this road began with a Richmond to Romeo line built in 1869 but that line did not reach any further west for a decade. In Jackson construction began in the summer of 1870 and by February of the next year, the rail line was completed to Niles. This was the Michigan Air Line Railroad, but as soon as the Jackson to Niles was complete it was purchased by the Michigan Central, perhaps to thwart any competitor who would want to use it as a component of a major East to Midwest line.  The Michigan Central, of course, had a line west from Jackson to Niles but it was built in the 1840s involving many curves.  The new Air Line from Jackson to Niles was 18 miles shorter than the  previous route.  The Michigan Central and its successor, the New York Central, used  this as an alternative main line for freight trains until well after the end of World War II when diesel locomotives changed the economy of operating trains.  That is, diesel engines saving a few miles of travel did not compensate for the substantial cost of maintaining a second set of tracks reaching the same end points.   Passenger service on this line ended shortly after World War II and, in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when very much of Michigan’s rail mileage was abandoned, the former Michigan Air Line from Jackson to Niles was torn up.

Original plans called for an airline from Jackson to a point on the St. Clair River.  By 1869, a short segment of this line from Richmond to Romeo was completed.  Two years later, the railroad built each from Richmond to the St. Clair River at a point known as St. Clair Springs.  A ferry operated here to reach a Canada Southern Railroad line at Courtright, Ontario.  This was the western terminus of a 67-mile branch line that linked to the Canada Southern main line that extended from near Buffalo to Windsor, Ontario.  But a gap existed in the 91 mile segment from Romeo to Jackson—the segment where Pinckney.  In 1881, the Grand Trunk Railroad—that by that time extended from Portland, Maine through Canada, Port Huron and on the Chicago, purchased the component of the Michigan Air Line that went from Romeo to the St. Clair River.  By 1884, the Grand Trunk built the missing piece and linked Richmond, Michigan to Jackson.

The Grand Trunk, I believe, operated this branch line serving the needs of merchants, farmers, millers and a few factories located along this rural line.  Alas, it never served as a component of a fast, modern link that would quickly speed passengers and freight from the East Coast to Chicago and points west.  However, the line survived very much longer than most branch lines in rural Michigan since freight was handled until 1984.

The building shown here was the Grand Trunk freight depot in Pinckney. I have been told that there was a Pickney passenger station on the other side of the tracks. I presume this was also a frame structure but I have never seen a picture of that building.  The Lakeland Trail bicycle trail occupies the  rail line that once carried the trains that stopped at or passed by this depot.

Why does this village have the unusual name of Pinckney?  In 1835 William Kirkland bought property in this undeveloped area that had been owned by James Peterson.  He organized the William Kirkland Company as a development firm in hopes of establishing a settlement here.  He named his village after his brother, a New York lawyer with the name Charles Pinckney Kirkland.  I wonder if he thought that this would encourage his brother to invest in or move to Pinckney?


Architect:  Unknown to me
Date of construction: Unknown to me
Use in 2015:  Unused but well-maintained building awaiting reuse
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; June 6, 2012
Description updated: April, 2015

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