Michigan Central Railroad, Wolverine Depot

100 Railroad Avenue, Wolverine


By the late 1860s, forward-looking Michigan residents and investors realized that the state was developing into a great center for industrial production.  The Civil War had great economic benefits for the state since the fighting demanded the products assembled in Michigan.  Wood was used much more extensively in manufacturing and in construction in the 1870s than at present.  By this time, knowledgeable people realized that the northern half of the Lower Peninsula was covered by white pine forest.  If those trees were cut down and their timber planed into usable lumber, much profit could be made.  The early railroads in northern Michigan sought to transport wood to ports where it could be shipped to manufacturing centers.  But, by the 1870s, the idea of building north-south rail lines in Michigan became popular.  Investors, however, were wary and all of the lines that built north faced troubles raising sufficient capital to grade and then lay rail through the swampy terrain.  Eventually, the Detroit and Mackinac built along the sunrise coast from Bay City to Cheboygan.  The Grand Rapids and Indiana, with some support from the Pennsylvania Railroad, built north from Richmond, Indiana, through Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids and then on to Mackinac City reaching there in 1883.  A groups of railroads were linked to eventually create a line from Chicago through Holland and Grand Rapids and then on to Traverse City and Petoskey, a line that became part of Michigan’s Pere Marquette Railroad shortly after 1900.  The Ann Arbor Railroad also struggled for years, but reached Frankfort, Michigan in the early 1890s, the northern terminus of a line that started at Toledo.

Officials of the prosperous Michigan Central, largely financed by Boston investors in the late 1840s and 1850s, realized the possible profit in a north-south line across the state.  In 1871, the Michigan Central purchased a line that connected their junction point of Jackson with Lansing.  They extended that line northeast to Saginaw in 1871.  Almost simultaneously, they supported firms that were building almost directly north from Detroit.  Perhaps it is best to call them subsidiary companies since once their lines were completed, they were incorporated into the Michigan Central Railroad.  The line north from Detroit through Lake Orion reached Bay City in 1873.  Gradually, they continued constructing the line almost due north through Standish, Alger, Grayling and Gaylord, reaching Cheboygan where the line jogged to the west and followed the Lake Huron coast to Mackinac City.  The line reached the Straits of Mackinac on December 18, 1881.  At this time, there was also hope that the Upper Peninsula would be a fertile agricultural area and that farms products would be shipped south from Mackinac City.  That never happened.

By the mid to late 1890s, very much of the white pine in Michigan had been cut and the railroads lacked for traffic.  The Michigan Central, the Grand Rapids and Indiana and the Detroit and Mackinac began promoting northern Michigan as a summer vacation destination in hopes of generating revenue from passengers.   The Michigan Central advertised that time spent in the clean air of northern Michigan would mitigate asthma, bronchial ailments and hay fever. Wolverine was a stop on the line from Detroit to Mackinac City but may also have been a destination for some who wish to get away from the heat and odors of large cities.

The Michigan Central arrived here in 1881.  A small depot was built and the federal government opened a post office.  As the historical marker reports, the original name of the settlement was Torrey but after the railroad arrived, the name was changed to honor the state’s totem animal.  Supposedly, wolverines were common in this area at that time.  Early in the Twentieth Century, the railroad ran two trains every day from Mackinac City to Detroit—an overnight train and a day train.  All of them stopped in Wolverine.  During the Depression decade, the day train was canceled.  With the coming of the interstate highway system, passenger business declined and the railroads lost their contracts to carry mail.   Shortly after World War II, the railroad instituted a new service on summer week-ends.  A northbound train on Friday afternoons during the summer left Detroit at 5 PM and arrived in Mackinac City before midnight and had a similarly timed return run on Sunday evenings.  This train turned out to be very popular and service survived until the early 1960s.  Prior to the interstate highway system, a drive from Detroit to the tip of the Lower Peninsula may have taken much more time than the train but with the coming of the interstates, passenger rail trains disappeared.

The depot you see opened in 1906 and had tickets offices, separate waiting rooms for men and women and a small freight office. It is an attractive single-story, hipped-roof structure with decorated rafters under the open eaves.  Horizontal divisions are suggested by the raised board now painted an attractive dark green.  There is the traditional shallow bay window facing the tracks where a telegraph operator or station agent once sat. The Michigan Central clearly invested moderately substantial resources in the design and construction of this depot even though it served a very small hamlet.

After the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad in the late 1970s, federal laws were changed to make it much easier for railroads to abandon redundant and underutilized rail lines.  The State of Michigan stepped in and sought to preserve rail service to northern Michigan for freight.  There were somewhat successful for a brief period but, by the last decades of the last century, there were few northern Michigan firms that shipped by rail.  The tracks themselves survived until 1991.  Thankfully, they have been converted into a very enjoyable bicycle trail that extends from Gaylord to Mackinac City.  A hybrid bicycle would be just fine for this trail.  I think that some would find it acceptable for a road bicycle.

Date of Construction: 1906
Architect: Unknown to me.
Use in 2011: Office for an canoe outfitting firm, Henleys Canoe and Kyak Rental
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P22,844; Listed December 29, 1989
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place near the depot: June 25, 1991
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed 
Photograph: Ren Farley, September 16, 2009
Description prepared: June, 2011


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